Interview Techniques

On-camera interviews demand just about every production skill going. To organize this sprawling topic we often split it into categories, offering one article on questioning techniques; another on production methods; a third on interview editing secrets. But now it’s time for a flyover survey so that you can inspect all the ingredients in the whole interview enchilada. (If you’ve never flown over an enchilada, prepare for a real experience.)
If you don’t pine to be Barbara Walters, why should you care about interviews? Because they re a great (and cheap) way to deliver information on behalf of your family, school, church, civic organization or company.
But first, sit back for a rundown on video interviewing, from preparation to editing, with setup, Q&A skills, and tech directing along the journey. We’ll stay away from TV reporter-type interviews ("So how does it feel to be trapped under that truck?") and focus on the sit-down sessions common in news programs and documentaries.

Preparing Your Subject

When you set up an interview, the first decision concerns style. Do you want a classic question/answer style with the interviewer audible and occasionally visible? Or do you like the monologue style with the subject talking to an off-camera listener who’s never revealed? Both styles have their pros and cons.
Including the interviewer and questions confers powerful advantages:

  • The audience hears each question so the subject doesn’t have to build it into the reply. The answer, "Dubuque" makes no sense by itself; but it works if it follows "Where were you born?
  • Shots of the interviewer provide instant, no-brainer cutaways for the editor in post production.
  • Since it’s possible to re-shoot the interviewer’s questions later, they can be revised to sync more closely with whatever the subject has already said.
  • In contrast, the invisible interviewer style has its own advantages:
  • Without questions, more answers can be presented in a given time.
  • The apparently free-flowing responses seem more natural than a quiz session.
  • One-person interviews can easily segue to voice-overs, with the now off-camera subject commenting on the visuals displayed.

The deciding factor is often the subject. If the person is sharp (and relaxed) enough to improvise exchanges like this one:
"Tell us about where and when you were born."
"I was born in Dubuque in 1975; I was the second of three children…"
…you have a fine solo subject. But if the subject can only respond, "Dubuque, 1975," then you will need an interviewer.
It’s a good idea to research your topic and formulate questions beforehand. If you can’t get what you need from the library or the Internet, do an off-camera pre-interview with the subject and then develop your questions.
When your topic allows it, try prioritizing queries like this:

  • Throwaway questions first, while the subject warms up and relaxes.
  • Important questions next, when the subject is fresh and energetic.
  • Less important questions will help to round out the interview.
  • Pickup questions to fill gaps in the subject coverage and for later insertion into the main body of the interview.

Don’t forget to prep your on-camera subject too so she is relaxed and comfortable. Interviewees get stage fright; they’re scared they’ll sound like idiots; they hate their on-screen appearance and so-on. By removing these concerns, you’ll get far better responses from them.
Start by sharing the questions, so they know what to expect. For corporate videos, it’s a good idea to send Mr. Bigcheese a printed list of the questions a day in advance. If that’s impractical, at least show him the questions before taping or discuss them informally if you don’t have a written list.
Next, rehearse the subject in good interview techniques. Remind her to look at the interviewer and not the camera. Practice turning requests for information into declarative statements instead of obvious answers to questions.
Most importantly, explain how you will use editing to make every mistake disappear. If she stumbles she can repeat. If she phrases something wrong she can try it another way. Above all, remind your subjects that your job is to make them look good and they’ll be proud of themselves when they see the result.

Setting the Stage

In choosing a place to tape the interview, consider the needs of the environment, the camera, the lights and the microphone.
First, find a place free of interruptions, a place with a simple, pleasing background for the camera and a minimum of ambient noise for the microphone. Seat subjects so that they are relaxed and comfortable but upright and alert.
Next, set up your subject’s "look." Plan to place yourself about 10 to 15 degrees to one side of the principal camera position. When looking at the interviewer, the subject’s head and eye alignments will appear just about right. (Don’t worry about the interviewer’s background: if your interviewer will be on-camera too, you can move in front of a good backdrop to tape the questions later.)
Now consider the needs of the camera. A long "throw" (lens-to-subject distance) is desirable because it keeps the hardware inconspicuous. It also enables telephoto lens settings, which produce a more flattering image. If you have to shoot as well as interview, use an external monitor so you can work from the interviewer’s position, away from the camera.
To visualize all this, imagine a clock face with your subject in the center and your main camera setup at six o clock (see Figure 1). If your interviewer is at, say, five o clock, then you need to keep all your camera setups between about six and 11 o clock. That way, your subject will always point in one screen direction and your interviewer (if used) will aim in the opposite direction.
In this scheme, make sure that the seven-to-eight o clock positions are open for supplementary camera setups. (If there’s room, 11 o clock allows an over-the-shoulder two-shot of the interviewer, an extremely useful angle for sound cutting because the subject’s mouth is off-camera.)
That shot will need its own lighting, but you should be able to light the area once for camera setups at both six-and-eight o clock. A soft key light on the off-camera side, a big white reflector for camera-side fill and ceiling bounce for general fill and just a touch of rim lighting to separate subject from background works well.
A simple scheme like this looks natural and keeps bothersome heat and glare to a minimum. (Again, if you shoot the interviewer’s questions separately, you can light specifically for him.) If you don’t have lights, position the subject in the glow of a big window (out of direct sunshine) and fill with a white card reflector or even a bed sheet.
As for miking the subject, just do your best with the hardware you have. A wireless clip-on mike is ideal; a hard-wired version is good and a shotgun mike on a fishpole boom (even a broomstick with duct tape) works very well. Even a stand mike on a table is preferable to the camcorder’s built-in mike. If you must use the camera mike, ignore the rule about telephoto lens settings and move in as close as you can to minimize extraneous noise.
Finally, if you re using tape-based analog editing, consider cabling the camcorder to a VCR and recording tapes in both units. That way, you’ll get a first-generation B-roll for editing transitions. For digital postproduction, of course, this trick is unnecessary.

Conducting the Interview

Chances are you’ll have to wear two hats: director and interviewer; but to simplify the subject, let’s separate these functions.
As director, watch for angle changes. If the interview lasts more than a couple of minutes, you’ll need multiple setups for variety. And if you use the subject-only style, they re an absolute must for cutaways. When you are choosing alternate angles you have two options:

  • Zoom in place to create, say, a medium shot, a head and shoulders closeup and a closeup. The advantage of this method is speed: you can frame a new angle instantly and you don’t need to change your lighting set up. The disadvantage is that a change in image size creates a mild jump-cut.
  • Move to a setup at, maybe, eight o clock, while zooming to change image size. This creates a smoother cut but it interrupts the interview’s flow while repositioning the camera and, perhaps, re-adjusting the lights and mike. If another edit is necessary you’ll have to move again.

Frequent edits will indeed be necessary because no interview can be goof-proof. As director, you must watch for every single thing that will have to be cut and then cover the edit with an angle change. At a minimum, zoom to a new image size each time you see the need for cutting and make sure that the interview pauses while you re-frame, so you can cut the zoom out later.
If the interviewer appears on camera, collect all-purpose cutaways of him or her listening intently, nodding sagely and smiling in appreciation. Your editor will bless you for it.
If your setting allows it, try to get a view of the subject, shooting over the shoulder of the interviewer. This puts both people in context by showing the spatial relationship they have between them.
Now switch to your interviewer’s hat. The key here is asking open-ended questions. "Were the winters cold in Dubuque?" "You bet!" That question is DOA. To revive it, try, "Tell us about the winters in Dubuque." Now you re off and running.
And you should run with follow-up questions: "Talk some about the snow." "Tell us about winter activities." And follow-ups to the follow-ups: "Did you prefer sleds or toboggans?" When your promptings are finally edited together, the result might resemble this:
Well, those winters were cold enough to freeze the beak off a buzzard. We kids d stay outdoors as long as we could stand it. Course there wasn’t much packed snow for sledding, but I ran my old toboggan down some mighty scary hills!
While you re asking all those questions, don’t forget the most important thing: look interested and encouraging. Even if you re distracted by directing and videography, show the subject that you care. It’s the surest way to obtain good results.

Getting it Together

When it’s time to edit those results, the main trick is to use multiple angles and cutaways to hide the cuts needed to drop mistakes. There are other things you can do to edit a snappy interview (particularly if you re doing computer-based post production).
First, if you used different mike positions, you may need to equalize and balance the sound quality from the various setups. It’s easier to do this with long, uncut takes than with short pieces of edited shots. So do as much sound processing as possible before you start editing the show.
Next, remember that an interview is audio-driven: it’s a sort of illustrated radio show. For this reason, use the sound to set the pace (hint: listen to each edited sequence with the picture off). If the audio is brisk and smooth, you have a good pace.
No matter how well you ve directed the shoot, you’ll find places where a cut’s essential but there’s no cutaway. When this happens, use a digital video effect (DVE) to frankly admit a time lapse. A fast, soft-edged, wipe across the screen works well. News Magazine shows like Dateline NBC often use quick dissolves to bridge a jump cut.
Finally, do your best to get material for voice overs. This will help relieve the monotony of a talking head. It might be album snapshots of winter in Dubuque, historical footage of winter anywhere or a toboggan labeled Rosebud. If you look at interviews edited by a master like Ken Burns, you’ll notice that half the creativity lies in finding something to fill the screen when there’s really nothing essential to show.
So here we are, landed safely on the far side of that interview enchilada. There’s more, of course, to getting great video interviews, but perhaps this brief flyover’ll reduce a big subject to manageably proportions and help get you started producing your own interviews.

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

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