A large piece of fabric will make a great and inexpensive background. 

It’ll come in handy especially when you don’t have a decent location to work with or want to create a uniform look to your interview even thought they take place at a variety of different locations.  The network shows use this technique all the time.  I think so-called “professional” backdrops are an over priced waste of money.  Any fabric store will yield a multitude of more attractive artistic choices, one of which is sure to work for you.  Look for something that’s at least 12 x 12 feet that has an interesting texture or pattern.  The bigger the piece of fabric, the wider the shots you can compose with it.  The possibility of the looks you can achieve are endless.

Lighter colored fabrics such as standard canvas are more flexible because you can gel the lights on them so they appear any color you like.  Darker fabrics such as rich red or blue velvets will give you a more formal look, but will require more light.  Reflective fabrics also create an attractive and dynamic look.  You probably even have some old IKEA curtains lying around that might do the trick.  Thicker, more opaque fabrics look better.  Bed sheets and other thin fabrics are usually pretty cheesy looking, but you may be able to get away with it if they are wrinkle-free, rigged and lit well, and sufficiently out of focus.

Unless your fabric has an intentional wrinkled look, you’re going to need to have an iron handy.  Allow time to iron out wrinkles on smooth fabrics such as satins.  (Check the iron for the proper setting for your type of fabric.)  Use spring clamps to hang backdrops between two C-stands, on a portable clothing rack, or whatever else you’ve got to work with.  Make sure you’ve arranged it to create some interesting ripples in the fabric.  These ripples will add to the overall texture by creating some depth and interesting shadow.

Light your fabric from an angle for the best results.  You can use barn doors to create a diagonal slash or oval pattern.  Some fabrics will also look good lit from behind.  Experiment with different light positions and cloth ruffles.  Each will create a unique pattern of light and shadow.  You can also place a cookie on a light to create an interesting pattern if the fabric is still too boring.

Finally, you might try out different gels to see what best contrasts or complements your subject’s clothing and skin tone and decide if you want to use shallow depth-of-field to throw the backdrop a little out of focus.  The last step is to place your subject at least five feet from the backdrop.  Set up your camera and experiment!

Excerpted from The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide Focal Press. 

Anthony Artis is a 15-year veteran of the Film and TV industry whose features and shows have been screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, the IFP Feature Market, Slamdance, and on MTV.  He has worked professionally in positions as diverse as producer, gaffer, and cinematographer, and has survived more low-budget shoots than he cares to admit.  Anthony is presently the manager of the Film and TV Production Center at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he coordinates the technical training and production equipment for all film and TV students.