Media Production

The 10 Keys To Shooting A Great Video Interview

Experts called 2015 “The Year of Online Video” and there’s no sign of it letting up now – even years later. Short videos have become the most popular and effective way to tell the story of products, organizations, and ideas. 2-4 minute videos can be powerfully compelling ways to tell a story, but in many cases, when they involve interviewing people, they fall flat. Interviews with fascinating people can be the key to many successful video presentations, but most video interviews are boring, without emotion, and pointless. Here’s 10 keys to shooting more effective interviews – the kind of interviews that get a response from viewers:

1. Be as lean and mean as possible.  The bigger the set-up, the more nervous an interviewee becomes. Director and DP Brad Knull once shot an interview with a very nervous grandmother. He walked in, realized the light from the window was sufficient, so just sat the camera on his lap and started rolling. She never realized the TV interview was happening, and as a result, she was comfortable, enjoyed it, and was brilliant. Don’t let your great production capability get in the way of a fantastic story.

2. If possible, do a pre-interview.  Pre-interviews help make sure you’re getting the best and most articulate interview subjects. You’ll discover that very often, the most intelligent, talented, or famous people don’t make good interview subjects. A simple pre-interview on the phone can keep you from wasting money shooting a terrible segment.

3. Keep the interviewee out of the room until you’re ready.  The best way to make an interviewee nervous is to let them see the set up ahead of time. Remember they’re not used to production, so this is a big deal to them. I prefer to take them into another room while the crew sets up. Have a coffee. Talk about their kids. Anything to keep them from thinking this is something they should get nervous about.

4. Don’t talk about the subject of the interview until the camera is rolling.  While the crew sets up, I’ve seen producers talk to the interviewee about the segment to the point where the person spills everything before the camera rolls.  So talk to them about the weather, their background, where they grew up – anything but the subject of the interview. Otherwise, when you start rolling, they’ll say, “Well, I’ve already told you everything. I don’t really have anything new to say.”

5. If the person asking the questions isn’t on camera, have them sit as close to the camera lens as possible.  You want to see the interviewee’s face, not their profile. Emotions come from the eyes, so make sure you’re shooting both of them. Sitting the person asking the questions next to the lens ensures your subject is looking more toward the camera.

6. Keep crew members or clients out of the interviewee’s sight line.  Remember that most interviewees are civilians, and not familiar with media production. Any distraction breaks their concentration and makes them more nervous. So make sure clients, crew members, or anyone else isn’t standing in their sight line.

7. Start recording without the interviewee noticing.  Too many producers start interviews by yelling “OK, let’s roll!” Or loudly get confirmations from the camera and audio person that they’re recording. All that does is freak out the interviewee. The bigger deal you make out of starting, the more they’ll clam up. My director of photography simply taps me on the shoulder when he’s rolling. No shouts, no announcements, no freak-out.

8. If there’s a problem, don’t let just any crew member stop the shooting.  Early in my career I was interviewing a woman about her abuse at the hands of her former husband. Right when she was at her most revealing moment, the audio person said, “Wait, I have to move the microphone. We need to stop.” I don’t work with that audio person anymore. If there’s a problem, have the crew signal the camera operator (who’s sitting next to you) and let him give you a silent signal. That way you can decide when and how to stop the interview.

9. If there’s a problem, don’t let them think you’re re-doing anything.  If a problem does happen, don’t let the interviewee know it. You don’t want them to think you’re incompetent and then get frustrated. That doesn’t help the interview. Just continue, and circle around with your questions. Ask what you missed it a different way, and they’ll never notice.

10. Shoot it in an interesting place – preferably, a location that helps tell the story.  We don’t need any more video interviews in front of wood paneling in a family room. Find a great location that supports the theme of the interview. Make sure it’s a place where the interviewee is comfortable, but in many cases, the location of the interview is nearly as important as the interview itself.

Bonus tip: Be ready for anything. I once interviewed a woman in her 90’s for a TV special. I tracked her down to rural Ohio, brought my crew, and as we were setting up she said, “I think you should read this.” She handed me a letter from her doctor, that essentially said her heart was in such a fragile condition, the slightest upset could kill her. (The newspaper headlines of me killing a sweet old grandmother flashed before my eyes.) I immediately stopped the set up, and had everyone quietly back out of the house – equipment and all. We ended up setting the lights on her front porch and lighting her through the window. We brought in just the camera (very quietly), and pulled it off.

You just never know what you might find shooting video interviews, so the most important lesson of all?  Never let your production get in the way of telling a great story.

Any other great suggestions I left out?

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  1. As a production sound mixer, I wonder if the ‘I have to move mic problem’ came about because of the producers insistence that all lav mics have to be hidden and there was some kind of clothing noise affecting the sound. Through years of experience I have become pretty darn good at hiding them on all types of wardrobe and normally get clean sound, but I’m not sure why this has become the convention for docu interviews when back in the day a clip on mic set neat and tidy with the wires tucked away was fine. There are some types of wardrobe that are problematic no matter what you do, (If your interviewee shows up in a polyester or starchy shirt then forget it. any movement and that shirt will make a noise and the hidden lav will pick it up no matter what).

    Everyone knows your interviewee is wearing a mic, after all it’s not a dramatic film where it is essential mics are hidden and no one at home watching cares if they see a mic- If they do then I would submit that there are some way bigger problems with your interview than a visible lavaliere.

    As the blog says, most interviewees are not media trained and hiding mics really does add one more level of discomfort to the subject. I’m very discreet, I always politely explain what I’m doing as I hide the mics, but as nice as I am, there are some people that I can sense are very uncomfortable with someone getting under their clothes. I don’t know their history, maybe they are shy types or maybe there is a history of some kind of abuse, I don’t know, but I have seen people squirm. One time I was working with an ex US Marine suffering PTSD. Producer insisted the mic was hidden, The subject was obviously not comfortable, he didn’t like to be touched but of course I did what I had to do, I did what I could to put him at ease, but it was a very awkward experience.

    The other problem you get with hidden mics is that many times the subject forgets that they have a mic on and will bang their chests and the mic from time to time. I sometimes wonder if this hidden mic thing creates more problems in order to solve an aesthetic non problem. Of course as the sound guy I’ll work in whatever way the producer wants as it’s his / her show and not mine, but it’s certainly worth thinking about. Is it really essential that you hide the mic when a neat clip on is just easier for everyone?

    Whenever possible I always try fly a boom mic on a c-stand over the top as well as the lav, so if there is a problem with one mic then there is another mic to fall back on. This negates the need for a cut to adjust a mic. Just set the boom a little forward to give the speaker some leaning room because when they get excited or try to drive a point home they’ll often lean forward in the chair and you won’t want them off mic especially as this is the time that they’ll most likely hit or do something to mess up the sound on the lav.

    Anyway a few thoughts from a veteran sound guy. Remember that in most doc type shows you’ll be building your story from the audio of the interviews, so take into account the sound of the location as well as the look. Unlike drama you are probably not going to be able loop the audio. (How many corporate offices have I worked in where the interview room is next to the elevator shaft). You’ll most likely only spend moments on the talking head before going to B-Roll, but the audio will be used throughout.

    Also circle back with your important questions two or three times in different ways, because it’s better not to interrupt or stop the subjects flow for a passing car. If you stop someone they’ll never pick up with the same energy or emotion. I don’t call cut, I just raise a finger to indicate that something audible happened.

  2. This is great advise Phil. If I may also share, in the Defense Industry Public Affairs we were taught to look over the interviewees before the interview; being careful to not alarm them but help them if there are any clothing malfunctions or any could have clothing malfunctions on camera. For example men’s tie’s not tight around their neck. If it is an open set like Ellen’s with two chairs and no modesty panels, female crew to female interviewees have private counseling if any dress hem is above the their knees. Also, is very important if there are any security badges where you are filming to make sure all security badges are removed so they can’t be photographed.

    For first time interviewees the above is more critical than experienced interviewees.

    Then just before they go live, and in an encouraging way, compliment the interviewees sincerely at how well they look, and assure them they will do fine.

  3. Having genuine interest in them and being a friend will ease a lot of tension that a camera brings.

    If they seem too self aware, I let them know that I have no interest in making them look bad. If they look bad, I look bad too and letting them know that there is room for mistakes that can be edited out is sometimes very helpful.

    Warm up questions that lead into the interview ones help too; such as ‘how has your day been’ or even commenting on something in the room sometimes gets them into telling you stories about them or their family. Once you crack someone open a bit, they are more likely to spill more stories for you!

    Granted, sometimes you have to tame the story beast if you have someone who wanders off course but being ADHD myself I can swing them back around after we take a trip in the wrong direction lol

    Also, if possible, don’t go alone. I’ve had some weird situations happen alone lol…

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