When you shoot video of interviews, one of most important decisions you need to make is what background to have behind your subject. Also, what can you do to make the background more interesting visually, without becoming a distraction that competes with the speaker on the screen?
In this tutorial, I’m going to share several strategies that will help you create interesting backgrounds behind your interviewee.
Focus on the Corners
When you arrive on location for the interview, one of your first priorities is to select the room where you’ll be shooting the interview. Ideally, it’s a big room with plenty of space. Regardless of the size though, a good tip is to focus on the corners of the room. Most likely, your best background will be one of the corners.
Corners are good for a couple reasons:
- The distance from one corner of a room to the opposite corner is the furthest distance you can have between the camera and the background behind your subject.
- Including corners in the background means that you’ll have diagonal lines in the frame which are more interesting than straight lines. Video looks more dynamic when you include diagonal lines.
Start by inspecting each corner of the room. Pick a good corner that you can work with as a background. Then place the camera in the opposite corner, all the way across the room, as far away from your background corner as you can get. This distance is important for controlling depth-of-field, which we’ll cover later.
So far, we have our background corner on one side of the room, and our camera placed in the opposite corner. Now it’s time to place our interviewee.
Distance from the Background
Don’t put your interviewee right up against the background corner. You want depth in your image, and you can’t create depth if they’re sitting close to the background.
Instead, place their chair several feet in front of the background, a nice distance away. If you’re half-way across the room, you’re probably too far. I like to err on the side of distance and depth, but you can play around with it in your specific situation.
The important thing here is that the distance between your interviewee and the background behind them does several things for you:
- It creates depth in the image, which adds visual interest and makes your video look more professional.
- It creates two separate zones for lighting. Zone 1 is the lighting on the subject (your interviewee), and zone 2 is the lighting on the background. If there’s good separation between zone 1 and zone 2, it’s easier to prevent spill light from each zone from contaminating the other.
- The distance allows you to blur out the background, adding further visual interest depth, and reducing distractions.
Blur the Background: Reduce Depth-of-field
It’s usually a good idea to blur the background behind your subject. You accomplish this by reducing the depth-of-field, which is the area around the interviewee that’s in focus.
These are the steps to blurring a background:
- Place the camera far from the background and subject. We’ve already accomplished this by placing the camera in the far corner of the room.
- Open the aperture on your camera lens as wide open as possible. (This means you should use the lowest F-stop number. Same thing.)
- Zoom in to frame your subject. The more you zoom in, the longer your focal length, and the more blur you’ll see in the background.
Now with the background blurred behind your subject, you can use additional techniques to add visual interest to the background.
Put the Background Light on a Dimmer
It’s a good idea to use a separate light with the sole purpose of illuminating the background. This is called a background light (sometimes I refer to it as the fourth light).
Generally I like the background to be a little on the darker side. This is my personal preference. In most cases if the background is too bright, it might become distracting. Remember the viewer’s eye is attracted first to the bright things in the image, so I like the interviewee to be brighter than the background.
Naturally this will depend on the situation.
To control the intensity of the light, you can put the background light on a dimmer. When you dim a tungsten light, the color temperature becomes warmer (redder), but I find that on backgrounds, it usually works just fine. If you feel like it’s too red, you can put a CTB (color temperature blue) color gel over the light to compensate a bit.
Color Gels Add Style to Backgrounds
You might want to consider using a color gel to create a specific mood. Although splashes of color aren’t necessarily realistic (which is why I usually don’t use them), they certainly change the overall mood and style of the image.
The deeper, richer colors make the biggest impact.
It’s a good idea to have several different color gel options with you. You can dramatically change the look of the image, simply by adding a color gel to your light.
(Never try to make your own color gels. The real ones are inexpensive, so don’t risk making your own flammable versions.)
Add More Style with a Cookie
You can add additional visual interest with a subtle shadow pattern on the background. Use a cokuloris (commonly called a cookie), which is a panel with a design cut into it.
Nearly anything with holes for you to shine the light through can be used as a cookie. You can also make your own. Of course you can purchase all kinds of cookies with patterns such as window blinds, tree leaves, and more.
When I’m using cookies on the background, personally, I like it to be more subtle. If the pattern on the background is too intense and obvious, it can be distracting.
To create a visually interesting background behind your interviewee, simply follow these steps:
- Pick a corner to use as a background.
- Blur the background by reducing depth-of-field.
- Use a background light on a dimmer.
- Consider adding color gels to your lights.
- Break up the light with shadow patterns using cookies.
Just for fun, try using all these techniques the next time you’re shooting video of interviews and see if you like the improvements.
Do you have to use all of them? Of course not. Pick and choose the techniques you like according to your taste.