Frames Per Second: Making Interviews Sound Natural

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© David A. Land
An image David A. Land shot in the Cape Town workshop of ceramic artist Gemma Orkin, one of 16 artisans he interviewed, photographed and videotaped during a two-week shoot for West Elm and Hand/Eye Magazine. Watch the video at the bottom of this article.

In the roughly four years since photographer David A. Land began shooting video, his goal has been to make his moving images similar in style and tone to his portraits. “With my still work, I really try and capture what a person is like,” says Land, “and with video, I have another set of tools to try and expand on that.” For clients like Dwell, Better Homes and Gardens and West Elm, he is usually asked to capture intimate, revealing video interviews with people who have no previous experience being in front of the camera. Getting good interviews, he says, requires a lot of directing and time spent rehearsing his subjects. “Sometimes someone is struggling with an answer to a question, and my job is to help them find a way to say it that makes the point, but also feels like their voice,” he says, adding, “I think I’m a good coach.”

Unlike many photographers, who prefer to let someone else edit their videos, Land believes that teaching himself Final Cut Pro and editing his own footage made him a better director. It taught him not only what kind of footage he needs to shoot, he says, but what makes for a good, quotable interview. “You learn what you need from a subject and [if] an answer is too long or too short.”

The project he recently shot for Hand/Eye Magazine, a publication that supports handicraft around the world, and for West Elm, the home decor and furniture company, epitomizes the kind of assignment Land is often asked to shoot. He traveled to South Africa to shoot still and video portraits of 16 local artisans who had been commissioned to create designs for West Elm; some had been introduced to West Elm by Hand/Eye Editor and Founder Keith Recker. The films would be shown on the West Elm website; still images would appear in the company’s catalogue and in Hand/Eye. The first subject Land visited was Gemma Orkin, a ceramic artist.

The client didn’t attend the shoot, but John Costello, a West Elm art director, met with Land before his trip to discuss what he would have to capture while photographing and filming the artisans in their studios and workshops over the course of ten days. Says Land, “West Elm is trying to promote ‘the maker,’ and where these products come from. This was a good way to show who these people are who design these products.” After researching each subject’s story, Land sent them some questions in advance of the interview. When he learned, for example, that Orkin, who paints local flora and fauna onto her ceramics, had grown up on a farm, he asked her about her time on the farm in order to solicit her thoughts on what inspires her designs.

Logistics and Shooting

Land knew he wanted to record straight-on videos and some B-roll that shows the artisans working on their creations, but the rest of his brief was open-ended. “I did not create storyboards, although I often do, because there were so many elements that I couldn’t predict until I got to the location.”

He traveled with only one assistant. “I have been lucky to work with people who can work as photo assistant, digital tech, second camera and sound [technician],” he says. “That’s definitely one of the biggest challenges: Finding people you want to work with for two weeks, and who can technically do the job.” He also hired a local production assistant, who helped in setting up and moving lights and gear.

Though Land brought strobes for the still portraits, he decided that, given the constraints of travel and limited time in each location, he would forego any additional lights for the video shoots. That meant he was dependant on the natural light in each location. Luckily he shot in Orkin’s workshop in early morning on a sunny day, and was able to position her near a window as she fashioned bowls from clay.

Though the light was perfect inside Orkin’s studio, “The light on the exterior was really harsh. I wish we had time to go back and get better establishing shots.”

He shot the assignment using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a Canon EOS 7D. “My process is to go to a place and do the stills first. It’s a good way to warm people up to the interview.” He then positioned one camera with a 50mm f/1.2 lens on a tripod in front of his subject to record her answers to his questions. At the same time, using a second camera with an 85mm lens, he or his second camera person would capture the subject from other angles. The second camera, fitted with a 50mm f/1.2 lens, was also used to capture the artisan’s hands at work or, shooting downwards, details of the crafts being made.

To get this B-roll footage, Land would either mount the camera on a Genustech Camera Shoulder Mount with a Zacuto Finder, or place it on a Monostat RS16 Pro-Art. The advantage of a monopod, he says, is its greater stability. “With the shoulder rig, sometimes you don’t realize how much you’re moving,” he says. He adds that the monopod rests on a ball, which makes horizontal tracking shots smoother.

The Interview
“I always try to make these interviews sound conversational,” Land says. While he shot the B-roll, he had his assistant sit near the camera mounted on the tripod, so Orkin had someone to look at while she answered Land’s questions.

Before he begins interviewing on camera, he goes over the questions and answers with the subjects and coaches them on what works. He not only reminds them, “no um’s,” he says, but also talks to them about intonation. “We do a lot of takes,” he notes, “sometimes just rephrasing a bit, or with a different kind of energy. I also direct their body language, what they are doing, where they are sitting.”

He recorded sound to a Roland R-26 field recorder using a boom mic, operated by the assistant, which Land felt would be simpler and faster to use than a lavaliere microphone. Because Orkin shares her workspace, they needed to ask the other artists for quiet while they were recording. The workshop was located on the street, “So every time a car or truck went by, we had to wait.”

During the interviews, Land says he’s listening not only to how clearly his subject is responding to questions, but how well each answer will work when it’s time for him to edit the video down to less than two minutes in length. While he listens, he says, “I’m sometimes counting in my head.”

Though he interviewed Orkin while he was simultaneously asking her questions and shooting B-roll, in his later interviews for the series, he chose to turn over the second camera to his assistant, and to watch his subjects while sitting next to the camera mounted on the tripod. “I felt that, even though I got a great interview with her, I wasn’t connecting with her as much as I could.”

For each of the West Elm videos, he shot between 90 minutes and two hours of footage. Back in New York City, he prepped all his files, synced audio with video, then stacked A-roll and B-roll so he could toggle between the two as he prepared his cuts. Then, he says, “I watch the video, and watch it again, and watch it again.” After shaping a general arc of the narrative that begins with the artist’s hands shaping a bowl and then moves to her speaking as she works, he began making finer cuts, intercutting the interview with B-roll footage and, as needed, intersplicing portions of the artist’s answer to make a sentence sound smoother.

Roughing out a video that was one minute and 45 seconds took about two days. He then previewed it for the creative team at West Elm.

The process of shaping a narrative arc in the editing process is long, Land says, but also satisfying. “Making a minute-and-a-half video out of two hours of tape is as exciting as the first time you make a black-and-white print in the darkroom.”

Watch the West Elm video about Gemma Orkin that David A. Land made below: 

Gemma Orkin for West Elm from David Land on Vimeo.

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