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Documentary question - where to position subject??

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John Smith
Documentary question - where to position subject??
on Feb 17, 2017 at 11:28:24 pm

Ongoing debate here.

About to begin production on a small doc centered around a single person.

This person - call them the "primary subject" will be the main interview.

There will be a number of subsequent interviews with different people - all talking about the primary subject.

As with most docs, all people will be looking offscreen at the interviewer (i.e., not directly into the lens). There will only be a single camera (shooting at 4k, delivering at 1080 so punching in as necessary); the camera is fairly high end, so one is all the budget can handle. Will also possibly be shooting some ftg on a slider. We will have a lot - but not total - control of environment and lighting; that is, will be on location, no pre made sets, but time to set up and prep.

MY QUESTION: how to position the people to that the primary subject has the most emphasis??

We will only (likely) be shooting one subject at a time.

We toyed with putting the single person on the right side of frame looking left, while every single other interview was l side looking r. Is there a more pleasing, clearer way to make this work? To separate the primary subject from the others? Using two cameras on primary subject (only) is not out of the question, but not ideal.

Any comments are appreciated!


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Mark Suszko
Re: Documentary question - where to position subject??
on Feb 21, 2017 at 3:00:13 pm

Your plan to put all the others to the same side is the first thing that came to my mind. You can also play with the lighting and background to give them a more separate identity. A dominant color theme is another idea. If they are all sitting, maybe take your main interview while walking, or standing outside, versus inside.

Something I've played with is to get a 2-shot with a production monitor in the foreground, the interview subject visible in the background but blurred from tight depth of focus. I know that means a second camera, but this could be a cheaper one, with 1K or sub-1-k resolution. You don't use it for very long, the shot, I mean, but in a few key places as a transition.
You could fake the second cam, and use you primary cam for this, if you're willing to stop the interview and use the monitor to play back a recorded segment. That's something you could save for the end of the shoot day, if you pre-log where the clips you will need are.


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Blaise Douros
Re: Documentary question - where to position subject??
on Feb 21, 2017 at 11:24:13 pm

Don't discount audio as a method to separate them. I've been on shoots where we miked the main interview with a different mike to make him more present and authoritative-sounding, while secondary interviews got a more normal mike.

Color and type of lighting can be a differentiator, as Mark has said. I might have the main guy lit with very dramatic lighting that emphasizes his face over a dark environment, while the secondary folks get a normal environmental interview.

Punching in on a 4K shot on a 1080 timeline can be useful, but I like the visual change of a truly different angle. For second camera, I like to do a tighter, longer-lens shot that is further off-axis opposite the keylight, so it hints at a little more rimmy/backlighty look. Maybe put that second one on a slider. I regularly use a Sony FS7 as my main camera with an RX100 mkii as camera 2, and that works great--they both shoot Slog flavors, so they play well together.

I'm not sold on Mark's production monitor idea unless film or tv is the subject of the interview, so the monitor helps sell the story. But different strokes.


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John Smith
Re: Documentary question - where to position subject??
on Feb 22, 2017 at 12:00:37 am

Great answers, thanks!

Mark, I really like the idea of having the main subject walking while others are sitting - it's 100% different than what I was planning on, but I am actually leaning towards this idea.

Otherwise, I had considering everyone on one side, subject on the other, with very dramatic lighting on main subject.

Like the idea of the monitor in view as well, but might be a little more complicated to set up time and location will allow (don't know if I'll have big enough space to get necessary depth of field - that is, i can get decent bokeh from camera to subject to bg, but camera to monitor to subject to bg may be pushing size of location).

Blaise, would LOVE two cameras, one on a slider! That's my grail set up, but don't think I'll have time to light for both cameras - time and size of locations (depth of field issue - want a VERY pronounced bokeh, and local might be too small to produce correctly for side angle) will be a factor.. You said you shoot with FS7 as your primary camera? Can I ask what medium you are delivering to (network tv, web, cinema - etc)? Do you find FS7 is acceptable? I was considering C300 - but FS7 might make my life easier...

Thanks for the help y'all


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Mark Suszko
Re: Documentary question - where to position subject??
on Feb 22, 2017 at 12:38:56 am

The monitor shot has all manner of ways to "fake" it. You really just need five minutes or so of the subject in the background talking about "anything". If you find you don't have tight enough DOF control between the monitor in very close-up, and the speaker wayyyy back, it's very easy, since this is a locked-off shot, to draw a simple feathered mask around the monitor and add gaussian blur to the BG later. You can also corner-pin the video into the screen later, of course, but that takes it another step away from "realism" in documentary.

The walking shots should have some walking directly towards from a long ways off on telephoto, pretty much maintaining one frame size for the head and shoulders, as well as some more side-on tracking shots at a distance, which can be wider... The neat thing is he/the two walking, can pause to put emphasis on a point, or bring one idea to a close by either coming to a stop, or launching off into a walk out of frame when they are done making the point. All this requires a bit of advanced choreography on the part of the interviewer and interviewee. James Burke was great at this kind of thing in his documentaries, and I have to think it's influence by doing more news type pieces.


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Blaise Douros
Re: Documentary question - where to position subject??
on Feb 27, 2017 at 4:54:26 pm

The FS7 is my favorite camera I have used, bar none--I highly, highly recommend it. I'm shooting mostly to web, but have documentaries in the hopper for (hopefully) theatrical. I know several DPs that are using the FS7 for TV, corporate, and indie cinema. They're all really happy with it.

The color learning curve is a little steeper than with C300 if you're shooting Slog3, but I think in the end the footage is a bit more gradeable. The C300 probably has a slightly nicer out-of-the-box look, while the FS7 will let you do a bit more in post.

Here's a short piece I shot last year on the FS7. I shot the interviews in 4K and punched in as needed, and the rest in 1080.



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