It’s a question I get every interview, and it’s a good one. Here are some of the things I think about before answering.
When the person talking in the video looks into the camera, it actually translates into them looking directly into the eyes of the audience. This can have great impact because it creates intimacy. especially in a close up. For example, take a look at this classic video of Sinead O’Connor singing the Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
This kind of direct engagement can be very effective for an emotional message. It can also be very hard to do. As you may have noticed in the video above, she looks at the camera and then she looks away, repeatedly. The video also feels like one long take, but actually has several sequences where it cuts away to scenes of her walking or even a statue at the end.
When a subject looks directly at the camera, it can make them feel self conscious, like a mirror. And sometimes that shows up on camera too. So before I commit to having the subject look at the camera, I will look directly at them and check for things like public speaking training or a natural presence. Spokespersons often do a great job looking into the lens and talking about a product or company. Influencers do it every day.
All this isn’t to say that looking right at the camera is the best or preferred way. Looking somewhere else can also have its benefits. For example, when someone is being interviewed, they are often looking at another person. If done right, this creates a personal connection, which the audience can see and feel. Take a look at this video about kids describing chess called “The Magic of Chess.”
The kids are talking to relative strangers (the filmmakers) about something that they love. Truly the best kind of snapshot a video can take. We still feel close to them because the filmmakers cut back and forth between a wide and close shots of the interviewees. But none of them are staring into the camera. Letting the kids be the experts, describing the joys and challenges of competitive chess creates a different kind of intimacy for the audience. We are watching magic!
When a subject looks directly at me, the Director/Interviewer, it can make them feel more comfortable. It can help them to forget the camera is there. And if I can encourage them and get them relaxed, that shows up on camera too. So when I commit to having the subject look at me instead of the camera, I will smile at them and let them know that it’s my job to make them look good. For folks who haven’t done much public speaking, I’ll let them know that if they make a mistake, we can record a second or third version.
The most important part of my answer is to tell the subject to either look at the camera or at the person they’re talking to, not back and forth between both. Unless that’s the look we’re going for.