Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Reaction shots of nodding interviewers look lame on the news. They look super lame in docs. Don’t.
This DDF is essentially a short subset of a previous post, but I’ve seen it far too often recently that I have to spend a couple of paragraphs on it.
Laying aside the larger issue of including yourself in your doc in the first place, if there’s one thing that I can say pretty certainly is that you should not be in the frame when you’re interviewing your subjects or reacting to what they say when you’re interviewing them. The audience doesn’t need to see you on the screen holding your microphone and/or camera. We don’t think this person is just speaking off in the distance about some issue unprompted – we know you are there and making a film. Unless you are Barbara Walters and filming a TV special, I fail to see why you think you should be on camera with your subject. It doesn’t create visual interest, it creates visual distraction and a cluttered, TV news like feel.
I’m especially taken aback when I’m confronted with reaction shots – the cut away to the nodding interviewer I reference above. Just don’t do this. Your audience will nod their own heads if they feel like it – they don’t need to model their responses to what they’re hearing by watching you. It’s unnecessary and it makes you look either egocentric or amateurish, and both undermine your interview and your interview subject.
The point is your film itself is your voice, your presence, your reaction to whatever issue or subject matter you are addressing – you don’t need to include yourself literally to offer commentary. You do this by selecting the topic and approach in the first place, by including the specific interview subjects that you do, by making specific editing choices, etc. If you worry that you’re viewpoint is not being conveyed properly, there’s probably a larger problem with your doc than can be solved by filming yourself interacting with your subjects.