Creating the Scene

As we noted early on, your setting is where scene occurs and is an essential part of telling your story on film. Using a variety of scenes will make your film more interesting. They can be as big as a shot from the space shuttle looking down on the entire planet to as small as a flea on someone’s fingertip.

Both selecting and taking control of your scene is crucial if you want to be able to successfully capture your actors or host. So selecting a scene where you can control various elements is important. For instance, let’s say you want a scene of Rob and Suz near the chemical plant talking about pollution discharging into the river. The feeling of the scene is that they have secretly discovered where the chemical plant is dumping waste into the river. But when you arrive at the actual chemical plant to “scout your scenes”, you see that the employee parking lot is too close to the river because of all the traffic distractions. It won’t fee like a secret place at all. Next, you go to the other side of the plant only to find the county park near the river with all the distractions of park users. So what can you to do to “create” a scene of Rob and Suz secretly discovering and talking about the discharge pipe dumping pollution? Try this approach of using several scenes to create the impression of one setting.

Scene 1 – Rob and Suz riding their mountain bikes away from the camera toward the chemical plant in the distance. Wide angle shot.
Scene 2 – Medium shot of Chemical Plant with company sign (Rob and Suz are NOT in this scene but we create the impression that they must be nearby)
Scene 3 – Tight shot of Rob and Suz parking their bikes in a quiet wooded setting and looking uphill (we already assume they are very near the chemical plant, yet the real scene can be shot in a quiet place far away).
Scene 4 – Medium shot of Chemical plant smoke stacks or processing side of building. (Because Rob looked uphill before this shot, we assume he is seeing the chemical plant up there)
Scene 5 – Quiet location along river with no distractions – This can be far from the chemical plant, county park or other distractions. Close shot of Rob and Suz sneaking along edge of river. Here is where they talk about the pollution from the plant and what they can do about it.
Scene 6 – Tight shot of a pipe discharging fluid. Even if there is traffic or people noise nearby, by simply having Rob and Suz’s feet or hands near the pipe, we can use the footage over top of their dialog in Scene 5 to create the impression that the pipe is in Scene 5 in their secret place of discovery.

Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the scene that you want to shoot will be free of visual or audio distractions that could disrupt the feeling you’re looking for. But more often than not, you’ll find that the setting that you want to shoot all the scenes in doesn’t work for everything. That’s when you begin improvising with other scenes that in combination with camera angles create the impression that you’re looking for – like we did in the 6 scenes above.


An Example: Creating a scene in the Arctic

Try it yourself: We wanted to tell the story of global sea change in a quick one minute ecofact. Can you find the shots that set the scene? What would you have done differently?


In telling your story with scenes, it’s also important to note that many productions follow a simple rule of getting from general to specific in developing a setting. For instance, pay attention to the next time you watch a TV show to the first couple of scenes. They are usually very wide-angle shots showing a city, buildings or countryside. Then they get progressively closer to the unfolding action until we’re right next to the actors in action. By doing this, we know where we are and what’s probably happening. So here’s a list of some possible progressive shots to take your viewers from afar then closer and closer into the action:

  • Aerial views or shots from high places such as hilltop or tall building.
  • Pans of countryside or city showing setting maybe include landmark
  • Medium shot of building or site where action will take place
  • Medium shot of room, or location with characters walking into
  • Close shots of faces of characters in dialog from different angles
  • Extreme close-ups of items characters are focused on – for example, if we only saw the close-up of the pipe discharging pollution while we listened to Rob’s and Suz’s dialog, that alone would give us the feeling we were looking for that something sinister was happening.
  • Keep in mind that the real world also contains very small scenes within the larger scene. So don’t overlook things as small as insects, plant leaves, tadpoles, water droplets, and the other elements that together make the greater scene.

Now that you’ve got some creative ideas on creating creative scenes, (whoa, that’s a lot of creativity) let’s look at the more straightforward challenge of creating and controlling the scene of your interviews for your documentary.

Your interview location should reflect the content of your film. For example, if we wanted to interview a chemist in the chemical plant, we would want to interview him or her in a laboratory environment with interesting stuff going on in the background. Just watch any episode of CSI for some cool setting ideas.

Once you’ve picked an appropriate location, you need to take control of your entire shooting environment. This means:

  • Minimizing visual distractions – if a TV is playing, turn it off. Have the interview subject remove excessive jewelry, hat or sunglasses. Have them dress their part, such as wearing a lab coat. Remove all clutter and litter such as piles of papers or soda cans. If needed, tape paper over windows with distractions such as other people looking in.
  • Remove personal distractions – you’ll often face the challenge of having other people “simply want to watch” while you’re videotaping the interview. This can be a serious distraction to the person you’re interviewing. So politely ask everyone to leave the area while you videotape. Trust us, this can make a huge difference in the performance of the person on camera.
  • Minimize audio distractions – try to eliminate as much of the unnecessary noise as possible such as turning off radios and electronic devices. Don’t be shy about turning off fans, air conditioners or other noise making devices. Shut doors and windows if outside sounds are creeping in. Barking dogs nearby should be poisoned or shot. Okay then, at least ask the owners to quiet their pet. Be bold about asking other people to temporarily stop cutting grass, chopping wood, playing loud music or creating other distractions. If you ask politely, most will oblige.

The other ways in which you might control your interview scene is in the lighting and sound. And although audio is covered in a separate tab in the menu, let’s take a quick look at those aspects related to your interview scene.

Depending on the production, a documentary interview is usually done in a 3rd person omniscient camera perspective where the subject is talking slightly off camera, and without making eye contact with the camera. Watch any documentary format TV show for examples. The key is to not let the subject talk to or look into the camera. By looking slightly off camera at the person asking the interview questions, the subject’s responses will both look and sound much more natural.

Framing your subject in the scene might begin with a chest up shot to just above the head with approximately 2/3 open frame in front of the direction of the eyes looking off camera. Occasionally begin with a waist up framing if a background object or establishing background is important to the storyline. The subject’s head, shoulders, and hips should all be positioned in the same direction - slightly off camera. The person asking the questions (which can be the cameraperson or the host) should stand about 20 inches left or right of camera when asking questions. During the interview, zoom in to tighter shots (neckline to forehead) when the subject’s intensity commands attention. If they become excited or emotional, zoom in more and frame them from the eyebrows to the chin. When interviewing several people for the same production, vary left or right between different subjects but keep each subject all left or all right framing. Avoid using a wide-angle lens as they can make a subject’s features appear wide or distorted. On “large” people, use tighter framing to eliminate unflattering or large torso views. Set the camera on a tripod so that you’re shooting at the subject’s eye level with camera.

Select a background setting that avoids sterile environments such as vacant rooms, porches, or fireplaces with static horizontal or vertical lines. If the scene is outside, look for slanted trees or brush with more diagonal lines. Depending on the person being interviewed, have the tools of their trade in their hands or setting nearby. If they are recounting an event, they should be wearing the same clothing they wore during the event. If they are reluctant to remove hats, at least have them tip back the brim so their eyes are well lit. Interview subjects should avoid wearing black, white or stripped garments.

Rob Nelson with CameraBackground and Subject Lighting – When setting up your interview scene, avoid having more than upper ¼ of sky exposed in the background by moving subject and/or your camera. If it’s outside, avoid direct sunlight or dark shade. Use a sun diffuse screen or better yet simply place subject in diffuse shaded lighting. Use an in-fill reflector (aluminum foil on cardboard) to light up face shadows when needed. In dawn or dusk settings, fill-light the subject’s face with a soft floodlight. Zoom into the subject’s face and hair area, then lock down exposure before zooming out to frame the scene. When doing interviews indoors, use standard “3-point” lighting. We’ve linked you with several sources that explain this technique.

Though they will be covered in part in other sections on this website, let’s finish your interview scene with some simple pointers for videotaping your documentary.

Set your F Stop or aperture like the pros. To make your interview look like a “60-Minutes” television show, set your video camera to your lowest (1.6) manual F stop to compress the depth of focus. Set up your camera about 15 feet from subject and zoom into the proper framing, which will further compress depth of focus. To focus, zoom in tight and manual focus on the eyes, then zoom back to the proper framing. The background should appear slightly blurry yet the subject’s eyes will appear crisp.

Audio that we can hear is essential to the interview aspect of your film. Seeing the subject’s face and only hearing distorted or contaminated audio can wreck the impact of the interview. So use a wireless mic with good batteries, or a quality shotgun mic, and ALWAYS monitor the audio with both headphones and your audiometer. Set voice peaks to –20 dB. Depending on our camera, the Auto level setting may work. However, the manual setting is usually safer. The main thing to watch for is that most interview subjects begin talking with more volume then drop off as they talk. So monitor your audiometer occasionally and readjust when needed. Wire and program the camera so all wireless audio goes to all channels. It’s easy to record and blend in natural audio during editing with clean voice audio if it’s needed. If you or the subject is wearing cell phones, turn them off. They can interfere with wireless mics.

Whew, that’s it for this part. But before you begin videotaping your interview or scenes, be sure to check out some of the other related lessons such as The Camera and Hosting.

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