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Shooting True First-Person Interviews

COW Library : Field Production : Thomas Miller : Shooting True First-Person Interviews
CreativeCOW presents Shooting True First-Person Interviews -- Field Production Feature


Big Pictures Media, Inc.
Denver Colorado USA
CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.


In the Academy Award®-winning documentary film Fog of War, Robert McNamara looks directly into the lens as he talks about the trials and tribulations of the Vietnam War. The effect is unnerving and powerful. He's speaking directly to us -- the audience -- without the filter of the interviewer. It feels incredibly intimate, and almost confessional.

Most interviews have the seen or unseen presence of the interviewer. Sometimes they are actually on camera, asking the questions. Think 60 Minutes, Barbara Walters, or most news-style interviews. In other cases, the interview subject is speaking to someone just off camera. The person asking the questions sits anywhere from right next to the lens to 90 degrees away. This positioning matters, because it alters the relationship between the subject and the audience.

The problem is that the interviewer can only sit so close to the lens without actually getting in the shot -- unless she is a ghost or has a hole in her head! But there is another method -- a method director Errol Morris used in Fog of War -- and we got to try for the first time ourselves recently while shooting a feature story for ESPN, with producer Scott Harves.

This clever technique uses the existing technology of the teleprompter, a device that been around for a very long time. Normally, a teleprompter projects words for the on-camera person to read. Sometimes it's mounted right in front of the camera so it looks like this person is speaking directly to the audience.

The lens shoots the subject through a small two-way mirror. The subject looks back at the lens, but instead sees the projected words. We've done this hundreds of times with CEOs, spokespeople, and even actors.

So imagine if the teleprompter could project the interviewer's face instead of words. By rigging a second camera that shoots the interviewer, and projecting that image into the teleprompter, we accomplished just that effect. From the point of view of the interview subject, he or she is looking right into the eyes of the person who his asking the questions. From the point of view of the audience, the subject is speaking directly to them. Pretty cool!

The ESPN feature where we used this technique is about Garrett Karp, a young man who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma last summer, just before his senior year. He became famous when he landed a three-point shot during a varsity basketball game, having just been through rigorous rounds of radiation and chemo. We interviewed him, his doctor, his family and his friends over a span of several weeks, all using this first-person method. This feature is expected to air on ESPN shortly.



Comments

Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
Hi Robin, no I absolutely did not shoot the interviews for Fog of War. We shot a feature story for ESPN where we also shot first person interviews. In the last paragraph of the article, you will see the story we did. And there are links to it in the threads connected to the article. Thanks for writing.

---

Tom Miller
Director of Photography
big Pictures Media, Inc.
http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Robin Hobart
I'm confused by this article. Did Thomas Miller shoot the interviews for Fog of War? I thought it was Errol Morris.

The interrotron was made for the TV-series 'First-Person' done by Errol. This was pre-Fog. He has tried many time to patent the technique (unsuccessfully).

Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by mirek krejci
the great Japanese director Ozu, shot straight on/slightly up (tatami shot) before the 40s and through the 60s.., to the side is a western editing system. Im often surprised at what we believe are rules are often not much more than a bias. Of course there are reasons the 'rules' work well within a given system as mistakes are learnt over time.., but i say, never say never.., its just a strangle hold. Actually Ozu broke all the rules..,
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Mark Suszko
@ Michael Raines

Have not yet had a customer, still in development mode. It can be hard to get people to try something new.
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Harry Bromley-Davenport
Wacky fact:

Do you remember "Silence Of The Lambs"? All the closeups in the film where there are two people talking to each other were shot with the talent looking straight into the lens.

It lent a certain spooky intimacy to the entire picture and, as Alfie would say: "not a lot of people know that".

Harry.

Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
I linked to it before, in this thread, but here it is again:

http://bigpicturesmedia.com/GarrettKarpFeature.html

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Frank Blackwell
I wish there was a link to a specific example of this technique.
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Bob Seabold
Another option is the eyeliner (http://www.mceyeliner.com/) which is nice because it allows a "one man band" operation. The device can be positioned so the interviewEE can see the camera op or it can be flipped to the other side of the camera. Its a one piece device, although the interviewER does need a bit of additional light so the interviewEE has a clear view.

Another lower budget option is to use a piece of teleprompter glass placed in front of the camera. Although the positioning of the interviewER is less flexible AND you need to have some strategic placement of pieces of duve/black foam core or similar. Just mount the glass to a shorty c-stand or similar. I recommend mounting the prompter glass in an aluminum picture frame for easy mounting.

The tricky bit about this technique is that it looks best (to me anyway) if the eyes of the interviewER are placed in a position where the subject is looking directly at the lens. This is much more critical the closer the subject is to the camera as any deviation from looking at the lens is far more apparent.

Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Tim Wilson
Great stuff, Thomas. Thanks!

Mike observes below, "some people want to look in the camera no matter what you tell them."

And for a very simple reason: that's how people speak to each other. That's how people WANT to be spoken to. It's how honest people speak to each other.

My problem with traditional "look over there, don't look at me, don't look into the camera" approach is that it's fundamentally alienating. I'm watching a conversation between someone and...who? His psychiatrist? His costumed superhero alter-ego? Elvis? No matter. I am by definition excluded. The subject isn't talking to me. I'm an eavesdropper.

Note that this is how I shot hundreds of interviews. I just hated it, and hated myself for not coming up with a creative way out of it. My excuse at the time was that I was a solo shooter, at best 2 of us, and that we were in the wilderness...and not looking at the camera was "the way" to do it...but I was wrong.

The one and ONLY time to have a subject look off camera is if the other person is ALSO a focus. Like Oprah. Even away from the audience, she's more compelling than almost anyone she talks to. I WANT to see a conversation between her and her subject...but I KNOW why I'm seeing the subject not speaking to ME.

re: Errol Morris, he came up with 2 innovations, only one of which we've talked much about. Looking directly at the camera as an aesthetic choice rooted in ethics, politics, and basic human behavior is one part, but the other is keying to a white background. He's literally getting EVERYTHING out of the way of an eye to eye discussion.

Now, this is obviously an affectation. Nobody outside a movie set for a mental hospital speaks in a purely white room...but it's an example of artifice serving a larger truth. He uses that very word to describe it, while also acknowledging that he was far from the first to use white backgrounds. But that combination is a large part of what makes his work - not just in documentaries but in commercials too - so very compelling.

As he says, "My interest is primarily in what people are saying, and in not detracting or distracting from what they're saying, because that's at the center of what I'm doing."

It's a good article, with lots of great links to really amazing articles, so check it out when you've got time to play....

Tim Wilson
Associate Publisher, Editor-in-Chief
Creative COW Magazine

My Blog: "Is this thing on? Oh it's on!"

Don't forget to rate your favorite posts!
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Peter Ralph
Tim

I am a longtime fan of Errol Morris. But I wonder if the Interrotron is appropriate for most interviews. It's got to be difficult for some subjects to relate to the camera that confidently. By the time Errol Morris has got a camera on an interviewee, he has already gained their trust and he has the time to get them relaxed.

Peter
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Tim Wilson
[Peter Ralph] "By the time Errol Morris has got a camera on an interviewee, he has already gained their trust and he has the time to get them relaxed."

As you read the articles, you'll see that this is rarely the case. Certainly not at all true for his commercial and corporate work -- except to the extent and in the timeframe that EVERY shooter/producer/interviewer has to.

Even Fog of War, the terms were very tight. He only agreed to a couple of hours. It was DURING those hours that McNamara gained trust...or more likely, comfort, which is close enough.

That said, the Interrortron is not lightly named, and certainly overkill for most situations, even in Morris's own work. That's why I quoted Mike Cohen's observation that many people want to look in the lens by default. This is an impulse to encourage, not try to train out of people.
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Bob Cole
I love seeing this technique and plan to use it. But I have some reservations about using it in the corporate video market. Have you ever run into problems when an interviewee drops "eye contact" with the teleprompter/image? Doesn't he wind up looking sort of shifty, as in "he can't look me in the eyes when he says that."

To the question about when not to use the technique: in the corporate world, we often are trying to make people look their best, and some people (say, with very asymetrical features) look their best at an off-axis angle. When you can position the eyeline away from the camera, you have total freedom as to exactly what angle to use to make them look good.
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
Here is an example of the technique as described in the article:



Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Ronald Lindeboom
Great storytelling, Tom. I had to watch the whole thing and in just a few minutes, you had me cheering for the kid. But then something got caught in my eye, or something. :)

Ronald Lindeboom
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
Thanks, Ron. I appreciate that. Though in this case I'm reluctant to take too much credit for the storytelling. While I lit and shot it, there was a very good writer /producer and editor back in Bristol, CT who put it all together. Plus it was a wonderfully touching story to begin with!

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Ronald Lindeboom
I knew you were not the producer or the writer, Thomas. But I have seen far too many ideas not hold up in the long run because the ones lighting and lensing the shoot, did a job that was less than inspiring. You, on the other hand, did some fine work on this and it holds up well within the context of the story.

Best regards,

Ronald Lindeboom
CEO, Creative COW LLC
Publisher, Creative COW Magazine

Creativity is a process wherein the student and the teacher are located in the same individual.

"Incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm."
- Woody Allen
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
Well, I really appreciate that Ron. Thank you.

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Peter Ralph
Tom

Any thoughts on when you might choose to use this technique and when not?

Peter
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
Peter, I have to tell you it was a totally new experience to me when we did it. I've shot literally hundreds of interviews - and been both behind the camera, and the director asking the questions. But I've never seen anything quite so pure in it's exposure of these people's emotions to the audience. When they stare at the camera - right at the camera - and lay their hearts out like that - it was pretty amazing. The seem so open and vulnerable. I had the opportunity to be involved in the Spielberg "Survivors of the Shoah" interviews, and now I wish we had done those this way.

So when to do it this way, and when not to? I don't know, but I think it has something to do with how much connection you want to create between the audience and the subject. And I suppose you wouldn't always want that much raw connection. Plus, it's quite a bit more resource intensive, so it depends on your budget.

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Peter Ralph
"The Last Days" is to me the touchstone of outstanding interview technique. Were all the Shoah interviews filmed with such care?

The way The Last Days is edited would it work if all the interviews were straight to camera?

Peter
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
It's less of a device than a setup. If you have the time and the equipment, you can set it up. We don't usually work as a 1-man band, so not sure how that would work. But I suppose you could do it given the right amount of time.

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Tim Lindop
I heard of this device used by Errol Morris. What I would like to know is if I can rig something for my own use as a one-man-band, or failing that, at least a two person crew using a DVmini camera.
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
That works too, Joel. The clips look like they are indeed looking right at the lens. There are so many different methods for doing this. The prompter idea is just one that worked for us!

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Joel Blackwell
I work a lot with people who have never been on camera and probably never will be again. I make sure the red "camera on" light does not function because that seems to distract them and discomfort them. It seems to make it hard for them to relax by reminding them they are on camera. I put them about six feet away so that their eyes seem to be looking in to the lens as they talk to me. I make sure my eyes are as close to the camera as possible, crouching if I need to. I also turn the camera on and let the tape run while we have a conversation and never turn it off. I have used crews that want to stop and start as though to save precious film and count down "3,2,1" like a TV show and that really rattles amateur talent. I spend maybe five minutes just chatting, getting some B-roll of the talent nodding and listening until they forget they are "on." In my experience, no matter what you tell them, they will look at the interviewer so getting behind the lens is the key.

Here are some samples of results:













Joel Blackwell
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
Richard, It's about the relationship between the interview subject, the person asking the questions, and the audience. The eyes mean so much in our communication. Sure you can ask them to look over the camera, or look right at the lens, but who are they making contact with? When people tell stories, they connect best with their eyes. I've been in both places - in front of and behind the camera - and to stare at a blank lens is very different than telling a story to a person. As far as positioning someone behind the camera, the eye contact won't be precise, and the audience can tell - whether they know it or not. if someone is looking almost at the camera, but not quite there, it feels a little off. In our case, these were very intimate stories, so we wanted to do whatever we could to both make the subject feel as comfortable as possible, and create a connection between the subject and the audience.

Now, we had the luxury of a decent sized crew, a good budget, and plenty of gear. But I understand the need to improvise like Mike mentions when you are forced into a one man (or woman) band situation. This was just one technique that worked for us - and worked really well - for this project.

Have a look at the final piece here: http://www.bigpicturesmedia.com/GarrettKarpFeature.html

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by James Dow
So when you are conducting the interview where are you seated? Are you still at the side of the camera? If so, doesn't the subject still have the urge to look at you, and not your image on the prompter? (Or at least shifting the eyes back and forth between the monitor and you)
I suppose it takes some "getting used to," just like reading from a prompter.

If you are in another room, what is your audio set-up? (IFB or monitor speaker?)

Thanks,
JPD

JPD
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Mark Suszko
For it to work best, the interviewer and camera have to be in another room out of vision and preferably, out of earshot. Though you could just hang some black pipe and drape behind the prompter camera and set up the interviewer camera right behind. IFB is distracting to an inexperienced person, so you would probably want to hang a speaker with a mix-minus instead and just work hard at not stepping on the responses.


One of the side projects I'm developing for our studio is a "Super-Skype" option, using our custom giant 40-inch teleprompter as the screen for a skype hookup where the person being remotely interviewed can make perfect camera/eye contact, in pretty much the same way as the "interrotron". When you see skypecasts used on live broadcast, too often the eyeline looks funky because the feed comes from a webcam way off-axis on the scrren, and the guest is staring at themselves or a feed on the screen, and not the camera.

Using the super-skype thing, the interviewer can then be in the next room, or, anywhere on the planet with an internet connection, but we have perfect eye contact.
+2
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Mark Suszko
Convenient feature comparison:

http://www.errolmorris.com/content/eyecontact/inter527.html

He forgets to menton the Interocitor can also emit a disintegrator ray. I think you need the top tier of cable service to invoke that, though.
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by James Dow
Thanks Mark....I think I'm out of luck with Greene County Cable, in regards to the disintegrator ray.

JPD
@Mark Suszko
by Michael Raines
Mark,

Were you able to successfully conduct your "Super-Skype" technique?

I ask because I'm in the process of trying out various interviews (from across the country) with the exact same plan.

I'm new to teleprompters, but see this as the only plausible option.

Any advice, insight, and experience involving this process would be much appreciated and incredibly helpful!

Thanks in advance,

--Michael Raines

mhraines@yahoo.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Thomas Miller
JDP,

We are all in the same room, and it's not a problem at all. The DP is next to the camera, the soundman is there, and we set up the person asking the question well behind the camera, or off to the side. A little "anything camera" is pointing at the person asking the questions, and we send it's output to the prompter via BNC (usually with an RCA-BNC adaptor). Then the subject just looks at the person asking the questions in the prompter (which of course is perfectly aligned with the lens.) He or she hears the questions just fine. This all works great, and after a minute of explanation, the subjects all seemed to get it perfectly and relax right into their storytelling. I suppose you could do all of this remotely too, but in our case the entire team has been on site. There is really no need to move people into other rooms as far as I can tell.

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by James Dow
Tom,

Thanks for explaining the set-up. Your excerpts looked great.

JPD

JPD
Re: Article: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Mark Suszko
This technique is uncommon, but not new:

http://www.errolmorris.com/content/eyecontact/interrotron.html
@Mark Suszko
by Thomas Miller
Yes, that's where we got it, as I mention in the article.

Tom Miller
Big Pictures Media
Denver, Colorado

http://www.BigPicturesMedia.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Richard van den Boogaard
I guess this is an inventive use of a teleprompter, but why would this method be any different from positioning the interviewer directly behind the camera? Would the subject then look over the camera? Even if you tell him to look straight into the lens?

Richard van den Boogaard
cameraman / editor / video marketing consultant

Branded Channels
W: http://www.brandedchannels.com
Re: Shooting True First-Person Interviews
by Mike Cohen
I often shoot interviews solo. For "off camera" interviews, I sometimes tell the interview subject to look at a light switch or other point on the wall so the eye line is where it would be had I been sitting in the right spot. But when you are operating the camera and asking the questions, you need to be in a position where you can monitor audio levels, exposure and zoom, as well as ask questions. I try whenever possible of course to look directly at the subject so they are actually looking at another set of eyes.

If there is something for them to say directly to the audience, I just ask them to "look into the camera for this part" - some people want to look in the camera no matter what you tell them.

Mike Cohen


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