Thoughts on Lighting & Shooting Interviews from a 40 Year Industry Veteran

Billy and Douglas Campbell Discuss Interviewing
Unless you work in narrative or commercial filmmaking, chances are that you're going to be shooting a whole lot of interviews.

Our good friend Billy Campbell, a working documentary filmmaker and creator of the Scorpion Light, is working on a series of lighting tutorials based on feedback from readers of this site. Recently, he's also put together another excellent educational resource for filmmakers, an interview and tutorial series with his father Douglas Campbell, a 40-year veteran of the film industry who has seen and done it all.

In the first installment, the pair talk about the process of conducting and lighting an interview, which is the bread and butter of filmmakers working in documentary, corporate, and some genres of television.

Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/121887094

The key takeaway from this conversation is something that we've all heard before — content is king, and style is secondary. This concept is particularly crucial in an interview setting because you're likely to deal with a wide range of subjects, some of whom are seasoned pros and some of whom have never been in front of a camera in their lives and are very uncomfortable with it.

As Douglas mentions in the conversation, you can have the most brilliantly-staged interview setup with gorgeous, complex lighting and lovely shallow depth of field, but if the subject of the interview doesn't feel comfortable and can't deliver the content that you need, then it's all for naught. For that reason, the key tool that interviewers and technicians need to have in interview situations is empathy for the subject. I know that sounds kind of vague and non-utilitarian, but to have the ability to make your interview subject feel comfortable and safe will always provide you with the best content.

An Simple Interview Setup Using Natural Light

In their conversation, Billy and Douglas spend a good deal of time talking about how to harness natural light for interview shooting. Billy was kind enough to put together a quick and straightforward example of how to do this:

Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/120291204

There are a few things to keep in mind when using natural light. First and foremost, natural light is not particularly reliable, particularly in situations where you're using it as a key light — and it's even less reliable when you need it for extended periods of time. For that reason, it's always a best practice to have a backup plan of some sort, and that usually means having additional lights with you, either to supplement or replace the natural light.

Second, windows with northern and southern exposure will usually provide the most consistent and softest light throughout the day, but that can make it difficult to bounce enough light to fill in the face of your subject, especially if you're shooting with a wider frame and can't get your bounce board or reflector close to the subject's face. There are a few ways around this. If you're intent on using natural light, you can set up another reflector outside of the window, and use it to bounce direct sunlight back inside, which you can then bounce again to light the subject. Conversely, you can also use an another light as a key while just using the natural light as a soft fill.

A Basic Lighting Setup for an OTS (Two Hander) Interview

Billy also put together another lighting scenario for us. This one is a bit more commonplace, both in documentary and narrative filmmaking. It's the basic OTS shot, or as Billy calls it, a dirty two hander (which sounds super kinky). Anyhow, this example exclusively uses Billy's product, the Scorpion Light, which is a tiny, powerful LED that can be modified easily and mounted just about anywhere.

Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/120387221

We've got some helpful overheads to illustrate Billy's lighting setups in the original shot and in the reverse:

Overhead of the OTS interview lighting setup in the above videoCredit: Billy Campbell
Overhead of the reverse shot from the above OTS interview lighting setupCredit: Billy Campbell

What are some of your tips for making interview subjects feel comfortable during an interview? How about your methods of utilizing natural light? Share down in the comments, and feel free to ask Billy any questions that you might have!     

Your Comment

5 Comments

'Primaire object is to make the interviewee as comfortable as possible.'
'Provide an environment, where they can deliver.'

In combination with the lighting setups, these are valuable experiences shared for documentary interviews. The 'return of the toplight' comes as a pleasant and useful surprise ; )

To create the right environment, I once stripped the Canon C100 to the bear essantial (small footprint). To keep the interviewee as easy as possible I renounced from the use of a broadcast quality wireless lavalier and did the interview with just a Zoom H4n in front of her and a handclap at the beginning and end. She felt more comfortable on the way and the interview grew to a success.
We are fortunate the live in the digital world now, where natural light inconveneances can very well be corrected in the post.

March 15, 2015 at 2:50PM

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I agree. Right tool for the right job. I once shot at a May Day rally (full of communists, anti capitalists, bandana wearing folk - you know the type). Well, the news crews showed up and wanted to get some shots of the rally and interviews with people, that didn't work out well for them. Absolutely no one would speak to them.

And there I am with my dinky 60D in the middle of the street, getting great shots. People were actually positive towards me and helped me get what I needed to. I didn't realize it then, but that day I learned a very valuable lesson. Sometimes bringing a gun to a knife fight is overkill.

March 16, 2015 at 11:02PM

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Facundo Rodrigo Campos
Wearer of Multiple Hats
335

There needs to be more videos like this on the subject of lighting. I'd love it if someone could point me towards some.

March 15, 2015 at 3:33PM, Edited March 15, 3:33PM

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Caleb E. Carrow
Director of Photography,
171

Honestly the BTS of people/productions whose work you admire can be the most illuminating. But hurlbutvisuals.com, rogerdeakins.com/forum2/, lightsfilmschool.com, khalidmohtaseb.com/blog/ and more have solid info. Sometimes forums like REDUser and BMCUser have good contributors with solid setups, too. Dig, dig, dig!

March 15, 2015 at 6:00PM

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Cassidy Hilton
Freelancer
208

Thanks

March 15, 2015 at 6:07PM

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Caleb E. Carrow
Director of Photography,
171