If you’ve watched your fair share of documentaries, you’ve seen interview subjects presented in a variety of ways. Sometimes the storytellers speak directly to the camera. Other times they look left or right towards an unseen interviewer. Is one technique better than the other? And how do you choose?
The answer to the first question is “no.” Each technique is valid. Your decision on how to have your storyteller relate (or not relate) to the camera will be based on both stylistic and practical considerations.
The “facing the off-camera” interviewer look is a classic. It puts the viewer in the role of a third-party observer, kind of like watching someone through the one-way mirrors used in focus groups and police interrogation rooms. It’s comfortable – the storyteller is responding and relating to an unseen interviewer and you get to enjoy the conversation as well. By contrast, the “direct address” technique, where the storyteller faces the camera, breaks that one-way mirror. This style gives the impression that the storyteller is speaking directly to you, the viewer. This is a more forceful, “baring of the soul” style of interview.
Aside from these differences in style, there are some practical points to consider. The “off-camera” technique is generally easier to stage and shoot (more on that later). It’s also a technique that allows you as the interviewer to directly relate to, and engage, your storyteller. This one-to-one rapport is a vital component of a successful interview. By contrast, if you choose the “direct address” technique, your storyteller will need to speak to the camera. This is something that many folks, probably most of the people you’ll interview for video biographies, are not comfortable doing. It can also be confusing for the storytellers – where do they focus their attention? They’ll need to listen to you as you ask the question, and then remember to deliver their answer to the cold, glass eye of the camera.
There are devices designed to make this form of “direct address” interview easier on the storyteller. One takes the form of a modified teleprompter. A monitor mounted in front of the camera lens shows an image of the interviewer, but doesn’t block the image of the storyteller from being recorded. Google “interrotron” for information on one such device. As mentioned earlier, however, this adds a level of complexity (and expense) to your shoot that makes it a little more difficult than the “off-camera” technique – because you’ll need to buy or rent and set up extra gear.
Which style should you adopt? For most of your video biographies, the “off-camera” technique will probably work best. If you’re creating an ethical will, where the client wants to deliver personal messages “one-on-one” to relatives and friends, and is comfortable speaking to the camera, the “direct address” technique may be the ticket.