The latest Kitplus issue features a great article on Eye Contact in Documentaries written by Sybil Ah-Mane from Magic Video Box, which focuses on the trend among documentary filmmakers to set up interviews where their protagonists look directly into the camera. What might seem to be a trivial matter might have a huge impact on the director-protagonist relationship, and therefore the way a topic and its subjects are perceived by the audience.
Sybil writes that back in the day, the code of practice for an interview was to place the subject in front of the camera and the director next to the camera. This knowingly results in the subject looking slightly to the side of the picture frame. Besides the practicality of this particular interview set up, the intention, as Sybil argues, is to turn the viewer into an observer, making him/her aware of the director-protagonist relationship.
These days though, as Sybil continues, the trend is to make the protagonist look straight into the camera in order to establish a stronger and rather direct relationship between the audience and the subject. However, this can make it a little trickier to set up an interview because the director cannot sit right behind the camera and maintain eye contact in the conversation.
As a result, many filmmakers, like Errol Morris, have explored ways of allowing for direct eye contact between them and their subject through the camera lens itself, using technology that diverts the visual contact through mirrors or screens. Inventions like the interrotron and the Magic Video Box, are very helpful tools and can aid in creating the sense of the protagonist addressing the audience directly. This approach can work particularly well when it comes to more fact based and ‘objective’ interviews.
However, when it comes to documentaries or other filmic content which focus more on evoking and capturing the emotions and expressions of the protagonist, it is far more important to have “proper” eye contact – eye contact between the director and protagonist without any technological intermediary. As we can all hopefully sense, when it comes to talking with another person, we exchange much more than just words and looks to make sense of the person in front of us and their story.
I am convinced that the eye-contact technologies, such as the Interrotron, partly filter out the vibes and energy that are exchanged between the director and the protagonist, influencing their relationship and the quality of the interview. Furthermore, as a viewer, being directly looked into the eyes by the protagonist can feel too intimidating and provoking for some people. The role of the viewer in the more traditional interview set up is one of being more of an observer of a conversation between an unseen director and the protagonist. This allows the viewer to take part in a conversation from a safe space and shy away or even hide in front of the screen.
The film industry isn’t immune to trends and I can see an increase in “look straight into the camera” interview set ups and understand its advantages. However, in the end, I think it is the topic and filmic intention which determines what interview set up/technique to choose from – not what’s in vogue.