September 24, 2012

Interrotron: an Interviewing Tool Essential to the Documentaries of Oscar Winner Errol Morris

One of the most crucial pieces to a great documentary is the interview. In post production you will ground your edit around a transcription of what these people have to say about your subject. When you are performing the interview, you obviously want the subject looking straight at you to achieve a human connection and better result. But what if you want to connect your subject to the audience more... how would you go about making the connection with the subject while getting a first-person angle on them? Enter the Interrotron, a favorite device used by Oscar winner Errol Morris. Check out these clips from Fog of War, his Oscar winner that used the device:

The Interrotron is basically two teleprompters connected to two cameras. Camera A is rolling on the subject, and Camera B is simply feeding Camera A's prompter. This allows for the subject to be looking directly into the interviewer's eyes through the beam splitter, as they are being interviewed. This fantastic technique was championed by several other filmmakers before Morris, but he is most known for it (probably because he's just that great of a filmmaker).

Check out this great graphic describing the technique:

See the full visualization at Steve Hardy's website.

Over at Co.Design, John Palvus had this to say about the technique:

Morris didn't invent this camera angle -- nor was he the only one to devise this clever system. Production designer and frequent Morris collaborator Steve Hardie (who also made these illustrations) independently invented a nearly identical system a few years before Morris started using his...

Luckily, the basic idea is simple enough that any enterprising filmmaker could probably build her own if she really wanted to. And Hardie's illustrations should make that process even easier.

I couldn't agree more. This technique isn't going to replace building a relationship with your subject, but it is a tool to assist that during the interview portion. If I were to take on a large documentary project, this would absolutely be a part of my arsenal. With the right telemprompter (a personal favorite brand being Autocue), you could have light setup times, which would help keep things personal on set.

Have you ever tried this technique or built this device before? Anyone with examples from their own films they'd like to share?

Link: Errol Morris' Secret Weapon for Unsettling Interviews: the Interrotron -- Fast Co. Design

Your Comment

19 Comments

Build your own teleprompter, then have the interviewer use a macbook with an i-sight camera. Load up Quicktime player and start a new video recording. A full-screen image of yourself will appear, send that image over to the teleprompter. Use a curtain or cardboard or something to block the interviewee from seeing the interviewer. The only challenge is making sure to look at the i-sight camera so the interviewee thinks you're looking at them. It's just like a skype chat then. There's plenty of ways to do this.. but this is the poor man's alternate and should yield the same results if care is taken.

The faster and less hassle approach I've done is just to sit my interviewer right behind the camera so it looks like they're looking right at the camera. It's almos impossible to tell that they aren't looking exactly into the lens and is MUCH easier to manage for me. It's a slight inconvenience but works well.

September 24, 2012

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Tim

How timely (unless this is what prompted the blog post, and you just didn't mention it): Stephen Colbert brilliantly parodied the Interrotron last week, with Morris himself in the guest chair:

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/419303/september-...

None other than that offshore brand for indie cine gear Ikan has marketed their own Interrotron, costing (you guessed it) relatively little:

http://bhpho.to/Interrotron

September 24, 2012

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I'm a very passive TV watcher, so while I love Colbert, I had no idea he had Morris on. Thanks for sharing this and the Ikan link!

September 25, 2012

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Benjamin Dewhurst
Writer
writer/director

I've seen that Ikan system used. Works well.

September 25, 2012

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marklondon

This is presumably the same technique used in TV news when the anchor interviews a subject - a politician, say - in a remote studio. They always seem to be looking straight into the lens.

I've idly wondered whether one day this could be extended using green screen so that the interview-er and -ee could both appear to be in the same studio, face to face. Several news studios are already mostly virtual, with robotic cameras... Presumably this would be pricey rather than too complex and maybe the ethical questions would taking some thinking through - ie, would it be misleading the viewers?

September 25, 2012

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Graham Kay

Actually - in TV news, the interviewee generally can't see the person asking the questions - all they are getting is the audio in their ear, and the instruction to 'look into the camera when you speak'.

September 25, 2012

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Yes, that's what I'd always assumed, and you can tell when that setup is used because every now and then the interviewee looks off camera. I just wondered whether the teleprompter method is used in more permanent remote setups. (I'm in the UK so I'm thinking of for example the BBC Westminster studio)

September 25, 2012

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Graham Kay

nope. Monitor with the video feed sits below the camera (when its working!) and they talk directly into a blank lens.

September 25, 2012

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marklondon

Well aren't I just a fuckwit, eh? Nope, yep, maybep... ;-)

September 25, 2012

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Graham Kay

I use the EyeDirect (www.eyedirect.tv) for this purpose. Much easier to set-up, works like a charm!

September 25, 2012

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Richard, thanks for the link. Interesting product, certainly worth discussion. Though I take issue with how bright those the interviewer appears in those product photos... you'd have to be lit yourself to be that clear in what's essentially a side-by-side beam splitter. Also, for $1400, I'd be tempted to DIY it myself... still, looks feasible!

September 25, 2012

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Benjamin Dewhurst
Writer
writer/director

I owe it to Philip Bloom who introduced me to it last year (http://philipbloom.net/2011/01/27/eyedirect/). He had been searching for ages to find a solution like this. Eventually, I decided to buy one myself and I've used it successfully on a number of shoots already. Great tool to have in your gear box.

September 25, 2012

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I've used the Ikan interrotron system for docs. It's definitely fun.

September 25, 2012

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For some reason I've always preferred the 'off camera' look, with both watching and shooting interviews, Errol Morris being the notible exception. Fog of War has a very intimate feel to it, almost uncomfortable, which given subject matter is very powerful.

September 25, 2012

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Scott

I generally want those I shoot to totally ignore the camera as well, but it totally depends on the purpose of your production.

You can use these systems whenever you purposely want to break the divide between the talent/subject and the audience. Not only useful for documentaries where you want your audience to be addressed directly, but also for instructional films. Right now, I'm working on a set of instructional films where I've used the EyeDirect with great results. People who have no experience in being on camera are able to look directly into the lens without realizing it (seeing the interviewer instead).

The Interrotron works much the same way, but it just requires more hardware. The EyeDirect is a simple thing.

September 25, 2012

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McNamara is arguably one of the best interviewees in documentary history. Cool technology, epic interview.

September 25, 2012

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Allan

I think Google glass may have found a practical use. Just put a pair on the interviewer and attach a device (as simple as a cardboard box but perhaps lighter) to their head so their field of vision nearly matches what the camera sees. Obviously limits the quality of the shot with the current technology in the glasses but it does get the interviewee looking straight into the lens while still getting the face-to-face human interaction.

September 25, 2012

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Joshua

I've used this technique numerous times. Here is an example from a PBS documentary I produced a few years ago https://vimeo.com/album/1801192/video/13832830
But don't kid yourself, the system triples your setup time and makes it that much more difficult to connect with your subject.

September 27, 2012

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Gino Del Guercio

Been using this for maybe 5 years now.
Weirdly it's always less expensive to hire the autocue operator who brings her own kit rather than hiring a couple of machines.
As far as not being able to connect with the subject, I've always found the opposite - in extreme cases I've even set up the shot and cleared the set so that the interviewee is alone and left face to face with the interviewer.
Some of my most powerful interviews have come from people who could barely speak with a crew around but opened up entirely when left alone.

September 27, 2012

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