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January 16, 2017

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The Drive-and-Talk: Filming an interview in a car.

January 15, 2017

 

In filmmaking, we often hear the term "walk-and-talk", which refers to a group or person being followed by the camera, talking to the filmmakers or other actors.  It was made popular by the HBO Series Entourage and was used again and again as a method to keep the action and the story moving forward.  The walk-and-talk gives a sense of immediacy to what the characters are saying, while there's a natural beginning, middle and end to this action.  I've found that various versions of this work well in producing documentary films and this method can be an extremely useful tool (for the same reasons listed above, but also) because it is a great way to get your character talking.  Enter: The Drive-and-Talk.

 

Drive-and-Talk.  Main character's father opens up about his dreams for his son's success in I want to be an Astronaut. By the time we pulled into the driveway he was shedding tears.

 

 

More often than not, my work does not afford me the luxury of time.  Frequently, I have to meet the person I'm doing a story about the day of the shoot and only have a few precious hours to get the materials I need.  These circumstances pose many challenges and getting the materials needed to tell a good story in under a day can be a real trick.  

 

Getting great sound bites from your characters requires trust.  Success demands that the person (or people) become comfortable with you, that they let their guard down and open up. That doesn't happen in an hour and rarely within the first day.  Your job is to get the good stuff, to get the emotional or thoughtful answers by developing enough comfort for them to be honest.  This is where the drive-and-talk comes in.

 

Using this technique is something I've been doing since the beginning of my career, which started back in high school.  More often than not, when my friends and I were up to no good being the hooligans that we were (and some would argue still are) I would have my camera with me.  When I wasn't the one driving, I was either in the back or the passenger seat running the camera, asking my friends what we were doing, where we were going and what we would be doing when we got there.  I could never imagine asking my friends to sit down in a seat with a couple studio lights set up to ask the same kinds of questions I'd pose in the car.  Filming in and from moving vehicles was just the thing I did!  And these guys would come to life in that environment.  I noticed that whatever I shot from inside the car carried a kind of urgency with it.  We were young, probably up to no good, and the folks at the place we were headed didn't know what was coming.

 

Jump ahead to being a professional.  I kept running the camera in the car despite myself.  It was just the thing I did.  But when someone pointed it out to me that I kept doing this again and again, I thought about it and realized how effective this device actually was.

 

Getting back to that character you're trying to connect with, the last thing they probably feel comfortable doing, since they just met you, is to be forced to sit in a chair under some hot studio lights and be subjected to answering probing questions about their motivations, their dreams, and what they intend to do about them.  If this person is being used to illustrate a point - especially if they are the focus of your piece - you need to have them show you around somewhere: that place giving them motivation, the cause for their unrest, or the location of that scientific breakthrough they are about to make.  Instead of sitting them down in a chair, meet them at their house and have them take you to the location of the story.  Most likely, they will agree to this.

 

How do you film and interview in a car effectively?

Have the right gear, take precautions, relax.

 

Filming in a car has its risks.  For starters, your $20,000 camera (or $500 camera, no judgement here) is going to be unsecured, for the most part, sitting on your lap.  If you're lucky, you're in a big car with a seat that can go way back and maybe you'll be able to mount it to a small tripod between the seat and the dash.  More likely, it'll be on your lap.  Get used to this.  I shoot with a monitor, so I adjust the monitor to face me while the lens faces the character (presumably also driving the vehicle).  Once you start moving, the camera is going to want to bounce around.  The horizon line, if you can even tell where that is, is rarely going to stay level.  You'll need to figure out a good frame using elements of the interior - like the window, the door, the steering wheel, etc - and kind of memorize where those should be within the frame.  You'll be focused on asking questions, holding the camera steady, and not paying attention to the road.  Therefore, these references are needed so the shot looks balanced when you load it into your editing software the next day.  (or, in my case later that night)

 

Steve Kroll talks about how long he's been a wreck hunter in the Great Lakes and his early opposition to the establishment of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  The drive from his home to a boat launch allowed us to get to know each other and I captured a great chronological description of activities he'd engaged in that were vital to telling his story in A Wreck Hunter's Evolution.

 

 

Three ways to set up sound for the best audio while filming in a car:

 

Have your subject wear a lav mic.  If you have multiple microphone inputs put your shotgun mic and boom pole up on the dash against the windshield by laying it on a towel with the mic pointed at the subject.  A third option is to run the lav up and over the sun visor above the driver with the mic dangling down just enough so it points at the person. Keep in mind, this might be in your shot, but in this way you'll avoid getting that rustling sound from their shirt every time they adjust in their chair, turn the wheel, or move around for any reason.  Check the mic levels.  Have them say a few things about the weather or when they got their last speeding ticket.  If you have one mic and it's going to both channels of audio, jog them so that once you start going faster and the road noise increases you have a channel that is turned down a bit.  Your second channel is turned up for those times you are going slow or even stopped and the ambient sound is softer.  

 

Practice this a few times with a friend in a car.  Get used to handling the camera for unexpected times when they brake or when they hit a pot hole and to take note of what happens to your lighting.  You likely will not be headed the same direction the entire drive, so your light could go from being directly in front of the vehicle, to the right, left, behind you, etc. It might even go from sun up to sun down.  You might go from driving in the woods to driving in a tunnel to driving through farmland and the way the light will play inside the car will change dramatically. The point is, you are going to be adjusting your f-stop exposure a lot.  

 

B-Roll will save you in the editing room:

 

Film some b-roll of the drive.  You're still getting the audio of your character talking through the mic, so point the camera through the windshield, get a close up of their hands on the wheel, get a shot of the clock, and film out the window a few times.  This will provide some nice cutaways for the drive while giving you material to cover up those times you hit a pot hole or exit a dark tunnel into broad daylight.  With all of this in mind, let's go into why this is so useful.

 

Close ups of hands on the steering wheel, the shifter or the person looking out the window are great for increasing tension and providing cutaways for when you hit a pothole or the lighting abruptly changes.  This is a scene from a political ad I did for Rob Sobhani. 

 

The town of Fairport, Michigan comes into view while interviewing Steve Libert.  The team was headed from lower Michigan to upper Michigan for an expedition to search for La Salle's Le Griffon, the oldest shipwreck in the Great Lakes.  I had only spoken to Steve on the phone and three hour drive allowed me to get to know Steve and his crew and get some great backstory on their 30-year journey to find the ship.

 

Relax when you do the interview and take your time:

 

As soon as you can, start recording.  Let the camera run for a bit and focus on framing a great shot of your character behind the wheel.  Let them get used to the fact that you are there and that you have a camera in your lap that is pointed directly at them.  Don't look at them.  Look at the camera.  You need to be sure you're framed up correctly.  You don't want to make this seem too intimate right away, so you'll do yourself (and your film) a favor by paying attention to the shot.  They should be focused on the road, so let them do that.

 

This is where the magic will start to happen.

 

Like any interview, here you're going to start out with the basics: "Can you please state your name and affiliation and tell us where we are and where we are going?"  Let them answer.

 

Right there you've done some really big things for your film.  Aside from getting to know the character's name - "I am 'so-and-so' and today we are leaving 'point A' and going to 'point B' -  you've set up a natural three-act structure, giving the audience some idea of a goal (getting somewhere) and your character setting out to meet that goal (driving there).  Now that you're moving (quite literally), your character is taking steps within the story to make that goal happen.  This is why the walk-and-talk was so effective on Entourage.  Also, it's a good idea to ask how long it will take to get there, so you know how much time you have to ask them the tough questions.

 

I met Mallory Johnston at her apartment and together she drove us to where she worked at Marshall Spaceflight Center.  It was a chance for her to point out landmarks in Huntsville, Alabama, to discuss her morning commute and describe the pride she has in working for NASA.  I was also able to use clips from this drive-and-talk during a montage sequence where I needed to have a constant, building, forward movement to the scene in I want to be an Astronaut.

 

The next miracle: They will open up to you much more quickly than if you were in a studio, sitting in a chair under a bright light.

 

As is natural for anyone driving a car, they will be focused on the road.  Well, hopefully.  With cell phones and the way people drive these days, that could be in serious doubt.  While they are focused on the road they won't be as concerned with the fact that you have a $20,000 camera pointed in their face or that you're asking them probing questions about their hopes and dreams and why they do what they do, or did what they did.

 

When you drive you kinda go into auto pilot and the scenery takes you out of yourself as it passes by.  For me, anyway, I get some of my best ideas when I drive.  That's what you're allowing your character to do: raising their ideas to the surface.  Instead of filtering those thoughts like they would in a studio under the lights, they are going to be much more relaxed and allow those thoughts to spill out.  They aren't starring at you or the camera; they are being in control of the car while you do your job operating the camera while you ask questions.

 

Save the tough questions for the end and know how much time you have:

 

Depending on how much time you have, don't feel like you need to rush to ask the next question right away.  Let them go back to focusing on the road, where their thoughts can ruminate: in what would be an awkward silence under any other circumstances, they can let those thoughts come to the surface and might offer a bit more on the subject.  When they do, don't interfere.  Let them keep talking and driving.  After you've going through this cycle of "Question, Answer, Pause, More Reflection, Question, Answer, Pause, More Reflection" a few times, the person is feeling pretty comfortable with you.  Assuming you aren't a complete jerk.  Now is a good time to tell a joke or reveal something about yourself as it relates to what they are talking about.  Let them think about that for a minute then hit them with a tough question.

 

Chances are, if you've been in the car for 20 or more minutes, they are giving you really thoughtful, free-flowing reflections on what you're discussing.  You're still focusing on the camera because you're good at your job, you've gotten some b-roll, and they are now really comfortable with you.  You're going somewhere.  Together.  That's not something you can do with two chairs, a tripod, and some lights.  

 

Having met Joe only a few minutes prior and having an extremely limited amount of time to film his story, as soon as we jumped in his car to get to the site of a Quinault Indian Nation razor clam dig I started rolling and asking questions.  It also provided the opportunity to get some sweeping views out his window of the dig as we drove out to the beach. 

 

When you reach your destination, get the camera and sound ready to exit the vehicle:

 

From time to time, be sure to ask how much further to the destination.  You've probably lost track of time and you want ask those important questions before you get there, but also as you need some reference points during the drive that will allow you to piece together the beginning, middle, and end of the journey.  After you've arrived and before you get out of the car have them tell you where you came from, what the route was to get there, and where you are now and why that is important.  Finally, ask them what you're going to be doing now that you're there.  That'll set up the next sequence and give you some insight into what you need to be focusing on with the camera.  Try to get a good shot of them getting out of the car (either from the passenger seat or by getting out first).  Make sure you've wrangled any microphone cables and that they are wearing the lapel mic so you can flow effortlessly into the next sequence.

 

Final thoughts in conducting an interview in a car:

 

You've just learned everything about your character you need to know and did it while accomplishing two other things: You created tension and anticipation through the act of getting in a car and establishing where you are going, and you also have a backbone for the three acts you need to have a complete piece.

 

Most of the films I've produced lately have been for the web, and are under three minutes.  If I only have a day or even a half day to get the story, this breaks down the tension between me and the subject, placing them in a familiar place that is conducive to freeing their mind.  Your film will benefit from the information you gather about the character; the capturing of the implicit act of starting somewhere, traveling through space and getting to a destination; it gives you the material you need to fall back on in the editing room when you want to illustrate that your character is making progress toward their goal.

 

Here's a quick checklist for conducting the drive-and-talk interview:

  • Practice!  (You don't want the first time you do this to be with your character, whom you may never see again)

  • Use two channels of audio and jog the levels: one for when the vehicle is going slow or stopped (higher level), the other for when you have a lot of road noise to avoid peaking.

  • Get comfortable and get situated.  Have the monitor or on-camera LCD screen face you.

  • Make sure the radio is turned off and that the windows are up. 

  • Make sure your camera is set to manual focus.  All this movement can fool your autofocus and ruin the shot.

  • Get the camera level and reference elements in the frame.  You'll lose track of what's level, so you need those references to keep a good shot.

  • Occasionally get some b-roll so you have cutaways when there are abrupt lighting changes, pot holes, or sudden stops.  Close ups of their face, the steering wheel, the road ahead, and the scenes passing by outside the window.

  • Ask where you are, where you're going and how long it will take to get there.

  • Look at the screen. Don't look at your character while they are driving.  They shouldn't be making eye contact with you, so you shouldn't be trying to make eye contact with them. You want them to forget that you're sitting there with a camera.

  • Ask a question and allow plenty of empty space between when they are finished answering and when you ask the next question.  They may have a thought and decide to add to what they've said.  There's often times good stuff in there.

  • Like any interview, ask the hard questions later in the conversation. The person is mesmerized by the road and the scenery, so they'll give you much better answers than if you were in a studio.  (I like to play devil's advocate and take an opposing viewpoint, doubt what they are telling you, and force them to convince me why their view is correct.)

  • When you get to the destination, have them tell you again where you are, how you got there and what is going to happen next.

  • Be sure they are wearing the microphone so you can follow them as soon as you get out of the car.

Here's a list of gear you need: (These are the items I'm using, personally, listed through Amazon Associates)

  1. Camera (SONY FS700)

  2. Monitor (Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q)

  3. Lav Mic (Sony UWP16)

  4. Shotgun or On-Camera Mic (RODE TNG1)

  5. Headphones (Sony Studio Monitors)

 

And that's the Drive-and-Talk!  If you have any additional thoughts or comments to share, please do so!  There's a comments section below.  Happy shooting!

 

Please subscribe to my blog and I'll send you the latest articles where I'll be reviewing gear and talking about my experiences in the field.  If you have questions, I can be reached at david.ruck@gmail.com.

 

David J. Ruck is a documentary filmmaker, educator and explorer who currently works as in-house video producer and underwater camera operator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.  His work takes him from coast-to-coast, telling the stories within America's underwater parks.  He is the first filmmaker to premiere a film in space on the International Space Station.  He can be reached through his website www.davidjruck.com where you can see examples of his work and find articles and resources for documentary storytellers.

 

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