When I first started interviewing people for the Discovery Channel, I knew little of cinematography. I was young, self taught, and more caught up in my subjects’ words than the visual components of the scene. I thought for sure everyone would get swept up in their incredible stories. These people studied Great White sharks and survived Katrina. They risked their lives catching King crab, chased storms, and captured never before seen wildlife behavior in the most remote corners of the world. What I grew to discover was that what I didn’t yet know was doing my subjects and their stories a disservice. So I turned my love of story into a love of filmmaking, learning not only how to conduct an interview but how to direct one. Interviews mean a lot to me. And to this day continue to be some of the most creative and meaningful pieces I help create.
It all starts with the subject and his, her or their story
As in every great piece of filmmaking, I start crafting an interview around the story and build from there. In choosing lighting, set design, location, wardrobe and in planning angles, color palette and camera motion for me it all starts with the subject and his, her or their story. There has to be a purpose and reason behind every choice I make. The decisions I make as a director and visual storyteller make or break the effectiveness of my piece. My job is to shape and sometimes manipulate your emotions using all the tools at my disposal.
The first question I ask myself is how does my interview subject want the viewer to feel? What is their story and desired outcome of this piece? Once decided, I figure out what camera angles and orientation can be used to drive the story, do some of the heavy lifting to help the viewer walk the path on which I am placing them.
There are several angles I consider for the composition of an interview. I have found that not all the typical angles you see in a film work for interviews. For example, I have never used a POV, Zoom, or a Dutch angle but only because I have never had that type of story to tell. Most of my interviews have been filmed as:
- Static shot at eye level using a tripod. Subject looking to camera or off camera.
- Tracking/dolly seated or walk & talk shot at eye level using a gimbal or dolly. Subject looking to camera.
- Static shot at a high or low angle. Subject looking to camera or off camera.
- Gimbal shot (usually MoVi) at eye level. Subject looking off camera.
- Second camera side angle shot at eye level, using a tripod or dolly. This can be an extreme close up, close up or medium shot.
Most basically, there is the static shot where the camera does not move at all. This can intensify the connection a viewer has by focusing their attention, drawing them deeper into our story. A static shot is only helped along with something interesting happening in the background, like projected video or a majestic landscape. For my interview with world class climber and Academy Award winning filmmaker Jimmy Chin, it was the Grand Tetons.
In a piece I directed for AHC featuring everyday heroes, one being young scientist and cancer researcher Jake Andraka, we set up several screens to project imagery of their work and mentors to help tell their story. It took three cameras, two on dolly and one locked on a tripod to get all the angles necessary to ensure the scene was an equal feature.
I also ask myself how big of a character the scene will be, and what role does it have in relation to my subject?
When finding the right field of view I also ask myself how big of a character the scene will be, and what role does it have in relation to my subject? Do I want him/her/ they centered on-screen? Do I want to go with the rule of thirds and celebrate symmetry in all its glory? We chose this technique when filming President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama for her Becoming book tour.
In 13th, one of my favorite Directors, Ava DuVernay, makes the bold choice to shoot her interviews wide with an overwhelming amount of head room. Her location choices are magnificent. The fact that she features such incredible backgrounds for each of her many subjects makes me wonder if this was driven by location or holds a deeper meaning. I am going to assume it is the latter as this documentary beautifully lays out the long, tragic, and true history behind the disproportionate mass incarceration of Blacks in America. Her featured subjects are literally drowning in headroom, barely able to see the ceiling they so crave to reach. Centuries of deliberate oppression can be felt in one frame and this stylistic choice was not lost on me.
And speaking of choice, eye level is another key decision I need to make once hearing my subject’s story. Filming them at eye level is a tried and true way to establish a sense of calm and a feeling of normalcy. This is how we all register our everyday conversations so it immediately makes our viewers feel comfortable, as if they are literally seeing eye to eye.
The more dominant character is shot from a lower angle, so they appear bigger and stronger. You basically feel like your younger self looking up at your parents
On the flip side, high and low angles communicate a power struggle. These are fun and I admittedly have not had the opportunity as of late to play around with them as much as I would like (Queen’s Gambit, anyone?). The more dominant character is shot from a lower angle, so they appear bigger and stronger. You basically feel like your younger self looking up at your parents. To the contrary, the weaker character is shot from a higher angle creating the exact opposite effect. And changing angles mid interview signals that your subject’s role in their journey has changed or progressed. The power dynamic has shifted.
In Leaving Neverland, Director Dan Reed brilliantly chooses to film survivor of childhood sexual abuse, James Safechuck, sometimes from a high angle and other times low to communicate this young man’s tragically winding story from victim to survivor.
I also love the use of the low angle for hero characters like Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube to further position them as the popular icons they are in In HBO’s The Defiant Ones, directed by Allen Hughes. But my favorite interview of that doc was the ever interesting and always eccentric, Will. I. Am. Hughes chose a stark white gallery background in which to showcase this piece of art. Will is all the visuals needed to carry a scene. Respect.
The side angle, obtained with a second camera, was one of my least favorite angles in the early stages of my career. But I learned to appreciate that it can offer the viewer a chance to sit right next to my subject. The closer the angle, the more intimate. The wider, the more it feels a touch voyeuristic, especially if I add a foreground element which is one of my cinematographer’s favorite things. Sometimes this separation is necessary to progress your story and I honestly lost count of how many angles Hughes had for each of his interview subjects. In filming a campaign for Parkinson disease with actual patients, filming our side angle with a MoVi also provided a nice way to get multiple angles, close and far, along with coverage of their face, hands and feet without having to break the scene and re-set.
For me, the factors that go into making this decision surround the topic being covered and the subject’s relationship to said topic
Lastly, there is the ever important choice of eye line. Where does the subject LOOK in the interview and why does it make a difference. As a director, I need to make a decision per project as to when the subject should look off camera and when they should stare directly into the lens. For me, the factors that go into making this decision surround the topic being covered and the subject’s relationship to said topic. By having him, her or they look right into the lens I am making this very personal, communicating intimacy and maybe even vulnerability. When I want that true intimacy with a more nervous subject, reflecting my image into the lens is the way to go. I remember seeing this done successfully by a colleague while filming some pretty intimate moments with the captains of Deadliest Catch (Basically, they were trying to make them get emotional on camera). I was able to replicate this tactic for the first time with show host and stand up comedian, Jamie Kaler. Only he was funny AF. I bet he still is.
The look ‘off camera,’ however, communicates less urgency, a more reflective quality. I have used this angle to dial down the intensity and to warm up an interview setting. I have also found that most “regular” folks are more comfortable looking slightly right or left at me and not into a lens, which is more or less a mirror.
Every shot selection I make as a Director communicates something and how I set up an interview is no less important. In addition to the lighting, wardrobe, props, color palette, location and set design (which I will save for another post), choosing the camera angles and where my subject’s eye line are two crucial ways to make sure their story is given the care it deserves. It is my responsibility to ensure that an interview can always be so much more than words.