The Art of Shooting the Video Interview: A Moving Portrait

By Bill Farnsworth

Editor’s Note: This was originally posted on rec.video.production Thanks Bill!

I will tell you what I know from setting up and shooting ……… jeez, it’s gotta be way more than a couple thousand interviews in the last 22 years.

First off, you have to have the right lighting equipment. There just isn’t a substitute for quality gear because, it reflects (ha ha) in what you wind up with as a final portrait. And an interview is an active portrait.

Now, you need a controlled environment to shoot in. Finding this location is a collaboration between the director, cameraman AND soundman. If the room sucks because of the sound, find another room. Or plan on spending all the time needed to make the room sound just right. The priority is hear, then see IOW, you are there to hear the words, as well as look at a pleasing background.

You also need a room that is long enough. Twenty feet of length is ideal. The plan is to get the camera as far away as possible from the subject. And to get the subject as far away as possible from the background. Obviously, finding a large room isn’t always going to happen. Just be sure you have explored all the possibilities before settling on a particular space, if you have the option to do so.

To properly light for an interview, you have to first remove all the existing light, unless you are planning on using what is already there. Daylight generally sucks because of the possibility of it constantly changing, unwanted outside noise, reflections, or it’s the wrong color temp for what you need to work with. And overhead office light just sucks.


I travel with a duffel bag full of Duvetyne (heavy black fabric) , grip clips, gaffer tape, and expandable poles. I use these to cover windows, walls, or anything that needs to be covered that would interfere with the lighting set up. Once the environment is controlled, then you can start to light. I’ll just describe setting up for a “one on one” interview under ideal conditions.

The camera is ten feet from the interviewee. The interviewee is seven feet from the background. The screen direction is right to left. The interviewee is on camera, camera right. The interviewer is off camera, camera left. The lighting and camera balance is tungsten. (Assume no budget for HMIs…..bummer.) Camera filtration is whatever you want. I like a soft FX1 for effect. And an 81B for color correction (warmth). Now, everyone has their own favorite lighting fixtures. No big deal. You use what you like. With one exception. You must use a Chimera or Photoflex light bank on your key light. You will NOT have the control you want without one.

For a key, I use a Lowel 700w Tota-light inside a small Chimera with a 60 grid on the face of the Chimera. I like the spread that the Tota gives. The key is placed on the same side of the camera that the interviewer is sitting on. In this case, camera left. It’s placed so the interviewer is between the light and the camera. place it so the soft shadow falls on the right cheek.

I use a 200w Pepper with Opal or 216 diffusion on the face for a backlight. Most shooters use these lights, or Arri 150s. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is getting that backlight in the right spot. You will need a boom pole on a strong stand. (heavy duty equipment is a must for professional setups). I use Avenger combination boom/stands. I think they are A470s.

Place the fixture so it is above (three feet) and behind the interviewee about four feet. And a little bit screen right. Then, put a dimmer on the end of the fixture for control.

You now have two lights set up for a three point lighting exercise. The third point is camera right. Next to the interviewee. This is the fill. It can be a white or silver reflector (Passive source). Or, it can be another light (Active source). This is used to reduce the contrast from the key light. Use it to your taste. Just don’t make the lighting totally flat with it. A kiss of fill light is the norm.


If you are using an active source, use a 100~200w fixture with an extra extra Small Chimera light bank on the face. AND a dimmer. OK, now you have a three point lighting set up.

Lets move on to the background. I always try to make my backgrounds as out of focus as possible. It makes the overall picture very pleasing, and it keeps the viewer’s attention focused (ha) on the interviewee. That’s the main reason the camera is as far away as possible from the interviewee and the interviewee is as far away as possible from the background. What this is doing is forcing the camera to shoot with a long focal length for a chest and head shot, with room for an even tighter second shot.

What ever you use as prop(s) in the background, just make sure it’s lit somewhat. A Dedolight Patten Projector on a Dedolight or a 200w Pepper or an Arri 150 is one way to break up the background.

A slash of light, or oval of light behind the interviewee is another pleasing effect. Very warm light, or daylight blue light works nice for this lighting. Just don’t let any of it spill onto the foreground.

If you are using a canvas backdrop you may find that you will need a bunch more light to make any lighting effect work. They tend to absorb light. And keep it as far away from the interviewee as possible. Always think “Out of focus”.

Denny makes some great backgrounds and so does Westcott. You can get the

backgrounds from……..

www.rosebrand.com

www.studiodepot.com

www.bhphotovideo.com

www.markertek.com

I hope this helps.

Bill Farnsworth

Redmond, Washington

Guild of Television Cameramen (UK)

Nabet-57 Hollywood

Editor’s Note: Study the interviews you see on network TV magazines shows as well as PBS documentaries. If you turn the sound off, you can better see the lighting, composition, background and other visual elements.


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