Don’t Look At The Camera: Who came up with that stupid idea?

Posted on March 11th, by Michael Rosenblum in Television. 9 comments


Robert McNamara tells all…

The clip above is from The Fog of War, a documentary film by Errol Morris.

We talked a bit about Morris yesterday, and we’ll talk  about him more later, but one of Morris’ great inventions was the idea of interviewing through the Telepromoter.

The Teleprompter (I think the correct trademarked spelling is teleprompTer but don’t ask me why), is that big mirror thing that sits in front of the camera.  It’s a two-way mirror, so you can see through it from the front, but it reflects from behind. In TV studios they hang it over the front of a camera and run text through it. That’s how ‘anchors’ are able to read so much text. The only real talent you need to be an anchor is to be able to read without moving your eyes. Learn that trick and you too can make $14 million a year for working 22 minutes a night.

OK. Enough on that.

In any event, what Morris did was to run his own image through the teleprompTer, and in doing so, was able to conduct his interviews in this way. The result it that the subject ends up looking not only at Morris, (or his video image as he asks the questions), but also directly at the viewer.

In ‘conventional’ TV, we were always told to tell the subjects – ‘don’t look at the camera’.

Why not?

Don’t you WANT the audience to have eye contact with the subject?

Apparently not.

What conventional TV wants is for the audience to have EAR CONTACT with the subject.

Take a look at this clip of an interview with the same Robert McNamara on the ‘highly rated’ 60 Minutes program


Now, you tell me.

Which is the more powerful moment.

McNamara looking at you, or McNamara looking at Mike Wallace off to his right?


So let’s ditch Mike Wallace.

It’s great that HE has a very intimate experience. Unfortunately, it’s the audience who pays the price for his good time.

The subliminal attitude here is ‘screw the audience, this is a movie about how close our ‘stars’ are to the heavy hitters. You, the viewer, get to watch’.

Well, the web of course is a different animal.

Online video is a much more intimate experience. After all, it’s really just you and the video.

You and the subject.

So the subject should look at the camera. Because by looking at the camera, they’re also looking at the viewer.

And after all, that’s who you’re making the video for, no?



9 thoughts on “Don’t Look At The Camera: Who came up with that stupid idea?

  1. The idea of having people not look at the camera has, for me, a very basic reason. People are nervous about having their image and voice recorded. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big camera or a small camera. People get nervous.

    For that reason, as well as to speed up the production process, people are encouraged to ignore the camera as much as possible. No, they can’t do it every moment but if they lose the concern for the camera, they are able to express themselves in a much more relaxed and natural manner. Their message, their thoughts, their points of view have a greater impact on the viewer the more sincere and natural they are on camera.

    Most people are not actors. Actors love to look into the camera and deliver their lines. Normal people do not. Not when they know what they are saying and how they look will be seen by a large group of others they don’t even know.

    Yes, I’ve done shoots where we insist the person look directly into the camera and…it’s very hard for them. They have nothing, no one, to relate to as they speak. Having someone off camera that they are now not allowed to look at adds yet another level of stress since they naturally want to relate to someone as they speak.

    My method is to try and explain to them they should consider this type of interview as a phone call. A situation most are used to. Speaking to others they may not know or see by telephone without the nerves. Yet…this is extremely hard for your average person to do. It can be done…but it takes extra time. Extra effort on everyone’s part. Those behind as well as the person being interviewed. Unless they are trained actors, they are much more self conscious and that gets in the way of hearing them speak from their hearts.

    Time is money. Whether you are producing a daily news story or a long form documentary the extra effort needed to sooth people into a face to face with a piece of glass on the front of a camera cuts into your available time and hinders most people from coming across as honestly as they can while on camera. If that’s “look directly into the camera” interview is desired, the person shooting all of a sudden becomes a director and psychologist. Coaching a person to do their best on camera. Many times over and over again. At this point it’s not an interview but a produced message that lacks conviction and, in the end, their appearance in front of the viewer is tainted and whatever message they were trying to deliver is lost. The words they say may be correct but the way they said them, delivered them to the camera, is more stilted and that leaves doubts about the validity of what was said in the viewers mind.

    The viewers can tell when someone is being interviewed and reading from a script. Viewers can’t always put their finger on why they know a person isn’t being truthful or speaking from the heart as they are interviewed…but they know.

    I’m not saying the technique of looking directly into the camera should not be done. Simply explaining the good reasons you don’t see as often as you might expect.

  2. Hi John
    Ironically, when I was a producer for Sunday Morning in the 80s, Shad Northshield, the EP used to make the correspondents (including Kuralt) sit under the camera with the lens resting on their heads when we did 1-camera interviews, so that the subject was making eye contact (or as close as they could get) to the viewer. He was a genius, Northshield.

  3. Hi Michael,
    Yes, I also do whatever I can to have the reporter/correspondent/producer…who ever is doing the interview…sit as close to the lens as possible. Yet the eyes of the person being interviewed are still not looking directly into the camera. It is a much better shot for the viewer to see. Looking into the eyes of a person being interviewed helps the viewer decide the veracity of what that person is saying. Just like a cop interviewing people. The eyes tell us a lot.

    But ultimately the person is not looking directly into the camera.

    Please let me be clear. Your thoughts on the effectiveness of having a person looking directly into the camera for an interview IS a good technique. It does add to the viewer experience. My efforts here are not to say you are wrong. Only pointing out some real world issues dealing with normal people who are not actors or who are not used to public speaking, and the hurdles one must overcome to achieve success when doing an interview in this manner.

    I do not like profile interviews. Shot too far to the side of an interview subject.

    Thanks for having a place people can exchange ideas, Michael.

    You and I have the same goal. Honesty, reality and truth to benefit the viewer as well as the person being interviewed, trying to express their message through a video interview. 🙂

  4. I took a chance based on the OWN Master Class series and had the subject of my last project look into the camera with a B-Roll camera shooting a side profile to cut back and forth with. IMO, it’s the best piece of work I’ve shot to date and plan on shooting any future interview type pieces in the same way.

    Since I work solo, I look through the LCD viewfinder of my HDSLR’s with my right eye and and can maintain direct eye contact with the subject with my left eye, thus engaging them in the dialog that I’m recording. Far more powerful than the pablum looking off to the side of the camera type interview style that is SOP for broadcast content.

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  6. I like where most of you are headed with this conversation.

    There are a few things I have noticed through my experience as a one man crew.

    With one camera, I will stand right next to my tripod and have a natural conversation with the subject. I have noticed that even a couple inches too far away from the camera can make for an awkward looking interview. If I stand behind it and try to monitor the shot while asking them to look at my hand or another specified location, the back and forth drifting of their eyes makes for terrible footage, very few people can fight that urge to look at the camera. This is why I love it when I can pull off a two camera shoot, I will ask them to speak into the camera but can move around them at the same time and use the 2nd camera footage to give a natural and relaxed look if any of the primary camera footage looks too staged.

    John, your points on making the subject feel comfortable are so great, I just shot a documentary on a Sustainable Treehouse community in Costa Rica and only had 7 days to work with so time was definitely an issue. I didn’t want to sacrifice the natural feel of their awesome story by having them look at a lens, instead I stood just to the side and had a conversation with them. Typically, I am just looking for a natural conversation so I will not check my script until the end and then I will add any questions I forgot.

    This brings me to my next question. When I prep the subject I try and let them know I want the interview to be as natural as possible so I don’t supply then with too many instructions. I tell them to avoid personalization such as “Like I said earlier,” “You know,” and “You saw.” What other pre-interview coaching strategies will you guys use?


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  8. I guess I always looked at interviews in terms of the audience. I always tell my students the audience is in the role of an observer verses a participant. In movies the audience is the observer. News has adopted that technique other than stand-ups where the reporter is now including the audience. I think what you are pointing out is rules can be broken, that I agree with, but in a teaching situation I say learn the rules then break the rules, but learn the rules first. It’s like not covering jumps cuts with B-roll which folks do all the time now…probably to save time, but don’t you think they should know that technique? Finally, 60 minutes is the “God” of interviews. All of their Emmy’s and accolades speak for themselves. You will never go wrong if you light and shoot like that team…they are The Best.

  9. When presenting stuff, looking at the camera is needed but when its a drama, skit or story for the audience to follow, then NOT LOOKING AT THE CAMERA is essential because it takes away from the made up story, its a secret that has worked since 1933

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Every day Michael Rosenblum blogs about the latest developments in the world of video and the media as well as future trends in technology and equipment.

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