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How to Set Up Lights and Microphones for Documentary Interviews

To help you get started with your documentary interviews, we show you the equipment you'll need, give you some tips on making a room look good, tell you what you should include in your talent releases, and provide you with some tips to assure that your subject looks great on screen.

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Video Transcript

The bulk of information in most documentaries comes from interviews. Because of this, thorough preparation of subjects, locations, and crews for interviews is often crucial to getting a documentary story told.

Among all of the craziness that goes in to making documentaries, interviews can actually be the easiest, most informative, and fun parts to do. Of course, that's only if you start off right. To help you get off on the right foot, we'll show you what equipment you'll need, give you some tips on how to make a room look great, what you should include in your talent releases, and how to make sure your subject looks great on screen as well. Lastly, we'll dig deeper into subject appearance by showing you how to get good subject positioning, what kinds of clothing work well for the screen, and how to overcome facial and lighting problems with makeup.

The key to any good shoot is having the right equipment. Since it's better to be safe than sorry, it's always a good idea to check your camera, audio, and lighting gear the night before the shoot to ensure it is working properly. There's nothing worse than showing up on a shoot with broken equipment. (DL) It's also a good idea to make a checklist with the equipment you'll need for the interview. This way you can be sure you have all of your equipment before you leave your studio. Amongst your equipment, you'll want to bring a lavalier microphone to capture audio. These kinds of microphones are small enough to let the subject forget that they are even being recorded which will help them feel more relaxed and open when speaking in front of the camera. It's also good to consider what lights you'll be using for the shoot. Since incandescent bulbs can heat up a room rather quickly, it is a good idea to use lamps that produce less heat such as fluorescents or LED's. Though they are more expensive, they can stay on longer and will help your subject feel more comfortable. Lastly, since cameras are often intimidating to interview subjects, you'll want to back the camera off from your subject as far as your zoom lens will allow. This gives your subject more room, gives the shot a shallower depth of field, and makes your subject a bit less nervous which can lead to better interviews.

Of all the factors in an interview setup, the room appearance can be the most nerve wracking. However, room appearance says volumes about the character of your interview subject. Because of this, arriving at least an hour early to any interview is a good idea. (Still) This will give you the time to discuss any changes that the room needs with owners and to set up lighting before the interview begins. This will also be the time to close the shades or apply CTO gels to windows for lighting purposes, turning off lamps and overhead lighting, and to move chairs and tables to get more room for equipment. Also, if you want to highlight props or areas of the room, you'll want to make sure you have smaller light fixtures with barn doors to give the objects the attention it needs. If you don't have much set up time, using a camera and lens that can get a very shallow depth of field is very helpful. With it, you can simply knock the background out of focus which draws attention to your subject and covers up any mistakes the room may have.

Staying legal in documentaries can save you from losing your money and your reputation so signed talent releases are a must. These releases should be written by a media lawyer and should include at minimum the name of your subject, the subject contact information, the title of your project, what kind of compensation will be given to the talent, where you'll be using the footage, and of course a signature from both the subject and the filmmaker.It's also generally easier to get this signed before the interview takes place since subjects can sometimes get nervous if it's done afterward.

The last factor you'll want to consider before an interview begins is your subject's appearance. Interview subjects are almost always apprehensive about being on camera to begin with so you'll want to consider ways to make your subject look better on screen by positioning them correctly, making sure they are wearing camera-friendly clothing, and applying makeup when needed.

Unless your subject is directly addressing the audience, it's a good idea to have them looking a bit to the left or right of the camera's lens. Subjects tend to feel most comfortable and relaxed talking to a person rather than a piece of equipment so make sure you have someone standing at eye-level to the camera's lens that your subject can talk to. At the same time, you'll want to frame your subject in such a way that they have “looking room.” This means that subjects should be either on the left or the right third of the frame looking in the opposite direction.

The next factor to consider is clothing. You'll want to instruct your subjects not to wear pure white, black, or red clothes since they tend to be too bright, dark, or saturated. Also, thin stripes and tight patterns can cause a rainbow-like moire pattern to appear on the screen. Lastly, if it's possible for a subject to take off any sunglasses or prescription glasses, that can help you to see their eyes better and avoid reflecting light back to the camera lens.

Lastly, you'll want to consider using makeup if your subject's skin is shiny or has visible defects. A bit of powder can go a long way in making skin appear less shiny and having different colors of foundation can help cover skin defects. You can also use diffusion filters and higher angles to make wrinkles less visible. Using tools like these makes sure that every subject looks good on screen and is happy with your product.

Though there's a decent amount of prep work required for any good documentary interview, it's always worth the effort. By doing this work you can be sure that you'll have a relaxed subject, a great shot, and a documentary that's informative and compelling.


channelone's picture

From a guy who has done hundreds of interviews for over-the-air broadcast and cable.


Never remove a subjects glasses, instead adjust the lighting. Having a person who wears glasses on a day-to-day basis remove their glasses will many times make them feel uncomfortable and drastically affect the quality of the interview.


As for taming wrinkles and blemishes, a method I have successfully used many times is to merely soften the focus just a hair, not enough to be noticeable, but enough to tame down minor skin defects.


Placing a lav, because the quality of the audio captured by a lav degrades logarithmically by the distance from the source to be recorded, it is imperative that the lav be as close to the source as possible.


A good rule of thumb, or thumb and pinky, is to stretch your thumb and pinky as far as possible apart and if the lav is further from the subjects chin than that distance it’s too far away.


Now there will always be exceptions, such as low cut blouses, so always be ready to boom over a shotgun as a backup to the lav.


Also on the subject of audio, when setting up, lookup, avoid having the interview under a HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) register.


There are three primary reasons to avoid them, if the HVAC system comes on during the interview you will pickup a low rumble and wind noise which you might not catch in your headphones and HVAC ducts can “duct” noise, the last thing you need is to go to post and discover in the background of your interview is lots of chatter from the break room next door.


And the third reason is, HVAC registers can dew up and drip, more so when the room is crowded with a production crew raising the humidity level.