Visionary Voices: Interview with Eleanor Elkin

The cat’s out of the bag (you’ll find her in the backdrop)!

I’m not a cat owner, and claim no expertise in feline behavior.  Even so, I think I’m right in saying that Rosie the cat was miffed.

Rosie belongs to Eleanor Elkin.  She is a cat who is territorial.  A cat who wants her owner’s undivided attention.   A cat who didn’t want a film crew in her space.  From the minute videographer Lindsey Martin and I stepped into Eleanor’s apartment for our interview, it was clear who was boss.  Rosie watched as we unpacked our video equipment, giving everything a good sniff before it was cleared for entry.  Some bags required a more detailed investigation (the tripod case was clearly hiding something that Rosie needed to find).  But the biggest draw by far was the backdrop.  Rosie swatted it, and sat on it.  As soon as the camera rolled she would shake it, forcing us to stop the interview and offer treats in exchange for her cooperation.  Like I said, Rosie was boss.  Eventually she was content to curl up in the folds of the backdrop, enjoying the warmth of our key light.

Not everyone is as big a fan of backdrops as Rosie.  Some have asked me why I chose to use a backdrop for our interviews, as the look is very stylized.  Why not record the interviews in people’s homes, and show their environment?  And wouldn’t working in people homes make the subjects more comfortable?

I thought long and hard about  the ‘look’ of our interviews.   Typically, I do like to work with people in their own space; homes are ideal, but depending on the person, an office, classroom or community space can work equally well.  I do agree with those who feel that recording a person in his/her own environment can add interesting visual details, and can provide added, subtle (sometimes not so subtle) information about the interviewee.

But while the goal of Visionary Voices is ambitious (30-50 in-depth conversations over a twelve month period), our funds are limited.  We don’t always have the option to travel to people’s homes; interviews are often conducted at the university or, when we’re on the road, in a hotel.  These spaces are rarely visually dynamic. But by asking our interviewees, when able, to come to us, we save enormously on crew costs and travel time.  The other benefit of using a backdrop is the time we save during set-up.  Because we can control the lighting, our two-person crew can move quickly; Lindsey and I have completed our set up in 30 minutes (sometimes less, when we’re in the zone).  A set up in a ‘real’ environment could take twice as long.  These cost saving measures allow us to record more interviews, a real plus.  Also, our interviews will be accessed primarily though the internet; our more stylized look seems to play well in this smaller format.

But apart from practical concerns, there is also something compelling to me about using a backdrop.  When there is nothing else in the frame to distract the viewer, he or she is required to look at our subject.  Each person’s thought process is reflected in their eyes; their expressions and body language help to reveal their character.  This intimate point of view allows the audience  to more fully experience the power of each story.  My hope is that viewers will feel as though they’re having  an one-on-one conversation with a person they’ve always wanted to meet.  A person like Eleanor Elkin who, at age 95, answers questions about the personal and the political with equal (and disarming) candor.

There are pros and cons to my choice of background, but as the pace of our interviews picks up, I feel confident about the choice. With that decision made, the real challenge lies in developing the content, and finding the funds to continue the work.

Not that Rosie cares.



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