Looking Into the Camera for Interviews

For a majority of my career as a professional video producer and director, I would conduct interviews in such a way so that the interviewee’s eye-line would be just off camera.

Commercial photographer Doug Menuez recounts the story of when he first picked up a camera.

But for the past year or so I’ve been a fan of having the interviewee look directly into the camera, as if they are talking to you personally.  I think this composition is particularly effective in videos where there is some call to action or a testimonial. It feels stronger and more personal that way.  Let me demonstrate.

Below is a testimonial video I produced for the project management system Kickoff, wherein I have the clients look directly into the camera. As a viewer I feel more connected to the people in the video when they’re looking and speaking directly to me. What do you think?

I still like to have interviewees look off camera when there’s a story being told or if there isn’t a specific appeal being made. Think of a traditional documentary where subjects are retelling some event.

What’s your take?

11 thoughts on “Looking Into the Camera for Interviews

  1. I too have been doing interviews for many years, and am a firm believer that the degree, off lens, of the person being interviewed, is related to audience involvement. Almost all of my “tell me your story, Q& A is done with the person looking at me just off ( no more than a foot) lens. If I want a heart felt question, as you said a “move to action” then I ask them to tell the camera. To me the current fade of way off camera is very detached and does not hold my attention.

  2. I think you can get great results if you mix both. telling the story of why the subjects uses a product (off camera) then usually the near the end the story would shift to why you, the viewer should use the product(into the camera).
    Nightly news programs mix the two. Anchors are usually talking straight to the viewer “up next we have a squirrel on water skis that you are going to love.” and the reporters will talk to the camera but the subjects talk to the reporter, off camera.

    I think the off camera really was made popular because people can relax a bit and actually forget the camera is there if they are talking to another person. Whereas, if they are looking down the lens they feel the need to say the perfect thing and edit themselves more. So maybe the style became pleasing out of necessity of getting a better interview.

    1. The idea of doing a mix makes a lot of sense. I did that with my “Pursuit of Dream” film, where throughout most of the film eye-line is off camera, then the last section the main interviewee looks directly into the camera. Great when you want to emphasize the message to the audience.

        1. actually in documentary filmmaking I don’t know if that would technically be considered “breaking the 4th wall.” My understanding is that breaking the 4th wall has to do with a fictional character in a narrative coming “out of the story” to recognize there’s an audience. But in a documentary film or video, the interviewee is not a fictional character and he/she KNOWS there’s an audience, whether or not he’s looking at them. I could be wrong, but that was my understanding.

  3. For something like this it definitely works. But because the subjects are now looking at you there’s more attention to detail and any slight imperfections on the shot are more noticeable. For example in the first interview the subject is facing down and looking up at you, this feels a little off. In some of the following interviews the eyes are too dark, especially with the subjects wearing glasses. I imagine this would be tricky to fix with a simple lighting set up. I feel like you can get away with a lot of this with the traditional set up.

    Don’t get me wrong the spot works 100%. Thanks for sharing.

  4. It totally depends on your subject matter. If a subject looks into the lens, he becomes an active participant in the production, and a viewer will, at least subconsciously, assume he’s being compensated in some way. So, as in your Kickoff example, I don’t mind because it’s a sales video, so his credibility is not in question because I know I’m being sold to and the participants are salespeople. But in the worlds of journalism/documentary it’s usually very important that the subject’s honesty not be compromised. Also, oftentimes it’s more powerful to allow your viewers to be voyeurs.

  5. Ron! this is a great topic!!! Thanks for writing about it. Even though I’m not a film maker, I’ve thought about this as I may very slowly transition. I always look at work that I love and then study it. IMO, one of the best if NOT arguably the best sports documentaries that I’ve ever seen are HBO’s 24/7. They set a new bar on how documentaries should be. I had the privilege to see some of their crew in action while I was down at the Wild Card Boxing gym on assignment.
    There’s always a lot more then meets the eye when seeing someone’s work. Anyhow, in 90%-99% of their interviews, they have their subject looking off the camera. And for them, it works really well & they get really intimate and personal with their subjects. but they always have their lighting, sounds, music & composition locked down to set the mood.
    So I think either way can work well.

  6. Paul Bean is spot on. People see such to-the-camera “testimonials” every day in TV commercials with text below saying they are paid actors, and this leads to less and less trust.

    Using a good interviewer who is sitting near the camera, now that goes a long way towards establishing credibility. I see this already when editing doco interviews, big difference.

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