Have you ever needed to do an interview in an area that made it super tough, for one reason or another?
While in a remote village of Nepal for #standwithme, we needed to interview a few girls at a rehabilitated slave center. It was a crew of two with some LED lights, limited access to power, and very little time and space. These interviews had to cut in with that of Lisa Kristine or the Harr family, interviews that we had crews of four to five on, tons of gear, HMIs to recreate a sunny day, and hours to setup.
But for these interviews it was two people with 30 minutes and lighting that looked closer to a flashlight than something you’d find on a film set.
Now of course we couldn’t make something out of nothing. These interviews wouldn’t look AS good as the ones with Lisa Kristine’s, but we did have to make sure they could cut into the same film and story. And to do that we really went back to the basics. We listened to the light and looked for what was there, how we could best use the environment, and then just broke the light down into its core components and made the most of each.
Both of these interviews were lit in a crunch in the same side of a bedroom in a remote Nepal village. They are simple but clean by following each step of the tutorial below. The window as a key, some diffusion to soften it, and then a small LED light to add some fill. But it’s the details that matter here, and that we’ll cover in the tutorial.
I can’t tell you how many times over the years we’ve seen people with huge crews and massive lights spend hours lighting an interview that could have looked stronger by just working with the window light that was there.
Sometimes, we just setup what we think we are supposed to for an interview. Or we feel bad if we don’t use our most expensive and coolest lights.
But, as with most skills, if we master the basics before moving up, we can often do much more and go much further (exactly the same scenario with people jumping into huge Steadicams before they knew the basics).
So today on the blog we have something that really goes back to the basics. How To Light An Interview. It’s a complete lesson from Story & Heart’s Academy Of Storytellers. It shows you how to get setup and get strong results right away. It also breaks it down in a way that is easy to remember and apply on every shoot.
Pretty entertaining, right? And helpful too. As we show in this special lesson courtesy of the Academy, there are four basics of lighting interviews that will be relevant to you throughout your storytelling career.
Let’s break down Direction, Intensity, Softness and Color–DISC!– one more time:
- Direction. Lights can be studio lights, or a combination of studio lights and natural light. Start with your main light, your key light, and position it 30 to 45 degrees to the right or left the interviewee. Also consider the vertical height of the key light, and position it roughly 30 to 45 degrees above the subject.
- Intensity. You want to balance your light so light on the other side of your subjects face isn’t too dark. To do this, position a second light opposite the first light, or use a reflector or foam core to bounce light back in. If you’re using two of the same kind of lights, put one farther away to reduce its intensity. Also we want to balance the subject with background so that neither is too bright or dark. If your background appears too dark in relation to your subject, consider adding a light to the background to brighten it, but make sure it’s not brighter than the light intensity of your subject. The key here is balance.
- Softness. You generally want the light on your subject to look nice and soft. The bigger the light source, the softer it will be. You can make small lights bigger with soft boxes, umbrellas, or bouncing them off larger surfaces. And remember, the closer this light is to the subject, the larger it’s apparent size and the softer it will be.
- Color. To keep things simple use just one color or temperature for all the lights in the interview. This means you might have to cover windows or turn off any additional artificial lights so that the daylight from outside isn’t matching your tungsten lights inside. But this tip alone, if you stick to it, will result in MUCH cleaner looking interviews.
Now that you know DISC, what about gear Stillmotion uses?
For key lights, we often use a Kino Flo Celeb 200 light (Buy from BH). Because it is dimmable all the way from 0% to 100% per, it makes it easy to work on the intensity and balance it with the background or fill lights. And since you can dial the Kelvin temperature, or color, from 2800K all the way up to 5600K, it is great for matching the light in a room and having just one color. The Celeb is a little more money, but it’s killer.
While we’re talking about Celebs, I also want to mention the Road Rags kit (Buy from BH). We go for the larger kit which is 24″ x 36″ when put together. They’re light modifiers that are versatile and great for travel. Use the diffusion from Road Rags and snap it directly to the Celeb, then walk the Celeb in nice and close for a very soft key light.
Road Rags also have a net, which is good to cover windows to cut the light intensity without changing the color. It also has a flag to control spill from your key or other lights – often the key on the background, or the background light from hitting the interviewee.
If you’re watching your dollars a little more, check out the Lowel Pro Light (Buy from BH). We used it when we were starting out and it is still a great part of our kit today. We always recommend that you add the barn doors to it which allows you to direct the light better as well as quickly attach gels (more on this in a second).
The Lowel Pro Light is smaller, brighter, and cheaper. And like the tutorial suggests, because it’s smaller the light is going to be harsher. If you want your light to be soft you’ll need to make the light appear larger, spreading it out. While there is a softbox and umbrella option for this light, the easiest option is to just bounce it off white poster board (which you can find at Michael’s). And they’re cheap. Cheaper than a burrito.
Or, if you picked up the Road Rags kit above, use the diffusion on a frame and shine the Pro Light through that as a soft key. They’re white and bounce the light really well, so if you shine the light into the board and then have it bounce back into your subject it will make that light source considerably softer.
There are other ways to modify the Pro Light too. Gel kits are a great way to change the color to daylight or somewhere in between. Gels are also a great way to get rid of the green or magenta tint that happens with a lot of fluorescent lights, something very common in offices. We recommend the Rosco Color Correction Filter Kit (Buy from BH).
As we mention in the tutorial, fill lights are your second light source in interviews, the one opposite your key light. They are often needed to help balance the intensity of light on the interviewee’s face – the side opposite to the key. The simplest (and cheapest) option for a fill is to bounce back the light from your key. We generally use 42″ silver-white reflector (Buy from BH). Remember t use the white side which maintains the one color throughout the interview, as a silver or gold reflector will cool or warm your light respectively. To attach it the light stand we’ve always avoided actual reflector holders or arms and just use a grip head or spring clamp–these are cheap, around $3.
As a recap:
- The Kino Celeb as a versatile key light though a higher investment (Buy at BH)
- The Pro Light as a low cost key, or background light (Buy at BH)
- A Westcott 42″ Silver/White Reflector for fill (Buy at BH)
- A Westcott 24″x36″ Road Rags kit to help modify your lights (Buy at BH)
- A Rosco color correction gel kit to help make the most of a Pro Light or two (Buy at BH)
That’s the gear and these are the basics–Direction, Intensity, Softness, and Color–that you’ll find yourself considering time and time again. But more than just lighting your interview well, each can actually influence what viewers feel when they watch your story.
Each of these facets of light – Direction, Intensity, Softness, and Color – have that power. And each of these facets have their own tutorial on the Academy. These are lessons that provide real-life demonstrations and step-by-step, actionable advice that you can start using on your next shoot right away.
But what exactly is the Academy of Storytellers, and why is it so much better than all other educational platforms for filmmakers out there?
It’s collaborative. Respected and experienced filmmakers from a variety of industries—commercials, weddings, documentaries—share their secrets to what they do best. Then you join the conversation. Ask questions, share your experiences. Learn from one another.
It’s educational and entertaining. Other platforms are boring and ineffective because of one major missing piece: Pre-production. Lessons at the Academy are the culmination of interviews, scripts, rehearsals. They’re not too complex that you get lost and not too simple that you get bored. They’re the very best ideas with the best presentation.
It’s story-driven. No drawn out, long winded talking heads here. Lessons are dynamic—they show filmmakers in action, step-by-step screen flows, helpful graphics to break down bigger concepts, and B-roll to demonstrate techniques. You get to see and experience as much as possible.
And more than just lessons, it’s a complete community with discussions; webinars; downloadable cheat sheets, eBooks, and templates; gear discounts with LensProToGo, B&H; and so much more.
Enrollment is only $379 for an entire year. 50 tutorials now and another two added every week. Enrolling is easy and super quick. So you can get started right away.
As a reference, that’s one year of education that is guaranteed to make you a better storyteller all for less than the price of those light modifiers, the Road Rags, we linked to above.
We’re really proud of the work we did to help build and launch the Academy of Storytellers. Education is such an important part of our filmmaking journey and the Academy represents that dedication in practice.
I hope you join the Academy and check out our tutorials that explore DISC in greater detail. Plus 40 more available today and an additional 2 added every week.
We’ll see you in the Academy.
Thank you for this writeup on the basics of lighting for an interview. I’ve used your other tutorials previously and successfully lit an interview once which was exciting (for me) because lighting has always been somewhat intimidating, so being able to light that interview was somewhat of an achievement.
However, I have a question that I can’t seem to visualise. Joyce mentioned in the video that ‘The bigger the light source, the softer it will be. The closer this light is to the subject, the larger it’s apparent size and the softer it will be.’ I don’t have much experience with lighting and don’t have any lights on hand to try this out but how will having a larger light closer to the subject make it softer? Won’t it be more intense?
I feel somewhat embarassed in asking this question because it sounds so basic, but I’d never know if I didn’t ask so I’d really appreciate if you or anyone reading this could point me somewhere where I can understand this concept better, I’d be most grateful. Thank you!
You are correct in that it will be more intense (meaning it will be brighter) but it’s important to note the distinction between intensity (how much light there is) and softness (or the quality of the light). Those are two separate properties of light.
Think about the sun. It’s a really large light source, the biggest there is in the galaxy, but because it’s so far away it feels like just a small point light source to us – that’s why so often sunlight is harsh. Now apply that same theory to a light you bring to a shoot. If you put that light far away, it will appear small – and therefore harsh. Bring that same light right up close to your subject, it will be relatively larger because it’s closer and therefore softer. Now you are correct in that it will be brighter so you will just need to compensate for that by cutting the intensity of the light (with a net or diffusion) after you bring it in close. Hope that helps!
THANKS FOR CLEARING THAT UP!
Hello there! The last few weeks I have been researching to buy a lighting kit that I can use in a variety of situations, and I really think that the KinoFlo Celeb is a great light. BUT (and this is a big but), it is very expensive. So do you have in mind something much cheaper, but good and trusted, LED alternative? I have something in my mind, but I want to hear your opinion too.
Thank you very much!
This is really great! Like usual 🙂
I would love to see the more human aspects of your interviewing. How do you interview someone? How do you handle the person being interviewed? You’ve done this kind of exercise at workshops before, specifically storytelling with heart. So I know you’re tips and tricks could help the rest of us be much better at something that is essential to any documentary or anything with stories in it: having compelling interviews. Which is just as important as lighting well. A well lit interview with crappy content is about as great as a 1DC with a 18-55 kit lens on it. We know that picking a great story to tell is the first thing you should be looking at and your subject, no matter who is it, has to possess all the qualities laid out in the MUSE workflow. But once you sit them down? How do you help them to express what it is that is at the heart of their story? Man, if this new Academy had THAT in it…. I would definitely fork over the couple hundred bucks to be in on that, just being honest.
Keep pumping out the great content. You’re a blessing to storytellers everywhere!
Hey Charles – The Academy does have loads of interviewing tutorials, from technical ones like lighting and audio to others with tips on how to interview so it feels like a conversation or ways to help memorize your interview questions without a notebook. Loads of great stuff from other filmmakers like Joe Simon, Gnarly Bay and 31Films too 🙂
I currently work at a local TV Station, and I find it hard to be able to light well for a few reasons.
1. Time is not on our side – We generally have to gather a few stories, from a short “VO” (Voice Over) to a “VOSOT” (Voice Over-Sound on Tape). If we are lucky enough, we may be able to shoot a package, and then we just might have enough time to light properly. It is very unfortunate that there is not enough time to go and get the best look possible, but that is the nature of the beast. Setting up 3 lights for TV news is a rarity.
2. Budget – This may come as shocking, but every TV station in my town (Population of 90K) still uses the Panasonic P2 workflow. Why haven’t we moved up as far as quality of image goes? Because money. That goes for lights, too. They have yet to give us run and gun LED lights, currently, we use converted LED lights that were previously “frezzie” fresnels. We cannot increase or decrease the intensity much, and most of the time, because the dynamic range of the cameras are poor, you have a bright light that overpowers much of your subject, and kills the background entirely. I have had 1 shoot to date (since October) to setup a proper 3 point light interview set. And even then, I cheated and used the studio overheads to light up the background.
3. Value of TV video – People seriously do not value video much. When I first started way back in 2008-2009, I was given my first package to do. I was so excited, I asked around for lights so I could go wild with the look. It was for a somber story, and I asked for blue and purple gels, and I was told, “Don’t worry about it, it’s news. You don’t need lights.” Ever since then, I have noticed how folks really don’t care about those sorts of things, and really care about the content. What gets most clicks on our website is car crashes. :/ At any rate, I certainly value video with a cinematic approach, but few around me do.
With all of those things said, I am a part time TV Photographer, and want to get more into controlled and beautified setups, but find it is harder to do than one thinks. Any advice on how to get there?
Thank you very much for explaining that in detail, I understand it so much better now. Appreciate your time on this!
Thanks for the great tutorial. I really appreciated the listing of gear that you use and recommend. Is the diffusion that’s wrapped around the Celeb part of the Road Rags kit? I looked at the link to B&H, but it looks like that kit uses a frame. I’m interested in something that can just attach directly to a large LED to soften the light.
I love your blog tutorials. They are exceptionally helpful for wedding/event filmmakers such as myself. A quick question: What is the color profile you are using on your c100? I always have trouble getting my C100 (A Camera) to match the look of my 5DMarkIII (B Camera).
The most important lesson has been light ‘temperature’. This is measured in Kelvin (you’ll find it on the packet of any light bulb). I like a warm white, much like the old-fashioned tungsten bulbs. This is about 2700 Kelvin (K).
Thanks for that. Can’t wait to try some of this stuff!