Filming Interviews

Interviews are the foundation of many documentaries, news stories, and training and promotional videos.

The interviewer plays the essential role of getting the interviewee relaxed and drawing out key information, responses and reactions. The videographer and any crew must cover all of the cornerstones of high-quality video: lighting, camera and audio.

This article is intended to provide a list of considerations to help make your interview as good as possible.

Advance Preparation

What should be the visual background? Visual background

Will this interview be paired with other interviews? If so, the approach should be consistent. It can be distracting to mix and match office backgrounds with white studio backgrounds.

For location interviews, the background should be relevant to the interviewee and topic. Interview an executive in their office, a teacher in a classroom setting, a wildlife biologist in nature, a dancer in a dance studio. It’s often a good idea to get a location release if shooting on private property. For disruptive shoots on public property, a permit is sometimes required.

Consider a fabric or studio background for specialized looks. HBO’s “Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives” effectively used black backgrounds to create drama. Apple popularized a series of commercials with stark white backgrounds. Green screen backgrounds can allow you to place your interviewee wherever you want them.

Should the interviewee look at the interviewer or into the camera? Where should the interviewee look?

When the interviewee looks at the interviewer, the audience will feel they are watching a conversation. This often works well for documentaries and other videos where the discussion is about something.

When the person looks directly into the camera, they are making a direct appeal to the audience. This is often works well for training videos, a business owner introducing their business, or a direct appeal to the audience.

Book the crew, equipment, and support personnel.

This will be heavily influenced by available budget. Possible crew include producer, director, interviewer, camera operator(s), audio, lighting and production assistant, as well as hair and make-up.

Prepare the interviewee

Provide written confirmation of the date, time, approximate duration and location. Give them information on how to dress and hair style, especially if set clothing is required. See Look' Good for the Video Shoot

Provide topics and/or questions (unless spontaneity is needed). If they will be signing a release, try to provide it in advance.

Arrival & Set Up

The first decision is where to shoot. Decide where to shoot

Choose a spot with as much space possible. This will provide room for cameras, lighting and crew. Space will also make it easier to have good depth of field in the shot.

The location should be quiet. Listen especially for hum from air handling equipment and echos in a room with no books, draperies or carpeting. If you must film in a location with noises, try to put the noise source on screen so the viewer understands the noise.

Avoid distracting visuals and movement in the background. You usually don’t want people walking in and out of frame during the interview. Also, avoid artwork or objects with logos in the background, unless you’ve already gotten permission to use them.

Before beginning to set up, take some quick photos to make it easier to return the site to its original condition.

Choose a chair for the interviewee that doesn’t allow movement (i.e., doesn’t swivel or have wheels). Don’t position it against a wall — you’ll be fighting shadows, and the background will lack interest and depth. If space is tight, consider using a hall as background or position them in a corner.

Next, set up the lighting

Three-point lighting is the gold standard for indoor interviews (key, fill & back/hair light). See also Cinema5D's 8 Easy Lighting Rules and BorrowLenses Blog on Popular Interview Lighting Techniques.

Think of lighting as a paintbrush. Use lighting to emphasize important areas, and use shadows to hide undesirable spots. Use more light for darker-skinned people, less for pale-skinned. Position the key light slightly above the face to create shadows that make the chin appear well-defined and strong. Positioning the key light on the side of the face away from the camera creates shadows on the near side, creating a slimming effect. When the key light is on the side of the face toward the camera, it tends to broaden the face. Ambient lighting or a reflector can sometimes replace the fill light.

Using natural light with interviews can be challenging. Natural light changes often, making it more difficult for the editor to cut together different sections of the interview. Outdoors, bright sun can make the interviewee squint and create harsh shadows. Cloudy days are nicer, more like a giant soft box. “Golden hour” lighting is flattering but ephemeral. If you are filming inside with a window in the shot, be sure to light the face enough to compete with the window light. Also be aware that sunlight is usually a bluish tint, while most indoor light is more yellow, creating a potential conflict.

After the lighting, position the camera(s). Keep them back as much as possible to avoid being obtrusive.

Two cameras are ideal. One camera usually gets a medium shot, while the second gets close-ups. Alternatively, the second camera can:

  • Film the interviewer, if they are to be included.
  • Alternate between close-ups and gestures.
  • Rove and get motion shots, especially if a demonstration is involved.
  • Use a slider, jib or dolly to get motion shots.

If only one camera is being used, one option is to plan to cover cuts and add interest with good b-roll, action shots of the interviewee, and photos or graphics. If you have the ability to shoot in 4K, it will allow the editor to zoom and crop in post. And finally, a videographer can shoot to make it look like there were two cameras. During filming, they will alternate between medium and close-up shots. Just after the interview ask some of the questions again, especially those when the subject was most animated. This time, get different angles without the moving mouth in the shot, such as hand gestures and foot movements.

Finally, the audio: Use two microphones whenever possible. Typically, one is a lavalier or “lav”. The second is often a shotgun.

The lav will do the best job of getting the subject’s voice, but is also at the most risk of hearing rubbing sounds on the mic or cord and of interference if it is wireless. Wired lavs aren’t subject to interference and are usually a better choice, unless the subjects will be moving around too much.

It’s tempting to mount a shotgun mic on the camera, but ideally the second mic should be as close to the interviewee as possible without showing in the shot.

If the interviewer and interviewee will both be on camera, or if there are several interviewees, consider using several lavs, adding in a mixing board if necessary or using a boom pole with an operator to move the mic to each new speaker.

When the Interviewee Arrives

The interviewer should greet them, make them feel at home and take care of any preliminaries, including answering questions and signing the release, while the crew finishes the set-up.

Seat the interviewee and ask them continue to talk while the crew makes adjustments.

Position the interviewer next to the camera on the same level, so the conversation will look comfortable. Make sure there is enough light on the interviewer so the two can communicate visually.

Adjust the lighting to make the interviewee look their best.

Place the lavalier mic on the interviewee. Video interviews often show the lavalier, but you should still minimize its appearance by carefully placing it and hiding the cord. If you do need to hide the lav, see 17 Ways to Hide a Lavalier Mic, 4 Nifty Techniques for Hiding Lav Mics on Your Subjects or Microphone Hide and Seek: 7 Ways to Hide a Lav.

Finish setting up the camera(s)

Check settings, battery level, available memory card space, etc. White balance and adjust manual focus on the interviewee.

Consider a polarizing filter if interviewee is wearing glasses or if you are having difficulty with window glare or reflections.

Adjust framing: If the interviewee will be looking at the interviewer, use the Rule of Thirds to position them on one side of the frame, looking into wider open space on the other side of the frame. If the interviewee will be looking into the camera, usually put them in the middle of the frame.

Just before the interview starts, the interviewer should cover the points below. Keep this quick to avoid being intimidating.
  • Turn off cell phones
  • Review the focus of the interview & timing
  • Remind them where to look (camera vs. interviewer)
  • Tell them not to worry if they make a mistake or stumble. The video will be edited, so they can stop whenever they want, rephrase, etc.
  • Ask them to wait a beat after each question and to answer in a complete sentence. After answering, they should wait a beat again before relaxing or looking away.
  • Ask if they need to be comfortable, e.g., water. (Usually have water available anyway.)

The Interview

Interviewer tips Interviewer
  • Start out with simple, basic questions to get them warmed up. Name & spelling, then title are good if a lower third will be used.
  • Ask questions in a logical order for person to tell story, build to main point, then ask them to sum up afterward.
  • Ask questions starting with how, why, where, what, rather than questions which suggest a response, like did, are, will, was.
  • To draw out the interviewee, ask questions about their answers, amplifying parts you are interested in. For example, "It sounds like that made you angry. Did you let the other person know?"
  • At end, ask if there’s anything else they’d like to cover.
  • Be respectful of their time constraints.
  • If they are losing energy or getting tired, move on.

Videographer tips
  • The camera should be slightly above eye level to create a strong chin line and make them seem more casual and friendly.
  • Use manual focus so the interviewee is sharp and the background slightly out of focus. Adjust the focus if the interviewee moves forward and backward.
  • Wear headphones and listen to be sure there are no rubbing sounds from hair or clothing. Interrupt if necessary to make adjustments.
  • Zoom in slightly and slowly if the interviewee begins to get emotional

Wrapping Up

Take time to review and make sure everything needed was captured on camera. Thank the interviewee, provide contact information, and answer any questions.

Return the location to its original condition, using the photos taken earlier as a guide. Thank the crew for their great work!

In Conclusion

A lot more goes into an interview than just starting the camera and talking with your subject. Having all of these elements together will help make your finished product polished and precise. The interview will serve its purpose of informing your audience on your subject and look great while doing so.

Jacquie Greff, author

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