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Getting the Best Answers in any Documentary Interview

With a little preparation and knowledge, interviews can actually be one of the most thrilling portions of making a documentary. To help you prepare, we show you what to include when briefing your talent, how to ask quality questions, and how to respond to questions that will get you the best answers from your interview.

Video Transcript

Without shots that show what subjects are talking about, it can be hard to keep the interest of your viewers. That's where B-roll comes in. These shots can help you ensure that your audience will be able to both understand your documentary and be captivated by its content.

It's often surprising how much of a difference good B-roll can make to a documentary. It helps you keep a good pace, cover mistakes, and dive even deeper into your story. To help you shoot good B-roll, we'll go over some tips on how to direct and capture people and how to make sure you cover live events in a way that makes your documentary interesting and informative.

More often than not, your B-roll will involve capturing people doing everyday tasks. Even so, in order to make sure you get the kinds of shots that will tell your story, you'll want to spend some time putting together a goal list. This way you won't waste any time capturing events that won't further the story of your film.
Much like film, you'll often need to help your subjects overcome camera shyness by having them do familiar tasks or by recounting conversations they've had earlier. In certain cases, when changing locations, you can even step in to remind them what they were feeling before the move. Similarly to interviews, you'll want to remind your subjects not to look at the camera or to worry about any mistakes. The footage can always be cleaned up later. At the same time, it is always best to try and stay out of the affairs of your subject as much as possible. It's hard for subjects to look natural when their lines have been given to them. To avoid this kind of behavior, make sure you shoot in familiar environments, try not to talk with the subjects, make small movements, and get some distance between you and the subject when possible.
In order to capture the actions of your subject adequately, you'll want to consider having multiple cameras at your shoot. Especially if you have more than one subject, this can help you to get angles that can show the emotions of your subject much more clearly. If your two subjects will be talking you'll want to really consider whether or not to shoot over the shoulder of each subject or just frame both independently. By shooting over the shoulder of your subject, the viewer will have a much better sense of the distance between your subjects. On the other hand, shooting each person independently helps the viewer focus on that one person and can be less distracting to both subjects.
The best way to make an editor happy while shooting your documentary is to remember to capture cutaways, and reaction shots. These shots help you to fill in mistakes and keep a faster pace in your documentary. f you're shooting with one camera, you'll have to ask your subjects to prolong their conversation while you capture shots of each subject when they're not talking. These shots are especially helpful when one subject talks for a long period of time.
The last thing to consider when shooting subjects is what your angle and setting conveys. Shooting your subject in a dark or busy environment makes them feel dark or busy themselves. At the same time, shooting your subject from a high angle can make them feel small while shooting from a low angle makes them feel much bigger than they really are. As a result, your angle and environment need to be carefully considered for every shot you do.
Last, but not least, you'll want to make sure you have the right equipment to do the job. When shooting people, mobility and quick set ups are important. So having a lightweight telescoping tripod and a camcorder with a zoom lens are good ideas. In certain cases, even a small slider dolly on a tripod can also be used. These dollies can quickly make your shots look more professional. Also, since you'll more than likely be filming subjects by yourself in order to be less intrusive, you won't need any audio or lighting gear since they'll end up taking too much space.

The other common subject to get B-roll of is a live event. The more you know about a live event, the more control you'll have over your audio and your image. This is why getting an agenda early on and scouting the location before it begins is always worth your time. By doing this you'll know exactly what equipment you'll need and have time to come up with a plan for covering the event.
The person who should be your best friend at any live event shoot is the sound operator. The sound operator will be your gateway to getting the best possible sound using a direct feed from the sound board. Often, the best outputs to draw from a sound board are an auxilliary out, tape out, or headphone out. The trick is finding out which output the sound operator is willing to give up. In case there aren't any free outputs, it's a good idea to have an audio splitter that can split either an XLR, ¼ inch, or RCA feed into two equal channels. Adapters like these can be lifesavers on a shoot. Once you've gotten your live feed, you'll want to plug it into either an external recording device or into a wireless transmitter like the kinds found in wireless lavalier systems. This way you can hook up the receiver to your camera audio input and monitor the audio for levels that may get too hot. However, even if you're monitoring the audio feed, you'll still need to speak with the sound operator ahead of time to make sure they know how much volume to give to your camera and to test the audio levels before you begin recording.
One type of shot you'll want to cover early on is an establishing shot. Establishing shots are usually wide shots of the venue where the action is about to take place. This helps the audience to understand where they are and are great ways to segue in or out of a scene. Similar to capturing individuals, it's a good idea to have a goal list and multiple cameras at live events. The bigger the event, the more important this becomes.

B-roll is an important part of any documentary. With the tips we've shown, you'll be able to capture the kind of B-roll shots that will make your documentary great.


jsmith0475's picture

Good video. One brief comment - unless you want you voice to be heard stating the question, have the talent repeat the question in their own words. For example, Interviewer: What do you like surfing? (good)Talent: I like surfing because it makes me feel like I'm on top of the world. (bad) Talent: It makes me feel like I am on top of the world. Interviewer: What was it like to see your friend attacked by a shark? (good) Talent: When my friend was attacked by a shark is was the most terrifying event in my life. (bad) Talent: It was the most terrifying event in my life. This style allows for natural interviews scenes to be composited without the need to hear the interviewer. Dr. Jerry
teluproductions's picture

This is an excellent production video and a list of productions suggestions. I'm going through this right now, and everything you are saying is absolutely right. Anyone reading or seeing this should be taking serious notes, and or copy the script and then laminate the notes in plastic... good video is one thing, good sound is all the better; practice practice, practices! Also, know your equipment before the shoot; the trouble is most people learn their equipment the day of the shoot...its too late, you are already in trouble! The other thing I would suggest is know the patterns of your mics, listen to the air or wind direction.
robboyd's picture

Dr. Jerry makes a fantastic point about having the talent restate the question so you can use their answer standalone without resorting to graphics or hearing the director. Combine this with the point made in video about not stepping on the toes as talent is answering. Both of these can make an edit very challenging. I do like the point of pushing for awkward silence at the end in the event some unexpected gold is uncovered. Question for anyone who cares to answer - what is your stance on pre-interviewing guests? I don't always have this luxury, but I often find it helpful to chat via phone at least once with my anticipated questions, themes etc. It often serves two purposes: 1. put the guest at ease so they know what to expect when we meet, and 2. I often find creative possibilities that will dictate a change in theme, b-roll opportunities, etc. Thoughts? -Robb
mfrailich's picture

Agree with all that has been stated, especially about being comfortable with long pauses, that's when you get some of the best "stuff". One additional recommendation which may be obvious to some; always wear a headphone so that you know your getting your audio input. I learned this the hard way and sometimes you don't get a re-do. Midge Frailich Video Ethical Will
djcruize's picture

I like how even videos about video production can have a blooper...the talent was handed a red drink and the next shot, he was drinking a purple drink. Great video.
rman33's picture

I would offer the contrarian viewpoint on having the interviewee restate the question. It is certainly traditional and may be fine for many situations. It can also sound very canned and rehearsed. Sometimes your audience actually knows what you are talking about. Carrying through with the same examples already used, if your documentary is about surfing and the talent is saying "It makes me feel like I am on top of the world over a clip of him surfing a big wave then I doubt the audience will have any trouble following along since they already know he is talking about surfing and it is being visually reinforced with the clip. We do this all the time in corporate videos and it is done more often than not in broadcast videos.
Gil Garcia's picture

I liked this vid. good work. I agree that a pre-interview is necessary to make sure the person you are talking to is worth your time. I make sure that they are the right person that i should be talking with and can speak about the topic. But I don't ask questions. One tip I would add: I always ask them to state their name and spell it for me on camera. I use small talk to get them situated after this while im rolling and try to set mic levels at this point. BUT, the talent always gets louder as we begin! does anybody ever find this to be true? ha! Its so true about the last question...i always seem to get the best soundbytes when i ask, "is there anything you want to add?" "is there an answer that you would like to re-do?" but here's the kicker...i pretend that im getting a phone call from my wife after my last question. I leave the room. I keep the cams rolling. Sometimes the talent engages my assistant in small talk. I come back after a minute or two and THEN ask that final question. this gives the talent time to self reflect. the time for them to say to themselves, "oh man, i shoulda said this or that!" And when i ask if there is anything that they would like to add, or any answer they would like to re-do, they are ready!
erbauer's picture

Keep the camera rolling until the talent leaves the set.


I can't tell you how many times I have kicked myself by packing up too quickly.  Often, in the post-interview jubilation, a subject finally loosens up and comes alive.  The language is much more conversational and he starts telling the stories he couldn't think of while worried about the glare of the lights and camera lens pointed at him.  A number of times now I have scrapped everything shot during the 'formal' interview and just used the stuff I got after the subject thought we were through.  FYI - Always tell the subject you have continued shooting and that you may use some of the footage in the 'after interview'.  As I haven't done it to 'catch' anyone, I have never had anyone object.


Good luck out there.