Listen up. I am talking to you!

Look Me In The Eye When You Say That

Posted May 25, 2017
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Yesterday, I did a critique on a VJ/iPhone story done by Phyllis Stephen, founder and editor of The Edinburgh Reporter.  

In the course of the critique, I told her to always have her subject look into the lens.  She wrote back that she had gotten a master's degree in journalism and they had always taught her NEVER to do that.  She also noted that they don't seem to do that on The BBC.

There is no question that my rather dogmatic approach is in the minority. Never the less, I am quite convinced that I am right. If your subject is talking to someone else, then by all means, approach it from the 'third person invisible', i.e., the viewer is a fly on the wall observing a conversation of which they are not a part.

We cover this in the shooting instruction on Interviews in, but I wanted to get down to the root causes.

However, if you are interviewing the subject with the intent that the subject is speaking directly to the viewer, then the subject has to make eye contact with the viewer. They are, after all, speaking direclty to the viewer. 

Why then do we have this fixation on showing the audience the subject's ear?

This, like much else in the televison and film world, is a function of a technology which is now long gone, but has left behind a dogmatic belief, now based on nothing.

In the very early days of television, when there were only a few (or in the case of the UK only one) network, they would often send out two camera crews to cover an interview with a subject.

In those long gone days, one camera would be trained on the subject, the other on the reporter. Thus, when cut together, there would be a true conversation. Question and answer. There was even, then. concern over 'crossing the line', so that the two shots might line up as a single, fluid piece.

This made sense - so long as you were working with two cameras.

As the industry progressed, the two cameras were replaced with one. But even then. the cameraman or woman (there were few in those days), would cheat the two cameras with one. That is, they would shoot the interview, and then, reversing the camera position, shot the re-asks and cut aways (noddies, we called them. The reporter nodded as though he or she were listening intently).

In the edit, these could also be assembled to make it look as though there were two crews present, when there was only one.

Of course, in this set up, having the subject look into the camera would have been untennable and delivered un-useable footage.

Slowly, over time the whole notion of re-asks and cut aways also evaporated. But what we were left with was a person (subject) staring off into space, and an audience left staring into that person's ear.

The rule of Don't Look Into The Camera no long made any sense, but it was cast in stone.

The advent of online changes everything.

The experience of watching a video on a phone or a tablet or a laptop is a much more personal experience.  If you want your story to have an emotional connection to your viewer, you are going to WANT the subject to look into the eyes of the viewer. That is where and how an emotional connection is made.

Still don't believe me?

Here's a handy experiment you can do at home.

Tonight, go home to your wife or husband or significant other or mate at the pub (UK version) and say, "I have something really important to tell you".

Then, once you have their attention, look about 30 degrees to the left of their head, staring at some object on the far wall, and start talking to them.


Show them your ear.

See how well this works out for you.  If it does, apply it to your next story.

If it doesn't... try my way. 


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