Outdoor Photography and Videography

Tobi Wulff Photography

Home / Essays / 2016 / August

Documentary Shooting: Interviews

We are finally at the stage where we conduct and film the interviews for our TWALK documentary. After a few days of acquiring and testing gear and then test-driving the setup, we now have something that looks great (not perfect but better than many other documentaries I've seen) and is very mobile and easy to set up for a 1-2 person crew.

But first, here is the latest trailer for our project with a bunch of little interviews (sound bites) we took during the event:

Gear

Here is a quick rundown of the gear that I think is required to get a well-lit interview with solid, good sound:

  • 1-2 cameras that can be matched in terms of exposure and color profiles (I struggle with matching them perfectly since one is a Blackmagic and the other one a GH4 but a color chart like the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport (de) helps tremendously to fixup color space and color temperature issues with one click in Davinci Rsolve)
  • A sound recorder because most camera pre-amps are really bad and don't offer enough inputs or control such as rotary dials and limiters - I use the excellent entry-level Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder (de)
  • Good microphones: it took me a while to accept that it is important to spend a good chunk of your budget on sound equipment - maybe not as much as on cameras and lenses but still enough to get at least one middle to top of the line microphone. I like to always have a backup option in case one microphone experiences cloth rustling, room echo, or simply stops working, so I usually mix a lavalier/"clip-on" mic like the Rode LAVALIER Condenser Microphone and a shotgun mic: the Sennheiser ME 64 Cardioid Condenser Capsule Head is great for indoor interviews, for outdoors think about the more directional ME66.
  • 2-3 LED lights with big enough batteries to work for at least an hour: depending on your exact kit and the conditions of the space you are conducting the interview in, you might actually need more lighting devices (see the section on the detailed setup below). All lights' color temperatures should match as closely as possible, unless you go for an extra warm fill light, or an extra cold hair light, etc. Mine are all daylight balanced (around 5500K) and have a good CRI value (95+). The entry-level smaller Apature Amaran LED lights work a treat indoors if you darken the room anyway, for more power I would look at the Aputure HR672W or Apature's more professional lineup.
  • A reflector and/or diffusion panel (or softbox): your light, in particular your key light, will always look better the softer it is, unless you are deliberately going for a harsher look. To achieve this you have to send it through a (the bigger the better!) Softbox (de) or white semi-translucent panel, or bounce it off a 5-in-1 Collapsible Multi-Disc Light Reflector (de) .
  • Enough Light Stands (de) for all those lights. Also a Microphone Boom Stand (de) for the shotgun mic.

I'm sure this sounds like a lot of gear for just one interview, and if it is not possible to buy or borrow all those things, an interview in natural light might be a better option (I'd still recommend having at least one reflector). However, for the style I was going for I needed a dark space and all those lights to make it work.

Setup

When you do the setup, make sure it's ready when the interviewee arrives. You don't want to bore them with 20 minutes of fiddling with lights and cameras. This means you need a stand-in, e.g. your interviewer, producer, grip, etc.

The first thing to do is find a good spot for the interviewee in regards to space (all the equipment you'll have to set up around them) and background. The background should be not too boring (avoid a plain wall but patterns are good) but also not distracting (no harsh light, no movement). This obviously depends on the subject of the interview and how you want to associate the interviewee with the environment. Typical examples are athletes and their trophies, scientists and their awards and books, and so on. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference and the style you are going for.

Next I will set up my key light. This is the main light that illuminates the subject. The typical rule is to have to about 45 degrees from the camera on the side of the camera the interviewer is sitting. You need a good light stand because the key light also has to be above the subjects head (again, about 25-40 degrees). Eye level can work as well but avoid a light source below eye level because it will make them like starring in a horror or zombie movie. Personally, I actually like my key light to be 90 degrees to the camera line and at about eye level. This gives the face a very strong divided look between the lit and unlit half right down the nose. I use a big diffusion panel to soften the light as much as possible. We will take care of the unlit half of the face in the next paragraph.

At the moment, the shadow line is too strong. Even with some natural light, this is what often makes cheaper productions fall short because the subject will have fairly strong shadows on their face. Our next job is to get rid of them. This is achieved with a fill light which can either simply be a reflector that bounces natural light or the key light, or an extra, smaller LED light than shines some light at eye level at the subject's face. Even at the lowest setting, it does immediately get rid of any hard shadows. The fill light should be closer to the camera to make sure what the camera sees is illuminated enough to give a pleasing and soft look. There are examples of professional interviews well done without any (noticeable) fill for effect, for example my personal favorite In the Shadow of the Moon (just google images for it plus "interview").

We've dealt with the absolutely necessary lights, now for the bonus: add a hair light behind the subject, slightly to the side of the fill light and just out of sight from the cameras. This will add a light onto one side of the hair, head, and shoulder of the subject and make them stand out more against the background. The background at this point should be as dark as possible as to be not too distracting. If it is receiving too much light spill, try to flag the lights with so-called barn doors/french flags or some cardboard. Another option is to move the subject further from the background and use the fall-off of the light's intensity to make it appear darker.

Now it is time for the subject (or "talent", i.e. interviewee) to take a seat. Set up your shotgun mic so that it points down at their chest, and either hide the lavalier mic under their clothing or position it low enough (but not below their sternum) so that it is out of the shot. I use a very tight picture that usually only shows their head and maybe the shoulders so getting the microphones out of the shots isn't very hard. Now do a sound check, get the cameras rolling, use a clapper board or do something similar (clap your hands or snip your fingers in front of the cameras) and you are ready to go for the interview. It can also be a good idea to use a color chart at this point to get a good reference with the final lighting setup.

This post has got long enough so I will talk about any workflow, interview tips and how to edit an interview in Davinci Resolve in another one. Just remember to do all your backups first thing after the interview is over!

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.