Interview Lighting and Color Grading, (Over)simplified

Here, I’m gonna show you how to bang out great-looking interviews quickly and easily. There are a lot of tutorials around the web about classic 3-point lighting, about keys and fills and hair lights, and yes, it’s all good stuff. But when you use the traditional technique like that, your lighting will often look, well, like traditional 3-point lighting. Which isn’t bad per se, but I think it usually looks kinda stiff. With some creativity, you can get better-looking shots with less effort. Here’s how I do it:

1. Use natural light when you can

When I shoot an interview, I try to schedule time beforehand to scout the area and find a place where the subject looks really great in the available light. Ideally, this is a place that also reflects something of the personality of the subject, even if it’s in an abstract way. Here’s a big trick I learned in art school: squint. When you squint, you strip away your brain’s “opinion” of the scene, and you see it like a camera would see it. I’m constantly squinting throughout a whole shoot. Sometimes I have to explain it.

So yeah, why pull out lights if you don’t have to? Leave ’em in the car! One thing to watch out for, though: the sun is a cruel mistress. If it’s cloudy, expect lots of retakes. During the production of Lost in Hawaii, they had to wait as long as two hours for consistent light. That’s a lot of money on a production like that. Even inside with windowlight, the sun going behind a cloud can mean a stop or two of difference. Keep your meter/histogram/waveform monitor on.

This shot is entirely natural light. The sun was low in the sky, and the forest glade acted like a giant softbox:

2. Augment the natural light

But verité is for the birds. A natural light setup almost always needs some augmentation.

This one needed just a little help — a very slight hair/side light to brighten up the side of his head on the right side of the frame, thanks to a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows on the subject’s right that acted like a giant softbox. Giant softboxes are your friends.

Here’s a shot of the setup. The 250w Pro-Light was scrimmed and set to mostly-flood. The Kino at the left edge was turned off:

This one was almost all artificial light, as the room was windowless. I used the overhead room lights for fill, and a kino diva directly overhead and on the left side of his face:

This leads me to the quick-and-easy formula I’ve discovered. If you’re really pressed for time, and want to whip something together that you know is gonna look good, grab your Kino Flo Diva 4-bank (or Litepanels 1×1’s, if you can afford them) and put it above the camera and to the left so it’s pointing down at the subject at about 45 degrees, use the general daylight for fill, and you’re golden. If it’s night and you’ve got fluorescent room lights, you’ll probably want to gel it. I’ve found that Kino tungsten bulbs with 1/2 CTB and 1/4 +Green match the average fluorescents pretty well. If it looks like their head is blending into the background too much, throw a little edge light on them. I have a pair of Lowel Pro-Lights I like for that.

This shot was taken with the Kino just above the camera and to the left (more straight-on than I normally would, but it looked good in this case) and a Pro-Light shining on the left side of his face from behind:

If you watch any TV at all, you’ll find this way of lighting a face to be very much in style. Too much so, IMO (but I’m not above doing it, of course). Freakin all of Downton Abbey was shot like this, just about. Key light off to one side and above, not too much fill, and a hard edge light on the opposite side of the face.

3. Don’t worry about mixing color temp, as long as it looks good

Generally, you want to keep all your lights the same color temperature. But not always. In this shot, which was shot with a daylight color balance, I had the Kino above and to the right of the camera, but it just wasn’t cutting it — it looked stale. So I bounced a 250w tungsten Pro-Light directly off a white wall on the subject’s right, filling in the side of her face and also giving her a golden glow:

If it looks good, do it. If not, don’t. It’s really that simple. With that in mind:

4. Be open to accidents that look good

This shot is using the lighting setup from the previous interview I did in another part of the room. I turned the Kino on its stand, and hey! it looked great! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

5. Post Production

Now you’ve just got to color-correct it. NB: Broadcast is a different beast from the web, and if you’re going to both broadcast and the web, you should create two different versions. For the web, you want it to look good on your calibrated monitor. For broadcast, you want the colors and values to fall within broadcast specs, and look good on your calibrated broadcast monitor. Here, I’m just talking about web videos.

I use Apple’s Color. It looks great, and is really easy to use, which happen to be my two main requirements. First things first — go to the first secondary room and bring the master lift down to zero (assuming there are shadows in the scene that should read as black), and bring the gain up to 100 (assuming there are highlights that should read as white). If you have any blown-out areas, they should always read as white. Use common sense. If the brightest thing in the scene is a Caucasian face, don’t bring the gain up to 100. Keep it at 80 or so. The idea is to get the tonal range to be spread nicely across the spectrum.

Here’s what the footage looked like straight from the camera in the second shot above:

And here’s how it looked after adjusting the tonal range:

You may ask, why not use the primary room? Feel free to, if you want to. I like to use just the secondaries so I can click the “enable secondary” button on and off to check my work against the original footage. And this is a quick-and-dirty grading, and you’ll only need three secondaries total, so there’s no chance of running out.

Next, open up the 2nd secondary. Go to the “advanced” tab, and do any color correcting you need to do. This involves a lot of messing around until it looks good. Maybe you shot it too blue, and you want to bring down the blue lift and gain, but then it looks too green, so you pump up the red a little… you get what I mean. If you click “enable secondary” off and it looks better, reset it and start over. If it looks better with your changes, great!

Here’s that shot with the color tweaked. I felt like the image looked a little cold, and I wanted to warm it up a little. So I bumped up the red gain a bit, and brought the blue gain down a hair.

Now for the magic. So many shots in feature films, TV, commercials, everything! have a vignette applied. It’s a formula, but it just looks good. Make a circle vignette with the softness at 1, center it on the subject’s face, and inside the circle, pump up the master gain. Then outside the circle, bring down the master gamma. Do it just enough so that your subject’s face just pops, but it doesn’t look like they’ve got a spotlight on them. You want it to look natural. That’s why you bring down the gamma, not the gain. Bringing down the gamma darkens the midtones, but leaves the highlights where they are, so it ends up looking like it was shot that way. If you bring down the gain, it’ll look like you applied a cheesy vignette filter.

I usually make the vignettes look something like this:

And the final grading:

Look at the vignetting in the shot from Inception. So much! But I guarantee you, no audience member ever saw that shot and said, “Wow, that’s a lot of vignetting.” At least, no audience member that wasn’t a professional colorist.

The whole process should take 15-30 minutes, less if you’ve really got it down and you’re cranking them out. It makes such a huge difference and it’s so easy, there’s seldom a good reason to not color grade.

And that’s about it. Pretty straightforward, no?

I’ll wrap up with a collection of interview shots I’ve done over the years. Pay close attention to the music, because it is awesome. “Fireflies Made Out of Dust,” by the Happy Jawbone Family Band