Bill C. and I have an agreement that, immediately after arrival, I get to see each person for 30 seconds in the interview chair, with the correct eye line and with no one standing in the light. Then they lead him or her off for makeup and prep. But that quick inspection helps the gaffer and me decide whether to raise or lower the key light, bump it more to the side for more ratio, or more frontal for more light in the second eye.
The irony is that we spend hours staging the shot, lighting and propping the background, but we have only those 30 seconds to scrutinize each person's particular facial topography, wardrobe, glasses, or complexion. Everyone has a distinct facial bone structure, so the light strikes each face differently. During setup, we pick someone on the crew to sit in and model for the shot, someone with roughly the same hair color and build as the subject. But there's no way to know how the same lighting will look on two different heads.
Bill C. likes to conduct the interviews from near the camera, to bring the subject's eyeline close to the lens, and usually we have the key on the same side as the interviewer, to face the subject into the light. This rule changes when the subject wears glasses (more on this later).
I use no fill, just a 4x4-foot white foamcore card to bounce a bit of ambient light, and we always set a "kicker" a low-angled, subtle backlight cheek-scrape opposite the key side, using a daylight Kino-Flo fixture and lots of diffusion. With dark-haired subjects, I might add a top backlight, but generally I'm not a big fan of hair lights, especially with balding, middle-aged politicos. Usually we bounce a little light on the tops of heads with another 4x4 card. We use this method for David Gergens interview.
In the background we deploy a combination of small HMIs, Kino-Flos, and Source 4 Lekos. The HMIs, usually 200- or 400-watt Jokers, give us splashes of cool light. The Kinos provide warm or cool ambience, using tungsten or daylight tubes. I use patterns with the Lekos, but always for abstract texture, never as a representation of an arched window, blinds or a floral pattern. The Lekos streak in from the sides, their patterns distorted and softened, dappling and texturing bookcases, walls, and furniture. We let the Lekos keep their natural warm tungsten look to mix with the cool background lights. Since our portrait lighting scheme is the same for each subject, we spend much of our setup time designing and lighting the backgrounds.
Our camera is usually about three feet off the floor on a focal length between 30 and 45 mm. Early in The West Wing shoot, we did occasional slight zoom moves during responses. After the first day or two, Bill C. and I decided instead to let the interview play out within a single frame. The subjects are eight to 10 feet away, sitting on a small plywood platform built on quarter or half apple boxes. This setup provides a slight up-angle on the lens for a pleasing perspective against the background, even though we have a propmaster to hang paintings and adjust furniture.
I have shot many talking heads and always hate to center faces, so I compose each shot with the head bisecting the left or right half of the 16x9 (1.77:1) frame. Anne keeps track of the eyeline in her production notes, and we shoot about as many interviews with eyes left as eyes right.
Over the years, I've used a great variety of tools and gimmicks during interviews. Some directors like to film interviews from a moving camera, some use abstract backgrounds (such as a grey mottled canvas backdrop painted with light), some use greenscreen backgrounds (for later insertion of relevant B-roll material, or eye-candy graphics), some like to have the camera dutched and dollying, or to frame close-ups with people's noses bumping the edge of frame.
For The West Wing documentary, we've decided on a consistent, classic approach to composition, a comfortable head-and-shoulders shot for each person. I encourage subjects to "be Italian," to talk with their hands, and Bill C. prefers them in chairs with arms, so their hands appear in frame. We often exploit and enhance the depth in our locations, with a window or lamp deep in the frame.
We use a 12x12-foot black double net behind our interviewees to soften and distance the backgrounds, a technique I have often used with Bill C. Gaffer Bob Waybright from the Washington Source also has 8x8 foot nets that will do the same job in a small space, but we prefer the 12x12, which we can push further back and out of focus. Its vital to keep stray light off the net, which can raise the background black level.
This 12x12, along with a coarse black bridal-veil net on the rear element of the lens, helps to create a soft, cinematic image for our talking head, especially in a recording format as potentially sharp as digital Betacam. Jim Rolin and I keep the "details" circuit on the camera set fairly low to minimize electronic sharpness. We white-balance from the key light, then warm up the picture electronically from that base setting. We carefully control the cameras black level to avoid letting the background net or the bridal veil on the lens milk out the picture. The nets should provide softness and texture without compromising rich blacks.
In the Viagra Room at the DAR we interview Betty Currie, Clinton's personal secretary for eight years, and current owner of Socks, the presidential cat. She warms our hearts by recounting the thrill of having her mother and sister meet the president, shortly before her mother's death. We turn the camera around and face the opposite corner of the Viagra Room, setting up for Lanny Davis, a White House staffer who describes himself, off camera, as the "flak sponge" during a particularly contentious, scandal-ridden time in Clinton's second term. Lanny wears new glasses with a great anti-glare coating, and we bravely face him into the key light. Someday I want a spray can of that coating.
We shift to the DAR Library, a magnificent open reading room, the original Constitution Hall, before the current auditorium was opened in 1929. Here we talk to Gene Sperling, a vital cog in Clinton's brain trust, widely credited as the hardest-working of that famous group of workaholics. He is seated on a balcony over the reading room; behind him, 50' away, loom a golden eagle and a magnificent arched ceiling. The shot has fantastic depth, so we don't need our 12x12 net in the background.