If we compare filming a pre-planned corporate talking head and a documentary interview, then some aspects are same in both. But still, there are some key aspects that separate both. The major differences are choice and time, which impacts on all aspects of how the interview is shot.
The first aspect is the choice which refers to a location. Do you have a choice or is it a location you have no control over? Is it a noisy room that will yield bad audio? Is the lighting horrific? Is the background boring? Or worse, distracting?
Time relates directly to these issues of choice because if you do not have a choice, do you have time to make the best of it? Usually not when filming documentary-style.
So here are things to keep in mind when you’re up against it.
PREPARING YOUR KIT FOR DOCUMENTARY INTERVIEWS
Make sure you have a range of solutions available for problems you might encounter. If you have a camera, does it direct sound into your camera so you don’t have to worry about external audio recorders?
Lenses are another important consideration when filming a documentary talking head, while prime lenses are good for lots of projects. In documentaries zoom lenses come into their own as with something like a 24-70 you can be filming wides then quickly go telephoto for a close in talking head shot without worrying about changing lenses.
It is recommended to use sound kit which doesn’t need batteries and which takes phantom power from the camera battery. This means you change batteries less and only need 1 type with you.
Lighting is often overlooked, of course when shooting documentaries you cannot always take big lighting kits, however you should take a small reflector and at least 1 light source, nowadays this is likely to be a LED panel, and there is no excuse not to have one as you can get them as small as a credit card, or even ones which roll up and bend for easy packing.
WHAT TO DO ON LOCATION?
Preparation is great, but anyone who has filmed anything before knows that no matter how much you prepare you will encounter tough situations which require some thought to solve. When you are in a location for a talking head think about these key things.
Is it outside so has the sun? Do you need to find shade as the shot is too contrasty on the subject’s face? If inside are there any lights that you can make use of? A spot by a window that you can use as a nice key light is a good choice, or even if the sunlight is too harsh directly you can position them near a wall which will bounce and diffuse the harsh sunlight.
Does the background reinforce the message being spoken on camera, or does it contradict it? If you are able to choose a good background that supports the message that’s great, if you can’t go for something neutral, you don’t want the background to confuse your viewer.
The sound is incredibly important in a documentary because often most the storytelling is through what people say and their opinions. If you can hear this then it suffers. So if there is a choice always choose a location which will not hinder the sound, sometimes some background noise is good for example if they are talking about a school football team and you hear the team playing football in the background, but you always want the main sound to be of your interview subject.
Another thing to think about is also the framing of the subject. Though most documentaries are not usually worrying about cinematography composition rules a good knowledge of angles and frame composition is needed. Using the example of an interview subject with football pitch and team playing in the background, we can make composition choices.
On a full frame sensor, 24/35mm might be too wide for most interviews but it would allow you to show lots of the action going in the background (even if out of focus) and give you a scale of the area. The other option if the playing people are distracting and the subject is talking about something fairly personal or serious you might want an 85mm to narrow the field of view down to single them out as well as throw the background out of focus even more.
So these are some key things to think about when filming a documentary interview, of course, things don’t always go to plan and with experience, you will learn how to problem solve in tough situations.
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