Subjects in documentaries often aren’t professionals trained to appear on camera, so you need to learn successful tricks to getting your “talent” to say and do what you want, even without talent. People you interview will have their perception of how you want them to look and act or what you want them to say. A calm voice, but firm approach will help keep everyone pleasantly on the same page.

But how far do you push or challenge them? What happens if they totally freeze up, botching take after take until everyone has run out of time and patience? What can you do to avoid having to go to extremes? What are those extremes? There’s a lot to worry about, but fretting isn’t going to make the job easier. If you remain cool, calm and unperplexed, so will your talent – most of the time.

In my ongoing program with Video StoryTellers! the primary focus is on short-form documentary production. These are based on getting people to tell me their stories, share intimate, poignant, meaningful, sometimes hilarious memories. The primary talent I seek from them is natural – I want them to come across sincere and comfortable, and speak from the heart. I need to warm them up and make them feel comfortable.

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They’ve spent the last few minutes or hours, perhaps days, worrying about how they’re going to look, how well they will speak. They are tense. It’s my job to get them into conversation mode and do it as quickly as possible. This will be your primary challenge as well.

There are six elements in the process – from arrival and setup to breaking down your equipment and leaving the building. They are communication, explanation, preparation, direction, affirmation and confirmation. Learn to utilize them and you will find a much smoother path to great documentary interviews.

1. Communication

It’s important the talent knows your intentions and desires. Give yourself time to make this clear and known to them. Don’t fudge. You must allow yourself time to communicate your vision before even thinking about recording. Know what you want and give it some thought beforehand so that your communication is clear and concise. If you’re comfortable the talent will be less tense. If you’re tense, believe me they’re going to feed off that.

This is also called a preproduction meeting. The primary goal is to get everyone on the same page, understanding the vision and feeling confident to do the interviews. My presumption is you’ve already provided advance information sheets outlining types of clothing to wear or avoid. And you’ve included subject description if this is for a group of individuals and you’re developing a project with a specific topic, theme or focus. You have prepared some notes, memory joggers, to help everyone stay on target.

Leave time for answering individual questions and soothing jangled nerves. Listen and be aware of what your talent is really asking. Make your replies non-threatening. Avoid an inadvertent tone that might come across as judgmental, impatient or even unsympathetic. Facial expressions are a dead giveaway. Even if you feel the least bit of tension or impatience, do whatever it takes to keep it invisible.

Time is double-edged. If you rush it you’ll lose out in some way, sacrifice something, forget something. If you let it get away from you, you’ll run out and initial efforts go out the door. Determine to allow yourself at least a half-hour before shooting for individuals, pairs or a foursome. Plan more time for larger groups and longer sessions or bring someone to assist. It is helpful when you can have someone to assist in setting up equipment and someone to assist with the preproduction session. Many of us don’t have that luxury and must do it ourselves so we must find a way to make time our friend.

2. Explanation

Don’t confuse explanation with communication. Nearly all subjects in my programs are insatiably curious about what I’m doing. They’re going to ask questions and expect answers. In spite of the preproduction meeting to communicate my vision and needs, some will not understand why I’ve suddenly become uncommunicative or appear to ignore them. All that was accomplished during preplanning could be lost. I could wind up with some uptight individuals – just what I don’t need.

Know your equipment inside and out so you can multitask, explaining what you’re doing at each stage of the process and avoid having to stop to listen and respond to individual inquiries. This might not fall into your idea of directing but trust me, based on my experience it’s part of the process. This keeps tension from returning when you’re ready to shoot. Your subjects will appreciate your knowledge and patience. They will be even more confident and relaxed, pliable to your direction.


3. Preparation

Isn’t this what you did with the original prompt and suggestion sheets, the preproduction session and communication, explaining the technical process as you were setting up? No. Preparation applies to the essentials where you mic the subject, dress the cables, turn on the lights and conduct sound checks.

In preparation you continue with communication and explanation, thereby keeping the talent at ease, familiar and responsive. Involve them in the entire process, thus preventing them from focusing on their fears, building up a renewed level of nerves. This also keeps them revved, less restless or bored. Maybe this feels like you’re running a demonstration or conducting a class. In a sense you are! You’re following logical steps that will help keep your subjects relaxed, focused and interested. You’re helping yourself by moving logically through a very important flight-check.

Your focus on these elements keeps you aware as well. Instead of being distracted by your curious subjects or frustrated during setup, this approach helps you remain in tune with the overall directing process, ensuring a positive outcome.

4. Direction

This is your moment to shine, your talent as well. You’ve kept them in the loop during the entire process, you’ve not lost them while making things ready. You’ve not alienated them by appearing to jump from warm and approachable to unfriendly and unresponsive. They will follow your direction with complete confidence, giving you what you need with a minimum of takes and maximum of enthusiasm.

The memories and stories will literally flow through the mic and to the camera. Your talent’s posture will be better, a result of being engaged and interested rather than bored or tired from waiting. Now is the time for you to exude patience. Focus on keeping your voice, tone, body language and facial expressions warm, confident and comfortable. If you want intensity, show it. Otherwise, stay cool.

This approach will overcome any sudden occurrence of butterflies or stage fright. The talent feeds off calmly-voiced suggestions and requests. They don’t overreact or overcompensate when asked to “say that again, only this time keep your eyes focused on my hand, or my assistant, or over there …” or “that was awesome, exactly what I was looking for! I’m going to shift the camera over a bit for another angle because I like the way the light looks.” Always use positives. Avoid negatively-charged responses: “That sucked! Let’s do it again. One more time!”

5. Affirmation

Affirmation goes hand-in-hand with the direction process. As the session runs, the talent will occasionally hit a speed bump. It’s up to you to prevent these from stemming the flow. But if your subject is on a roll or even if there’s an occasional minor bump along the way – awkward articulation, nervous gasps or expulsions – let them continue. There’s nothing worse than losing momentum to a real or perceived bad take by yelling “CUT!”

It’s likely your session and subsequent takes will hit a downhill slide or spiral out of control as a result. Your enemy, time, will return to tighten up nerves. Let the session continue. Then again, calmly and confidently tell your subject you were really pleased with the take, “but let’s give it just one more.”

When the opportunity presents itself with a brief pause or water break, take the opportunity to affirm the quality and usefulness of the talent’s performance, looks and presentation. You shouldn’t lie or try to bluff your way through an undeniable disaster, but there’re ways to address issues and maintain affirmation.

This approach reduces the number of necessary takes. Often the perceived bad take works out just fine. Many times whatever small real or perceived bad element actually gives the presentation a bit more of a natural and emotive or heart-felt inflection.

6. Confirmation

In the Video StoryTellers! program I don’t always deal with one or two individuals. I will sometimes have a half-dozen subjects involved and 20 or more on occasion. These short-form documentaries often develop into longer, full documentary productions. If I want to achieve the desired quality of interviews, presentations and emotions for my projects, and get it done in the time I have available, using these six elements gets me there with a minimum of frustration.

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