Beyond the Talking Head: Shooting Documentary Interviews



Darius McCollum, protagonist of Adam Irving's <em>Off the Rails</em>. Courtesy of Adam Irving.
Darius McCollum, protagonist of Adam Irving’s Off the Rails. Courtesy of Adam Irving.

You’ve no doubt seen these before in a documentary: an interviewee sitting just inches in front of a bookcase, with the individual book titles visible and distracting; a house plant invading the frame; an incandescent desk lamp in the background whispering for attention while the interviewee’s eye-line is awkwardly off to the side. Or perhaps you’ve seen this one: the interviewee engulfed by a high-back sofa, an exposed lav mic stealing our attention, while the hum of a house appliance and the jingle of a busy necklace cause us to squint trying to decipher the subject’s words. These are the clichés and blunders of recording documentary interviews.

As someone who has watched even more interviews than I’ve shot, I’ve developed a discerning eye for the exemplary—and for the cringe-worthy. What I aim to provide here beyond dos and don’ts is a primer for rendering clean, cinematic interviews that allow the viewer to focus on what matters: emotion and storytelling.

The key to shooting documentary interviews is eliminating distracting sights and sounds; these take us out of the story. Second, if you must choose between a visually pleasing interview set-up and a good-sounding one, always chose good sound. The audience will forgive a flawed shot, but will tune out if it can’t hear the dialogue.

Selecting the Interview Space (MORE…)

Rule of Thirds

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