Should Documentary Interviewees Look Into the Camera?

Tony from Windrider
I had filmmakers interviewed for the Windrider promo look into the camera.

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

7 thoughts on “Should Documentary Interviewees Look Into the Camera?

  1. Interesting post Ron. I never let people do their bit straight to camera unless they’re addressing the audience. When I do however, I’m keeping to a mid or wide shot. Anything closer and I think you’re starting to invade people’s personal space. In my opinion, how you do it probably depends on the cultural background of your intended audience.

    1. The cultural point is a very interesting one Evro. I can imagine in some cultures it would be very off-putting.

      Your point about looking directly into the camera addressing the audience is right on. For this particular project, that’s exactly the feel I’m going for.

      As always, thanks for commenting. I really appreciate your input.

  2. 90% of the time I have the person looking into the camera, ESPECIALLY for photographer promos that are suppose to create it a connection between the photog and bride.

    I feel it’s more personable and a conversation between the person on camera and the audience, not a 3rd party person off camera, adds sincerity.

    1. Hey Aaron, I agree about creating that connection. I will probably start doing more videos with subjects looking into camera since so much of my work is based on emotional appeal.

  3. In the past I’ve always had the subject look to the producer just off camera. I got started in news in 2001 and that’s what I was taught. When I first saw “The Fog of War”, it made me uncomfortable, it felt like Mcnamara was yelling right at me. Then I read Philip’s blog and it kind of opened my eyes to using this technique. This weekend I’m shooting 5 people giving their testimonies and I’m going to try it out and see if they can lock in on themselves in the reflection of the lens and tell their story. If it’s not going well, I’m going to step into producer mode and shoot it more traditionally.

    1. Hey Anton, I think the fact that the Fog of War made you uncomfortable is spot on why it is effective to have the subject look into the camera. You felt like McNamara was yelling at you. I’m pretty sure that is what Errol Morris wanted. Is that not a key aspect of filmmaking: to emotionally affect the audience?

      As far as your shoot this weekend, I would be wary of starting one way then switching. It may be weird if half the people are looking into the camera, and the other half are not. Just a thought. I say go for it. If they start veering off, get them back on track. Take over. Be the director! 🙂

      1. Thanks for the reply back Ron! I’m going to make the decision in the first five minutes. It’s going to be an interesting experiment. It’s amazing that we have the power to change the feeling of the story we’re telling by having our subjects move their heads only a few millimeters. So much of filmmaking is a science of millimeters.

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