The Interrotron: How Errol Morris Changed The Way Documentaries Watch Us
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Think of any “talking head” documentary interview and you’ll probably have a mental image of what that interview looks like: it’s a figure, framed comfortably with their head and upper torso visible, and the subject is looking a bit off to the side in the direction of the interviewer.
Over the years, this became the unofficial format of documentary interviews - the camera is hitting the subject more or less head on, and their heads are turned to face the interviewer. That interviewer got closer and closer to the camera over the years, until the subject is looking just ever so slightly off to the side.
It’s not exactly a natural state for a conversation, and folks who are inexperienced at giving on-camera interviews find it a little distracting, their eyes darting from the interviewer to the large, black, all-seeing lens glaring at them in their periphery. Still, for non-fiction storytellers, it was the best approximation of first-person storytelling they could manage.
Errol Morris decided it wasn’t good enough.
Morris, a documentarian known for, among other things, getting intimate, real interviews from people not accustomed to speaking on camera, wanted his subjects looking right into the lens, engaging the viewer directly. He didn’t want footage of his subjects telling him a story; he wanted them to tell YOU the story. As Morris explained in a 2004 interview:
On television we're used to seeing people interviewed 60 Minutes-style. There is Mike Wallace or Larry King, and the camera is off to the side. Hence, we, the audience, are also off to the side. We're the fly-on-the-wall, so to speak, watching two people talking. But we've lost (direct eye contact)...We all know when someone makes eye contact with us. It is a moment of drama. Perhaps it's a serial killer telling us that he's about to kill us; or a loved one acknowledging a moment of affection. Regardless, it's a moment with dramatic value. We know when people make eye contact with us, look away and then make eye contact again. It's an essential part of communication. And yet, it is lost in standard interviews on film.
Morris' problem was that if his subjects were looking into a camera lens, they weren’t looking at him, the engaging, empathetic interviewer. And without a human face to talk to, his subjects would clam up. Speaking to an intimidating, inhuman lens was not going to net the proper result.
Morris looked at the teleprompter and saw a solution. The teleprompter is a device that uses a computer screen and a two-way angled mirror to display text in front of a camera lens. Newscasters and politicians use them. Morris unplugged the Teleprompter from the screen used to display the text crawl, and plugged it instead into a camera aimed at himself. He then rigged another teleprompter in front of this second camera, and fed the main camera’s feed into that prompter. Now both he and his subject were looking at screen images of each other, and since those images were reflected on two-way mirrors, his subject was also looking directly into the camera lens. Suddenly, people with no on-camera training were essentially looking Morris dead in the eye, and pouring out their heart to the lens itself. (An illustration of this setup can be found here.) Morris explains:
I put my face on the Teleprompter or, strictly speaking, my live video image. For the first time, I could be talking to someone, and they could be talking to me and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera. Now, there was no looking off slightly to the side. No more faux first person. This was the true first person…I worried at first. Would it frighten people? Would they run out of the studio screaming? Who could say? I used it for the first time in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. And it worked like a charm. People loved the Interrotron.
The end result is on display in Morris’ 1997 film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.
In 2004, Morris used an updated version of the device in his Oscar-winning film, The Fog of War.
The effect is astonishing, and was soon picked up by all sorts of non-fiction storytellers.
Morris continued to evolve the Interrotron - putting it on a moving camera, coordinating it with lighting changes and dynamic sets, and using it to great effect on his series First Person.
Curiously, Morris never patented the Interrotron. Anyone with the right equipment can jerry-rig their own; today a company in New York offers state-of-the-art models. When used correctly, the Interrotron is a viscerally effective tool, pulling you into a kind of first-person storytelling 60 Minutes never imagined. Even if he hadn’t created some of the most powerful documentaries ever made, Morris would deserve a place in filmmaking history - in storytelling history - for concocting such an ingenious device using existing materials.