Somewhere there is probably a 300 page book on this topic but i’m just going to give you what I believe to be the fundamentals to filming your interviews. Now I know this is not the most interesting thing to film but being able to set up cameras, lights and sets in shorts spaces of time with little crew and under pressure whilst also briefing the interviewee is good practice for any aspiring filmmaker. Im going to be using some pictures, as examples, from a documentary I shot about halloween.
Format and style
This all depends on what the interview is for and what else is going to be edited in with it. Will you have the interviewer on camera or off camera asking questions? Usually it’s easier to have the interviewer off camera unless there is reasons you need to have them on camera such as they are hosting the show. You want to make sure your style and approach is consistent throughout your project. For the rest of this post I am going to assume we are doing the interview with the interviewer off camera.
First thing I want to say is DON”T BE LATE. The last thing you want to do is add more pressure to your shoot. Running late can throw your whole interview out of whack. The whole thing suddenly becomes rush and the lighting looks terrible, the interviewee is nervous because you haven’t had time to prep them etc. Besides it doesn’t look professional.
Having a good crew will take a lot of pressure of you so you can concentrate on the subject and focus of the interview but of course budget does not always permit, I have many times done it on my lonesome. It also helps if some of your crew knows the topic of the interview so they can pick up on anything you may have missed. As the director/producer you are in charge so it is your responsibility to make sure all the crew have the address, times and relevant contact numbers. This is usually done in a ‘call sheet’ that is sent out to all the crewmembers. Don’t turn up with a massive entourage of crew, it’s not necessary for this type of work and can be off putting for the interviewee.
Shooting interviews are can be quite stressful especially when your on some one else’s time and it doesn’t help if your interviewee is high profile as they usually have less time, so check and double check all your kit before the shoot. Turning up to a shoot and realizing that part of your kit doesn’t work can really mess up your interview even if it is fixable. Anything you can do to take the pressure off on the day is a good idea. A kit list comes in handy for making sure you haven’t forgot to pack anything and so you don’t leave anything behind when you wrap.
I always allow myself an hour to get things setup but it can be done in less time. Usually you wouldn’t have done a recce for this type of filming especially if it’s in someone’s house, so you won’t know what to expect. You just have to make the most of what you got and be creative with it. First thing I do is assess where the natural light is coming from and decide weather to block it out or use as my fill light. A couple of things to consider here, are you shooting with tungsten lights or daylight? If you have tungsten (3200K) then do you have CTB gel to color balance your lights to daylight? If not you can end up with a very unnatural looking image with two different color lights sources. Second thing to consider would be is the natural light (daylight) going to change (in brightness) during the course of your interview? E.g. day to night, clouds passing over sun etc. I once had to film an interview in someone’s house and they didn’t have any blinds on their windows, during the interview clouds were passing by and blocking out the sun. When I watched the interview back the image was getting brighter and darker throughout – Not good. So if your not sure it’s best to block out the sun with curtains and blinds then you have more control over the lighting.
Don’t be afraid to move furniture around to get a better looking set (just ask permission first!). If your subject is going to be sitting down then it’s a good idea to move the chair/sofa away from the wall to avoid getting shadows from your key light and to give your shot a bit more depth. Also you can angle your key light up higher to make shadows drop behind your subject and out of view. Look out for anything you can use to place in the background that adds to your subject e.g. a photo of a family member that the interview is about or a punch bag if your subject is a boxer. Its also nice touch to dimly light these objects in the background but don’t over do it, you don’t want to distract the audience away from your subject.
When your setting up the lights try to use one of your crew members to sit it rather than subject as I find it’s a less pressure on you as you don’t feel you have to rush and then you can concentrate on getting the lighting right. Best to use 3 light setup – key, fill and back light. Soft lights are more flattering to the interviewee as it doesn’t show up as many wrinkles and blemishes. And it’s good to keep some translucent powder to hand to get rid of any shine.
Positioning the camera and subject
You want your subject to look at the interviewer and not the camera, unless they are directly addressing the viewing audience. Give your subject “looking room” by placing them either on the left or right hand side of the frame. If the subject is framed on the left hand side then have the interviewer sit on the right hand side of the camera (not in shot) and visa versa. This way the subjects eye line will be into their looking room. It’s important that the interviewer sits close to the camera and at the same height so the interviewee doesn’t appear to be looking up, down or too far off to the side.
The size of your shot will usually come down to what’s in the background. Sometimes you will find that you need a fairly tight shot to avoid unwanted things coming into frame. You can vary the size of the shots when the interviewer is asking questions but make sure not to do it when the interviewee is talking otherwise your have a hard job in the edit. I usually start on a wide to mid shot and work my way in as the interview goes on. For more intense emotional points of interviews then a big close up works nicely.
If in the edit your going to have this interview juxtaposed with another persons interview then it works best to have them each on opposite sides of frame.
Briefing your subject
The more relaxed you are the more comfortable your subject will feel so try to be up beat and enthusiastic. It’s good to briefly go through the focus of the interview, why you are doing it and what you hope to achieve. You can go over some of the questions (which you should prepare on paper) but from past experience I’ve found that the best answers are the first answers.
In the rush of getting everything set up it’s easy to forget a few important points:
What format are you shooting in? HD or SD? 16:9 or 4:3? What frame rate? Make sure it matches with things previously shot for this project.
Have you white balanced? Did you do since setting up the lights? This is fixable in the edit but best results are to get it right in the camera.
Are your batteries all charged? Nothing worse than stopping an interview 5 minutes in to change a battery.
Are you recording the correct audio channels and at the correct level?
Have you got plenty of tape or space on your memory card?
I know all sounds pretty basic but its good to follow a procedure before rolling. Better safe than sorry.
Syncing audio and video
If you are recording your audio separately to your video or you are recording on multiple cameras then do your self a favor and do a ‘sync clap’ at the start of every take. Just simply get someone to clap once in front of your cameras and say the name of the take. In Hollywood they use the famous clapperboards. With this you can easily sync up your shots and audio in the edit by finding the first frame of the clap on each piece of footage and aligning them on the time line. There is also software called pluraleyes that will sync audio and video automatically. It’s worth checking out and they have a free trial version.
It’s essential to make sure your interviewee answers in full sentences and what I mean by that is they include the question in the answer for e.g. if your question is “ where and when were you born?” they should answer “I was born in London in 1986” not “London 1986”. This way you will not need to include the interviewers question in the final edit to know what the interviewee is talking about, you only have to listen to their answer. As the director and interviewer it is your job to stop when they get this wrong and believe me they will get this wrong unless they are a pro. I always make sure I’m very encouraging and explain its easy thing to get wrong and every one does it. Make sure they stay relaxed and you will get a better more natural interview. A good way to warm them up is to ask gentle questions to start with, nothing too heavy.
I have often had to interview people who are telling a story of an event from their past and in most cases they have already told this story a million times before. And it shows. You want this person to relive the moment rather than just give an account of what happened. You want your viewers to feel the emotions they went through. Ask questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “ was that the first time you realized you had no one to turn to?” Questions like these bring out the inner emotions of the story and that is key to a good interview. Of course you have to be sensitive when dealing with certain issues but this is something that can be discussed before hand of how you will deal wit it. If your subject does get emotional or tearful it’s best to just pause in silence to capture this intimate moment rather than jump in and say let me get you a tissue.
Although you will be reading your questions from paper make sure you subject knows you are listening to them and keep eye contact as much as possible and nod (“no ums or yes’s”). You don’t have to stick to your pre-prepared questions only, follow up any answers you don’t understand as your viewers will more than likely be in the same boat as you. Also don’t feel as if you have to fill every silence with a comment or question, breathing space is good.
You may come across technical problems during the interview and it’s best to address them immediately. If your not sure just stop and check because it’s better than tearing your hair out in the edit suite because you had a problem with the mic and the audio is no good! I usually let them finish speaking first but I keep a note of when we cut so we can pick up from the same place. Just stay calm and address the issue then commence the interview.
Sometimes you have people who are shy and don’t say much then on the other hand you have people who talk too much, they have some much information to share they get of track and lose focus of what your interview is about. Now of course it’s better to have too much than not enough as you can always edit it down afterwards but you need to keep them on track. Sometimes too much information dilutes the main focus. Often I find that someone will say a few interesting points but also say a lot of unnecessary stuff in between, so I wait for them to finish and say “ I loved what you said about….. and also the part about….. Do you think you could summarize those two points in a couple of sentences?” this usually works very well in getting to them to be precise and to the point it also shows you are listening.
Ok so you’ve got everything you want from the interview and your ready to wrap. At this point I will ask the interviewee if there is anything they think we have missed or would like to share. Sometimes you can get some really good material just from this question alone. I keep the cameras rolling as longs as possible, after we finish, as you will be supersized at how your subject relaxes as soon as they think interview is over and they usually talk more on a personal level to you. I don’t mean be dishonest and sneak some off the record gossip but if they do talk about something interesting off camera and you happen to get it just ask at the end if they mind that being included in the final edit. That’s also why I turn off record lights on front of my camera.
If you are shooting with just one camera then now is your chance to grab some cut always or non sync shots for e.g. when people talk they usually move their hands around so ask your subject a question just to get them talking then shoot their hands only. You can use this footage in the edit to cover up any shaky camera moves and also it will make the interview more dynamic. Other shots could be a close up of their eyes as they talk, a wide shot with them out of focus or a shot from the side and slightly behind so you can see their jaw moving but you can’t see their mouth.
Examples of non sync cut aways:
Another thing to consider shooting is something the viewer may have heard but not seen during the interview. For example if you’re on a building site and you can hear machinery. Its very disconcerting as viewer to hear something and not be able to see what it is, as soon as we see it we can acknowledge what it is and forget about it, leaving us to concentrate on what the subject is talking about. If I have to shoot by a busy road I will try and include this in the background of my shot.
Just before you wrap grab a one minute ‘buzz track’ or ‘wild sound’ on the audio. This is just simply recording the ambient sound in the room from the same mic you used for the interview but with no one talking. This may come in handy in the edit when trying to transition between cuts in the audio. It’s also a good idea to get establishing shots e.g. the outside of the building, shop windows, signs, logos etc. You may not need it but least you will have it just in case.
Examples of establishing shots:
It is very important to get release forms signed by anyone who appeared on camera. It’s a document that they sign to say to that give you permission to use the footage of them for what ever purpose you need e.g. for broadcast, web, DVD re-sale etc. if you can then get them to do it before the interview, also for extra precaution you can ask the to give you an audible permissions release on camera at the beginning of the interview. You can find examples of release forms on line.
Well I think pretty that much covers all the fundamentals and maybe a bit more. I hope that was helpful and would like to hear any feedback and questions you may have.