Interview Lighting Tips: How to Deal With a Variety of Lighting Situations

Being a documentary filmmaker means doing a lot of interviews throughout your career. Our interview lighting tips are specially designed to help in the documentary and corporate world. We feel it is imperative to have the technical and creative problem solving skills to make an interview look great, no matter what.  We recently finished a piece for the Savannah Area Film Office on the importance of the film industry in the Savannah area and how it has positively impacted the people of Chatham County.

I have used some frame grabs to go over the challenges we faced and how we dealt with them. 

Watch the full piece below.

We had a long list of people to interview (17 in total for a four minute piece!) Our subjects were local business owners, vendors, location owners and crew that have all benefited from the booming film industry.  We wanted the background for our interviewees to be as representative of their roles in the industry as possible, no studio white or black seamless backdrops. With the variety of interviewees we had this meant a lot of locations, both interior and exterior, early morning, mid day, and evening, on boats, in butcher shops, and historic plantation homes.  An interviewee's time is always a factor. Some interviewees had a free schedule the entire day, versus one interview where we had just 20 minutes before they were leaving for a long vacation!  

Here are some specific examples and a little background on each scenario and how we dealt with the specific challenges.  

Interview Lighting Tips: Interior and All the Time We Needed

Savannah Film Co. owner Jon Spicola was on our list of people to interview because he has crewed on films in Savannah for a long time and is a small business owner whose business is film! Perfect for our purposes. When we were scheduling his interview time he said, "Don't worry about lights, I got you."  I thought, "I don't have to carry my lighting kit around. Perfect!" Jon had plenty of time and so did we. It was great. We showed up and just threw up an Arri 1K with a Chimera speedring and softbox for the Key light and hit the background with some gelled lights to give the frame a little dimension.  I requested we turn the rest of the lights out to keep the spill from the overhead fluorescents under control and voila! Done. Super fast, easy, looked great. It helps your interviews look good when you interview a gaffer who owns all the lighting you could possibly need. The only thing I might have done differently is put a little more rim light on Jon's left side (right of frame) to help cut his shoulder from the background out more but it still works.  

Here is the finished result.  I wouldn't be so lucky again.

Interview Lighting Tips

Exterior - A Reasonable Amount of Time

We interviewed Anthony Paderewski, a location manager, actor, producer, photographer, landscape company owner, hard working extraordinaire.  We wanted him to be outside because he offers landscape services to incoming film productions so we chose a park within walking distance of our house because it is generally quieter than other squares or parks. We scouted it the day prior and chose our spot.  As usually happens, the day of shooting there was construction crew doing renovations on a house close by so we had to get his answers in between the sounds of sawing and hammering. These things happen. I love using natural light and knew that the time of day would work well with our location so all I needed was to diffuse the key light of the sun with our 5-in-1 reflector. 

Two reflectors pictured. One was ours, one was Anthony's! Gotta love interviewing film people.

Two reflectors pictured. One was ours, one was Anthony's! Gotta love interviewing film people.

We had a C-Stand and our 5-in-1 reflector that softened the harsh sun light on his key side but since we had to wait on the construction noise the sun was moving more than we had initially anticipated and we kept having to move the diffusion because of its small size. Luckily, as happens when you interview film people, Anthony had another reflector that allowed us to diffuse a larger space and stop moving the stand. He did great and aside from the noise it went relatively fast. Only thing I would change is to put some negative fill on his left side (right of frame) to give his face a little more shadow and therefore shape.  I had plenty of room to cut him out of the background using depth of field (50mm at f2.0) so was not worried about rim light.  We also bought a large diffusion 5-in-1 that afternoon. 

Final result.

Anthony and his pearly whites.  

Anthony and his pearly whites.  

Exterior - No Setup Time

Diane was on our list because of her involvement with housing the crew and actors for films that have filmed on Tybee Island, about 20 minutes from downtown Savannah. We arrived a few minutes late because of traffic and she was leaving in about 30 minutes. I had not been to her home and had no idea where we were going to shoot the interview so we just said, "The dock," and ran with our gear as fast as we could to set everything up. I didn't have time to get all of my things but knew it was now or never so we just rolled with it.  It took a few minutes to get everything set up and her microphoned up so we were down to about 15 minutes. I set up one of my small LED panels to give her some eye light but that was all I had time for.  I wanted to throw up some diffusion to help soften the sun coming in. It would have taken multiple C-stands, sandbags and my big diffusion frame but we just didn't have the time.  Luckily her dock was screened in and the screen ended up acting like a very light ND filter and it softened the light just a touch.  She ended up rocking it out and gave us one of our best interviews! We got lucky. What I would have done differently is schedule the interview with ample time to set up properly! No worries, though, good lesson.  

Exterior Interview with absolutely no setup time whatsoever. She had to leave 20 minutes after we got there which we did not know when we scheduled. It was also partially our faulty as we got there 15 minutes late due to traffic.

Exterior Interview with absolutely no setup time whatsoever. She had to leave 20 minutes after we got there which we did not know when we scheduled. It was also partially our faulty as we got there 15 minutes late due to traffic.

Interior - When You Don't Have A Gaffer As Your Interviewee

For Rufus Burney, I Gordon Willis'd it.  Meaning, I went in and turned all the lights off and put up lights one by one until I was happy.  While this is a bit bright for Gordon Willis (DP of 'The Godfather,' most famously), the theory still applies. Turning off overhead lights controls spill and allows you to concentrate on exactly what you want to highlight in your frame.  I put up his key light, a Lowel Rifta 500w softbox (love these things) then needed some rim light. I threw up one of my small, battery powered LED panels but still needed to bring out the bottles in the background so flagged another LED panel to hit only the liquor bottles.  Done.

My view from behind camera. Softbox on right and LED panels (out of frame) on left.

My view from behind camera. Softbox on right and LED panels (out of frame) on left.

The Adam Sandler/Netflix film 'The Do Over' had shot at the VFW and Rufus had great things to say about the production.  The challenge here was picking a spot because the place was pretty big. The crew had built a deck for the VFW because they needed one for the film but I wanted to do an interior setting because frankly, I had done so many exterior interviews where I had very little control over the lighting, I wanted some control! There were a lot of angles to chose from and this one felt a little flat but I was able to give the frame some depth by crushing the background with depth of field (making the background blurry) and hitting the bottles with a bit of light.  Doing it again, I would have put him at more of an angle (I mean putting him with some angles behind him to give you lines and a vanishing point so to speak i.e. not putting him against a flat surface) to give the frame more depth and gone a little more low key but this piece was supposed to be light and happy so all the interviews were lit fairly high key (meaning very little shadow on faces or in frame).

Rufus, Commander of VFW Post 660, located in Savannah, Georgia

Rufus, Commander of VFW Post 660, located in Savannah, Georgia

Exterior - Had Already Done the Interview but a Great Story Came Up and Had To Stop and Film It Right Then!

Mr. Buck and John Meeks are some of the kindest Southern Gentlemen (capitalized on purpose) you will ever meet.  Their plantation home has been in films such as 'Glory,' 'The General's Daughter', 'Birth of a Nation' and most recently WGN's 'Underground' about the Underground Railroad.  Buck and John have put in a lot of time and effort to make their 700 acre, multi generational home a place for filmmaking magic to happen.  We did our formal interview setup with both Buck and John with the slave cabins built for Nate Parker's 'Birth of a Nation' in the background.

Upon finishing the interview, John had to leave to get back to work and Buck still had to show us around his beautiful home.  They have several large parking lots for the big film trucks and actor's trailers on site.  Being in the middle of Richmond Hill, about 45 minutes outside of Savannah, it is quite convenient. Buck took us in his large diesel truck and was showing us the cornfields and sugarcane they had planted in case any incoming productions were looking for either of the two crops when he started to tell me a story I fell in love with. 

His son Evan, who is on the autism spectrum, was able to get his first job on the 'Underground' production as the night security manager for the considerable number of animals on set. Buck told us about the pride his son had felt when he got his first paycheck and how happy he was that the film industry could expand enough to give his struggling son the same chance at hard work and fulfillment every one else has. This story was so moving I said, "Stop the truck, I have to have that on camera!"  I didn't have any of my light modifiers but knew this was too important to let any of that magic slip away. I just put him in some shade and went for it.  It was my favorite story of the whole piece.  Sometimes you just have to get what you can when it is presented to you.  I would have liked to bounce a little light on his face to bring him up a bit because it was midday and the background was pretty harsh but realizing that technical perfection doesn't get you nearly as far as good story, I knew it was acceptable.  I could have gone back and had him tell me the story again in a more controlled setting but you lose the magic sometimes. In documentary filmmaking, you have to roll with the punches and realize that story is the most important thing.  The cinematography of 'Meet the Patels' is so rough they actually address it in the opening film. It drove me crazy but the story was so good that I got lost in their feelings. I didn't really care about white balance or perfect framing. CONTENT IS KING. 

Buck Meeks, telling the story of his son Evan on the set of Underground, located at Myrtle Grove Plantation in Richmond Hill.

Buck Meeks, telling the story of his son Evan on the set of Underground, located at Myrtle Grove Plantation in Richmond Hill.

Lastly, here is one of the interviews that I personally felt I could have done better because I did not Gordon Willis it.  I was fighting the lighting and I was flustered for whatever reason and our interviewees were getting more and more nervous so we just needed to start.  They were not comfortable on camera yet and my lack of confidence was definitely not helping.  Another important rule, it is your number one job to make your on camera talent feel as comfortable as possible. It could be the most beautifully lit scene that ever existed but if they are not comfortable you will not get anything useable! The fix for making me more comfortable and therefore the on camera talent as well was simple. Either use a 4x4 black floppy to cut off the top light and create some negative fill on the fill side or, more simply, turn off the overhead lights!  It was throwing too much shadow down her face as opposed to across it how I would have liked. I also feel I should have brought her rim light down a bit.   Again though, it was her story that mattered most. She settled in and she gave us a great story of how they went around town gathering the leftover food from catering from 'The Do Over' and delivered it to patients living with AIDS.  How cool! 

I hope this was helpful in some way.  What do you think?  What are some of your tricks when lighting?