How to Shoot Gorgeous Interviews in Hideous Locations

You’re prepared to conduct a great interview, but does it look good?

If you are a small skeleton crew or a one-man-or-woman-band wearing many hats, it can be easy to plunk your subject in a chair somewhere and start rolling. We’ve all been there. You’re in a time-constrained situation. You don't want to test the patience of your subject. And unfortunately, the aesthetics of your location just plain suck. You shudder, roll camera, and wonder if you can cut away from the interview and hope for the best.

Don’t hope for the best, create it!

In this video from Indy Mogul, Oscar/Golden Globes DP Casey McBeath goes over the most important 10 steps to making sure that your interview is solid visually. (With some steps that address sound and interview techniques too.) 

You've probably already shot an interview that falls below the standards that Casey McBeath is setting above. Be comforted that the content of an interview is way more important than how cool it looks. (Unless you’re making an infomercial, in which case, looking good is about all you’ve got.)

But if you can adhere to a few of these steps, there’s no reason a stand-out conversation with a subject shouldn’t also stand out visuallyeven if you are in a gross location.

Here’s a recap of the 10 steps that Indie Mogul is talking about in the video above. Print them and keep it handy for your next interview setup.

Step 1: Scout the Location

The first thing that DP Casey McBeath suggests is to look for what you DON’T want to be in the frame. A bathroom. An awkward corner. Find the least offensive spot, and then make sure to put your interview subject far away enough from the background wall to create space.

Step 2: Camera Placement

According to McBeath, people benefit from a slightly lower angle, not right at eye angle as we often place them. He’ll have the subject look left to right, which is a standard he feels makes the person in the frame look more glamorous. And finally, get the headroom right. Too much and the person looks lost in the frame or short. Too little and the viewer is claustrophobic. He recommends three to four fingers of space above a head.

Step 3: Key Light

McBeath starts with a key light that is soft and attractive. He feels that 45 degree is best, with a 40-degree fabric grid to prevent too much spill distracting the viewer.

Step 4: Backlight

Short and simple, it helps separate your interview subject from everything else.

Step 5: Background light

McBeath’s trick for background? Add some color to contrast.

Step 6: Light with Practicals

Get a hand dimmer for $10 from Walmart, and then dim a nice lamp in the background. Just make sure your practical is not poking out of your subject's head.

If you're interview location leaves a little to be desired, stick to the basics in this video to redeem yourself.

Step 7: Set Design

Basically, you can start by removing distracting elements from the frame. When it doubt, use brightness to guide the viewer's eye. Guiding to what? The interview subject. We’re starting to catch on.

Step 8: Second Camera

Why should you use a second camera? Because it makes it a lot damned easier to cut between moments of what your subject is saying. You can only cut to B-roll to splice to interview clips together so often.

One way to make your post work easier is to use the same brand (and hence, the same color space.)

Step 9: Audio

The head of Deity Microphones, Andrew Jones, steps in to give us some insight on proper mic setup for an interview. His take? Put a boom on a stand. (Not with a shotgun, as we are indoors, but rather a hypercardiod pencil mic.) Then, point the boom at the chest area. It’s safer than pointing it at someone’s mouth because if they slope as people often do, you’d then be getting the forehead.

Also, buy moving blankets (from Harbor Freight) and use those to dampen the echo in a space by placing them around your subject on a stand or on the ground.  

Step 10: Talking to your subject

Break the ice, but when you start, avoid talking over the subject. You will have a hell of a time editing your voice as you step on what the interview subject is saying. And try to get your interviewee to respond in full sentences.

Good luck with your next interview!

If you have tips or tricks to add, or disagree with any of these, share in the comments.

What's Next? Learn how to conduct a great interview!

These are great points to think about, although it barely scratches the surface of how to conduct an interview the right way. So, if you need more advice, I wrote a heartfelt piece on here a few years back that breaks down nearly everything I know about doing it right. Read it and see if it helps you have better conversations with your subjects.     

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Your Comment


Casey's advice was generally very instructive. However, there's at least one cringe worthy aspect, and other opportunities for improvement. First, NEVER rely on a single audio source--EVER! You've got two camera angles, so why not two mics and two audio recorders? For the second mic/redundancy, I would recommend also laving up the talent. If you get into post and realize for some reason your single audio source has a catastrophic problem, all of that time was wasted. Speaking of time, rarely do you ever get this much time to hem and haw, and rearrange the entire set. If your talent is important enough to be interviewed, then they have a million other things to do, and will likely be impatient if you're meandering around like these cats were. Your talent then becomes irritated, and may start pressuring you to speed things up, which will not help their performance and will add counter-productive stress on set. The best advice given was depth, and choosing the least bad background. Instead of taking so much time re-arranging the set, I'd recommend shooting a bit more wide open (but not too much), say f2.0 instead of f2.8 as they did. For my taste, the background was still too busy and distracting, which can be mitigated with a somewhat wider aperture, and saves some time trying to re-arrange everything in the background just so. Also, the talent was perspiring, causing her forehead to shine brightly, particularly in the second camera angle. That's something you're going to want to control, either by having a make-up person who can dab the talent's forehead, or bringing down the key a tad. Lastly, there was no discussion of monitoring. I would definitely recommend having monitors, rather than trying to focus off of 3.5 inch screens. This can be as simple as an iPad with a wireless remote app allowing you to monitor your B cam, and a proper monitor (at least 5 inches) to monitor your A cam.

August 3, 2019 at 6:22AM


Also wanted to say about the single audio source. But aside from this, great and useful video.

August 4, 2019 at 11:55PM

Patrick Winters
Sound designer

To add to your comment, consider using a polarizing filter to kill those unflattering reflections of the key light onto the talent's facial features. You do need to make sure it is not only screwed on your lens but also spun in the position where it's most effective. You then have to compensate the exposure by adding about a stop and a half of light (either by increasing your key light or by bringing it closer, either by bumping up the ISO of the camera). This works like a charm especially if you do not have a make-up artist (although you can still use it in combination with make-up). You will be doing a big favor to your talent!

August 7, 2019 at 10:52AM

Cedric Paulhiac

1) As the video suggests, this is not a conversation, so discipline yourself never to ask yes or no questions.
2) Begin each question with some version of the phrase "Would you talk about..." or "Would you talk about the idea that (insert actual question subject here)". It may seem awkward at first but it encourages the subject to make complete statements rather than just answering the question as a fragment. And it also assures you won't ask a yes or no question.
3) Always include some form of emotion in the interview questions, even if it is as prosaic as plumbing hardware—"Would you talk about how your feel about plumbing hardware?" Emotional information is always more valuable than literal information. "I love our plumbing hardware!" is a way more useful bite than "Our plumbing hardware is very effective." And the more emotional the interview subject matter is, the more important this technique is.
4) Be willing to go back and ask a question again at the end of the interview after the subject is more comfortable with you and the setup. Often this is the much better answer.
5) By the same note, put a couple of throw-away questions to get the subject used to the process.
6) Be willing to go off your list of questions if you discover something interesting in an answer and go after it further, particularly if it is emotional content (see above).
7) Limit the number of questions to no more than about 10 for an hour's interview and pay attention to how many more you have to ask as the interview progresses in case you have to cut (I once asked a scholar a foreign affairs question and he talked for four hours).
8) Essentially an interview is a seduction. You want your subject to believe that you think their information (even if it is plumbing hardware) is the most fascinating thing you have ever heard and you must give them non-verbal positive feedback all the time (nodding, smiling, leaning forward, tilting your head whatever). It is best to get used to glancing down at your notes only very briefly in order to maintain eye contact. In between questions, compliment them "This is great, you're doing very well..." whatever.

August 9, 2019 at 8:37AM

Robert Gardner

Worth to read. Thanks

February 25, 2021 at 12:08PM