At the end of April I was in Silicon Valley shooting a promo video for the Windrider Film Forum. The best way to describe it is a mini-Sundance where the focus is on conversations about the films. My approach to this promo was a little different than the past in that I was having the people interviewed look directly into the camera. My normal M.O. (and that of most documentaries you’ve probably seen) is to have the interviewees look just off camera, as if they are speaking to an interviewer. One of the ladies I interviewed commented, “Oh. That’s interesting. Documentary 101 is that you’re never supposed to look into the camera. That’s what we were taught.” My response was, “Well, have you heard of Errol Morris?” (She hadn’t).
There were two things that caught my interest in this comment. First, the idea that not looking into the camera during video interviews is actually taught as a specific filmmaking rule. Second, that a student of a documentary class didn’t know one of the most commercially and critically successful documentary filmmakers of our time. (I mentioned Errol Morris because his style is specifically to have interviewees look into the camera.)
I can’t tell you how and why the idea of having interviewees look off camera started. It’s fair to say most filmmakers would call it a “rule” since it’s so common. That is actually how I thought of it up until not so long ago. Then I read a blog post by renown DSLR filmmaker and international instructor Philip Bloom talking about EyeDirect, a new fangled contraption created by cameraman Steve McWilliams that helps interviewees look into the camera. Philip mentioned that he likes to have them look into the camera because it creates a more connected and intimate feeling. This was eye-opening for me.
To Look, Or Not to Look
Whether or not you have your interviewees look into the camera depends on what you’re trying to achieve. With my Windrider promo, my objective was to have the audience emotionally connect with the interviewees. Even the direction I gave during the shoot was for the people to pretend like they are telling their grandmother or other loved one about Windrider. I want the audience to feel like a close friend is talking to them. (One filmmaker I interviewed told me he needed a different type of direction because his grandmother was dead. Ouch. Yeah. That was awkward. ). For a more education-oriented documentary, you may want the more traditional “off camera” look because there’s no need necessarily for that sense of connection. Whichever way you choose, know why you’re doing it that way, and give direction accordingly. There is no right or wrong way to do it.
Of course, if you plan to have your whole video be comprised of b-roll, it probably doesn’t matter.
Errol Morris’s trailer for “Standard Operating Procedure”
Update: Here’s the Windrider Promo