Interviewing Children

When I was a kid, growing up in the 1970s, my sister and I spent weekends with my grandparents. They were magic times. My grandfather taught us to pick out songs on his banjo, my grandmother was a fierce card player and, I think, never threw a game. One frequent part of our weekend excursion, apart from hitting swap meets and playing Wiffel ball was making recordings on my grandparents state-of-the-art reel-to-reel tape recorder. For us, this was magic and advanced technology. My grandparents used it to practice square dancing, but we used it to hear ourselves coming from a metal box – as though we were on the radio or something. My grandfather would conduct precise interviews, asking us about what we’d done that day, who our friends were in school, and all the other ordinary events of life. After listening to them no one gave them much thought and the tapes sat on a shelf for years – but now – what an unexpected treasure trove.

You may think you remember your childhood, but you don’t. Sure, the names of some friends may remain with you, and vague events, but the calendar of an ordinary day vanishes like fog. Think about those things that you think you remember, and consider how today’s kids will remember their childhood. Recording their thoughts and ideas at an early age can give them something to aspire to, or something to laugh about later on in life. Here are a few interview techniques for children to help you capture those memories now.

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Before the Interview

Know your audience, know its goals. Is this a video for kids? Parents? Strangers? Is its goal to tell a story? To collect oral history? Is it going to be sold? Given away for free? Who’s going to watch it and what do you want them to come away with at the end. These are the big questions you need to answer before you even start. This will help you decide how formal you want it to be. Interviews can range from the very simple – Junior sitting in the back seat of the car narrating the recent trip to the zoo, or it can be an elaborate interview with an entire classroom of children, with pipe and drape, lights, and off-camera microphones. Certainly, kids may be more comfortable with the candid approach, but in some instances, you’ll get more lively responses if they believe you are more credible – as it can occur with a more elaborate setup. Both of these styles have their place but go into your interview already knowing which you choose to do. Directing talent is one thing, directing kids is something altogether different.

Be Prepared

If you’re going to make a big production out of it, pre-planning is key. Choose your lighting, space and background – (paper seamless backdrops, muslin, existing architecture well ahead of time. Having lights set up and being part of a professional production can be a real thrill for kids, and if you’re looking to wow relatives a set of soft boxes and a gridded spot hair light can really add prestige to your shoot. Your preparation will really pay off while you’re directing the shoot, since there’s little that will turn a kid off from speaking more than an adult that forgot his or her interview questions or worse, you can’t find the correct jack for a plug and a kid knows exactly where it goes. Go ahead and show the kids the equipment and give a brief explanation, but keep monitors out of view, even adults get distracted by seeing themselves in a monitor while they’re answering questions.


Be Safe

Avoid physical hazards by being sure that all cables are properly dressed (taped down) and that lights and booms aren’t in areas where they can become tripping or head-hitting hazards. This should go along with your explanation of equipment, since kids will do well to understand that a light may get very hot, thus you as a working professional have gloves for such instances. Experts also recommend that for liability reasons you never be alone in a room with a child who’s not your own. If you are hiring kids for a shoot, and not simply interviewing them for a class project, be aware of the child labor act. Among the many rules governing hiring children, you can’t keep kids out of school, you can’t work them longer than allowed, and you can’t separate them from their assigned guardian.

For example, the federal minimum wage for a regular employee was $4.25 in 1995, and in 1996 that wage was raised 50 cents, and the youth minimum wage was $4.25. Another thing to consider if you’re doing a professional production is whether or not you’ll need model releases. Templates and sample model releases can be found easily online. If you’re hoping to sell or re-use the footage commercially, you’ll want to have the parents sign a release.

Who to Interview?

Figure out who you’re going to talk to. If you have a lot of kids who are potential subjects you should figure out in advance if you’re going to spend an equal amount of time with a number of kids (and give them equal “air” time) or if you’re going to concentrate on a subset. Discuss with the classroom teacher which child is most likely to answer in complete sentences and not mug for the camera. When Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady set out to make their 2006 documentary Jesus Camp about a religious retreat for children, they chose the most articulate kids they found and focused on them to tell the story. They were rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best documentary. Even if the kids will only interview as a group, chances are there’s one or two that will cooperate best with your camera crew and production. In this case you will do well to able to isolate audio from each child with a shotgun mic, but keep your camera on a wide shot since there’s a good chance these kids have good interactions to share, if you’ll just let them be themselves.

How to Interview?

Preparing your interview questions well in advance is also a must. Getting adults to respond as you expect is very different than getting an acceptable response from kids. All children are different, but many of them, especially when confronted with cameras and strangers and other distractions will be taciturn in their responses, for this reason (and this is true really for any interview) don’t ask questions that can be answered with single word answers. Instead of, for example asking “do you like school?” ask “what do you like about school?” Asking “What’s your favorite subject in school?” isn’t as good a question as “tell me about your favorite subject in school.”

If the kids are going to be in a single spot, such as a chair, then mic the chair with either a boom or microphone on a stand. If the kids are going to be moving around (such as narrating a trip through grandma’s house for example), you can use a lavalier, but be careful of invading the personal space of children you don’t know – let them or their parents attach the microphones. Asking every student in the class a full set of questions is likely to drain both you and every other student that’s not on the hotseat, instead try just one question across the board for more of a survey. This can bring more articulated responses and often will garner a reply even from those that are hesitant.


Practice Getting Gear Set up

Lighting and sound should be set up well ahead of time. Nothing says “non-professional” quite like the words “hold on a minute, I’m not quite ready.” Practice setting up your lights until it’s a breeze, keep things well packed (the same items should always be packed in the same places) and make and use an equipment check list. When I work I have a backup for every piece of equipment – this means emergency lights, power, and camera. Always think to yourself “what if this item becomes inoperable? How will I cover that?” This doesn’t mean that you need two of everything, but that there is no single point of failure – Sometimes your backup might be “if the lights stop working, we can move the production to the patio and light it with the sun.”

Secure the camera, secure the kid. Kids move around, so do cameras. This can be a bonus if you’ve got a lively interview planned with lots of movement – you can hand-hold with a camera stabilizer and chase the action, but if you plan to mount your camera to a tripod, make sure you have your subject seated. Even so – be prepared for a subject who may get up on a whim to climb on or over whatever you have them seated on, or, in some cases, even leave the set. All this is to say – if you think your subject is a flight risk, don’t lock down the camera controls. Your other camera controls will do well to be set up in advance, white balance and exposure should be easy enough to do before bringing children on set, this will make for minimal adjustments from one interviewee to the next.

Finally – with planning, I don’t have to say “Make sure everybody’s used the rest room before you get started,” do I?

During the Interview

Be quick, be professional. Be ready to start when your subject walks on the set. You can take a moment to explain the equipment and other people in the room, where they should look and things like that, but always maintain control of your set and don’t waste people’s time. Being in control of your set also means being in control of who’s on your set – keep gawkers away. Anybody not involved in the production should be kept far enough back that they can’t interfere. Everybody on a video set has an opinion – yours is the only one that matters. Directing talent takes finessing and a firm hand, this is especially so with children.

Have them talk to a friendly person off-camera beside the lens… not directly to the lens. Have a kid-friendly interviewer greet each child and build a rapport off-set before moving on set to shoot.

Setting Up

Coach briefly, coach succinctly. You can give a pre-interview speech – keep it under a minute if possible. You can ask your subjects to answer in a way that repeats the question and explain that makes it easier in editing by saying something like “If I ask you ‘What do you like about living in Sheboygan?’ You should answer ‘The things I like about Sheboygan are….’ rather than saying ‘I like the duck ponds.'” Don’t panic if they don’t do this however, they’re liable to forget. For this reason it’s a good idea to mic the interviewer so that their questions can be added in if necessary. Don’t read the list of questions you’re going to ask – the story is usually better the first time and you want to keep it fresh.

Keep the framing relatively tight (waist up, head and shoulders) to capture the expression in their eyes/faces and get down to their level. Don’t shoot above them. Get them to make eye contact. Kids tend to look at the ground when answering questions. If the subject is a bit scary, give the child something to do with his hands like holding a toy or an appropriate prop.


Once they Start to Talk – Let Them!

Lead, but from a distance. Let kids talk and ramble if necessary and if you’re going to redirect, try to do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with the audio you’re going to use. Don’t correct them ” there are few things less appealing than an adult showing off how smart they are to an eight-year-old ” let them tell their own stories. Go ahead and ask leading questions but don’t distract the audience by being didactic. Art Linkletter built a career out of bringing random kids out on live TV and letting them talk.

Know when not to push it any further. Children will let you know when they’re tired of talking to you. As with many guests on your set, children may not be as enthused about the video process as you, so even if you’ve got lots of energy left, and you may not have gotten what you want – it’s easier to move along to the next subject rather than pushing a child who has other things on his or her mind.

Be sure to shoot B-roll. Even if you don’t think you need it, B-roll can save you in the editing room if you need to cut-away to edit out some rambling, “ums”, “ahs”, or false starts. B-roll in this case might be fidgeting shoes, close-ups of hands or reverse-angle shots over the subject’s shoulder showing the interviewer nodding.

After the Interview

Edit. Edit. Edit. Unedited footage can be a wonderful discovery 20 years down the road (especially for the children and their families), but if you want people to watch and enjoy your video now, keep it direct and to the point. Don’t be afraid to condense long, rambling answers. In some types of movie making (documentaries for example) jump cuts are acceptable. Just be sure to keep the interviewee’s meaning consistent or you’ll lose credibility and likely get some nasty letters in your inbox. In other situations you’ll have to cover the cuts with B-roll or graphics.

Stay in touch with the children you interviewed and their parents – they’re likely to be the ones most interested in your final product and if you’re working commercially, word of mouth is the best type of advertising.

Conclusion

Interviewing adults can be hard, children are even more difficult because of a multiplexity of issues, ranging from practical to ethical. For the most part the same technical aspects that make for a successful video interviewing adults hold true for children, though the personal approach is different. Like everything else, preparation ahead of time can help you save the day and come up with a great video.

Sidebar: 5 Quick Tips to Keep it Simple

While it’s nice to have lights and off-camera microphones and pipe and drape, don’t forget that the ultimate goal is to record words and pictures, to capture a moment. Don’t get lost in the preparation if it’s going to cost you a final product. Also sometimes all this is overkill. At a bare minimum you need a camera and a kid. On top of that things that can help you do a low-frills on-the-fly interview include:

1. An idea. Try keeping your interview thematic – what they did today, what they think the future will be like, their family.

2. A list of questions. It can be written on a napkin, but just keep the conversation flowing.

3. The ability to adapt. Things might not go the way you’d predicted, be prepared to go with the flow. Like Confucius said: “The way the wind blows, that’s the way the grass bends.” You can push adult talent to do multiple takes, rephrase answers, or stand in freezing rain. With young subjects, be prepared to make some concessions.

4. Hide distractions. Turn off the camera’s tally light or hide it with black gaffer’s or electrical tape. The red light can cause them to lose focus and concentrate on when the camera is on or not.

5. Remember why you’re there. Don’t get caught up in video or technology. That’s just a thing between you and your goal. All these years later, the thing that I care about when listening to these interviews my grandfather did with my sister and me is not the high production values, the clever microphone placement or the clever use of stereo – the thing that I focus on is a day, captured and remembered, that otherwise would have been lost. A day that I can relive a little bit more through the words of a six-year-old me.

Contributing editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.