Shooting True First Person Interviews In the Academy Award-winning documentary film Fog of War, Robert McNamara looks directly into the lens as he talks about the trials and tribulations of the Vietnam War. The effect is unnerving and powerful. He’s speaking directly to us – the audience – without the filter of the interviewer. It feels incredibly intimate, and almost confessional.

Most interviews have the seen or unseen presence of the interviewer. Sometimes they are actually on camera, asking the questions. Think 60 Minutes, Barbara Walters, or most news-style interviews. In other cases, the interview subject is speaking to someone just off camera. The person asking the questions sits anywhere from right next to the lens to 90 degrees away. This positioning matters, because it alters the relationship between the subject and the audience.

The problem is that the interviewer can only sit so close to the lens without actually getting in the shot – unless she is a ghost or has a hole in her head!

But there is another method – a method director Errol Morris used in Fog of War, and we got to try for the first time ourselves recently while shooting a feature story for ESPN, with producer Scott Harves.

This clever technique uses the existing technology of the teleprompter – a device that been around for a very long time. Normally, a teleprompter projects words for the on-camera person to read. Sometimes it’s mounted right in front of the camera so it looks like this person is speaking directly to the audience. The lens shoots the subject through a small 2-way mirror. The subject looks back at the lens, but instead sees the projected words. We’ve done this hundreds of times with CEO’s, spokespeople, and even actors.

So imagine if the teleprompter could project the interviewer’s face instead of words. By rigging a second camera that shoots the interviewer, and projecting that image into the teleprompter, we accomplished just that effect. From the point of view of the interview subject, he or she is looking right into the eyes of the person who his asking the questions. From the point of view of the audience, the subject is speaking directly to them. Pretty cool!

The ESPN feature where we used this technique is about a kid name Garrett Karp – a young man who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last summer, just before his senior year. He became famous when he landed a 3-point shot during a varsity basketball game, having just been through rigorous rounds of radiation and chemo. We interviewed him, his doctor, his family and his friends over a span of several weeks – all using this first person method. This feature is expected to air sometime this summer.

UPDATE: View the Garrett Karp Feature

This article was re-printed with our permission in Creative Cow Magazine

For a great interview with Errol Morris about using what he calls the “interrotron”, see the following article: Q&A with Errol Morris

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This Article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Big Pictures News. Written by Tom Miller. Copyright 2010, Big Pictures Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved