Basic Guide to Videoing Interviews
This document is intended for users who wish to record an interview. It is a complement to JISC Digital Media’s advice paper Audio/Video Production: Recording Lectures, Seminars and Events. In that document, we discussed the details common to any type of event that might be recorded. This document looks at issues and considerations specific to the recording of interviews. It covers everything the novice should need to know from the first step to the last.
It is assumed that the reader of this document has read the Introduction to Digital Video, the Basic Guide to Shooting Video and Audio/Video Production: Recording Lectures, Seminars and Events.
As with any event, it is advisable to inspect the location of the interview beforehand, although this may not always be possible. Interviews are different from lectures or group events, however, in that there is more flexibility as to where they are held. This is important because, unlike lectures or group events, the location of the interview has a great effect on how it is perceived by the viewer. We are used to seeing scientists interviewed in laboratories and professors seated at desks in front of crowded shelves of books. These images and others like them are the result of conscious decisions made about how the interviewee should be perceived. It is worth giving some thought to this before settling on a location for the interview.
Similar thought should be given to clothing and accessories. An overused but still powerful example of the importance of clothing is the ubiquitous white lab coat worn by armies of scientists and doctors in interviews (and films) for decades. Similarly, musicians are usually interviewed with their instruments visible.
Although an interview may not have its start time dictated by a schedule (unlike a lecture or group event), it is still vital (not to mention simple good manners) not to keep the interviewee waiting. Allow yourself lots of time to set up beforehand.
Part of the preparation for an interview is, naturally, a list of the questions the interviewee will be asked. Make sure ‘open’ questions are asked and not ‘closed’ ones which require only a yes-no response; for example, don’t ask “Are you in favour of X?” but rather “What is your opinion of X?”
One important question to answer at this stage is whether or not the interviewer is going to appear in the final interview. The answer to this question will affect such things as the lighting of the interview, the number of mics needed and how the interview is shot.
Sound is, of course, critical when recording an interview. It is, however, much easier to manage in an interview than in a lecture or other event. The location of the interview can be chosen partly on the basis of the ability to record good sound: it is even possible to get usable (though not ideal) sound from the camera mic if the location is quiet and has no acoustical problems.
Better sound can always be obtained with mics separate from the camera, either lapel or hand-held. If the interviewer needs to be recorded at as high quality as the interviewee, there are several options. Both interviewer and interviewee can have lapel mics fitted. A hand-held or boom mic can be used to record both their voices. Finally, the interviewee can be fitted with a lapel mic and a hand-held used to record the interviewer. An advantage of this approach is that the hand-held mic can be mixed with the lapel mic to get the best sound for the interviewee’s speech. It also provides a back-up in the case that there is a problem with the lapel mic.
More control can be exercised over the lighting of an interview as well. Lighting can be used not only to improve the look of the interview and the interviewee’s appearance, but also to create a mood for the interview. Care must be taken not to make the interviewee uncomfortable with the lighting, however.
Shooting in front of a window with autoexposure will result in a silhouetted subject.
Similarly you should not shoot with the light directly behind you or you subject may squint and possibly get odd shadows on them,
Lighting your subject from the side results in a more interesting (and non-squinting) subject and background. However, to ensure that one half of the subject’s face isn’t in shadow…
…the use of an additional light or an assistant holding a reflector. Note that, while a proper reflector works best, any white surface can give useful results.
Think about where you have placed your subject and how they appear. This shot gives us no information at all.
This shot is perhaps even worse: the image is cluttered and if it tells us anything about the subject it is that he either lives in a storeroom or stacks chairs for a living.
By putting the subject in an appropriate environment we tell the viewer something about them, lending them an air of authority. In this case the presence of still and video cameras suggests knowledge of photography and video, while the Atari T-shirt could be read in a number of ways: relaxed commentator, fan of retro-chic, at ease with technology.
If both the interviewer and interviewee are going to be shot, make sure that the interviewer’s head doesn’t appear larger in the frame than the interviewee’s. They can be the same size and it is also not uncommon to see the interviewee’s head larger: after all, they are the subject of the interview.
It is common practice in interviews where the interviewer is to appear not to have a single shot that includes both interviewer and interviewee (called a two-shot), except possibly at the beginning and end of the interview. Having both in shot severely limits the ability to edit the interview afterwards and should be avoided.
Lighting, if it is used, makes people sweat and shows up shiny or damp skin. It is generally agreed that one of the reasons that Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election was the way he sweated under the television lighting during his debate with John Kennedy. Normally asking the interviewee to mop their brow with a handkerchief or tissue before recording will be sufficient to avoid a shiny look. Make-up should not be necessary.
Finally, get everyone to TURN THEIR MOBILES OFF. Don’t wait until a unique shot is ruined.
The normal position for an interviewee is facing just slightly away from the camera. Interviewees should never look at the lens (although they would, of course, do this if they were making a speech or giving an announcement to the viewer), because they are speaking to an off-screen interviewer. Obviously, to achieve this it is necessary for the interviewer to be sitting immediately beside the camera.
Overhead shot of interview set-up. Note how close the interviewer is to the cameraperson: any further and the viewer will wonder why the interviewee is staring off to the side of frame.
Same set-up shot from behind the cameraperson. An interview can, if necessary, be shot in a very restricted space.
The shot obtained from the above set-up. The interviewee is looking slightly away from the camera, but not so much as to distract the viewer.
It is common practice to change the size of the interviewee in the frame from time to time by zooming in or out. This is known as changing the frame. This should be done between answers so that it can be edited out of the finished interview. There are two reasons for doing this. First, it makes the interview more interesting visually. Second, if there are any continuity problems when editing the answer (e.g. the interviewee’s hands change position), it will be masked by the more obvious change in size.
Zooming is also used in interviews to change the emotional impact. Specifically, questions and answers of a highly-charged nature are often accompanied by a bigger closeup of the interviewee’s face. This both heightens the intensity of the moment and makes it easier for the viewer to see emotion on the interviewee’s face.
The framing of your subject was briefly discussed in the Basic Guide to Shooting Video. To recap, it is important to place the subject off-centre with empty space on the side they are facing. This is because the viewer reads the empty space as holding a place for the person being spoken to. In fact, so strong is this interpretation that we can take a face-to-face conversation and shoot it such that it appears that the speakers are back-to-back. This video illustrates this phenomenon.
As outlined in the Basic Guide to Shooting Video, it is important not to cross the line. This is of particular importance in an interview situation where the viewer tends to associate the interviewer with one side of the screen and the interviewee with the other.
We have discussed the importance of shooting cutaways in the Basic Guide to Shooting Video. This is particularly the case in an interview where we may wish to shorten answers or remove hesitations and stumbles. It should be stressed that such editing should be done with a degree of caution as it is very easy to change the sense and even the meaning of a person’s speech with a bit of thoughtless editing.
There is a type of cutaway which is particular to an interview situation which is known as a noddy. It is so called because the classic example of the shot is one of the interviewer nodding their head in agreement with whatever is being said. It is normal practice to shoot these after the interview (in fact, sometimes the questions themselves may be re-shot after the interview). It is not necessary that the interviewer be nodding in these shots, simply that they be (apparently) listening to what is being said. Here is an example of video footage that might be shot for an interview.
And here is the resulting interview once the footage has been edited together appropriately.
It is not sufficient for an interviewer simply to ask questions and then sit there while the answers are given. The result may be a piece of video which is difficult to edit, uninteresting to watch and which encourages the viewer to misunderstand the interviewee’s opinions. Books can be and have been written on interview technique, but a few short points should suffice to give a sense of how an interviewer should behave and what they can do to improve the quality of an interview.
For a person being interviewed, the interviewer represents the whole interview process. If the interviewer is aggressive, inquisitive, smug or reassuring, the interviewee will respond just as anyone else would. It is vital, therefore that the interviewer act in such a way that the interviewee is relaxed and happy (or at least willing) to be interviewed. Many people out of the public eye will be uncomfortable about having a camera pointed at them and the interviewer needs to help reduce that discomfort. The interviewer should stress that the interview is just a normal conversation: there is no need for the interviewee to speak any differently than they normally would and no need to pay the slightest attention to the camera.
The interviewer should also remember that the interview is about the subject, not about them. An interviewer who consciously or unconsciously tries to show how clever they are, who answers their own questions (or makes it clear that they could answer them), who interrupts the interviewee for no good reason or strays off topic, who makes it clear that they really aren’t interested in what the interviewee has to say – an interviewer who does these or similar things will end up with a bad interview.
Conversely (as in any conversation) an interviewer who is clearly interested in what is being said, who actively listens, who draws the interviewee out and gets them to offer concise answers or to elaborate depending on the information needed – an interviewer who does these things will have done their job well.
Having the right attitude and being prepared are vital for a good interview but there are purely technical considerations as well that must not be forgotten.
When the camera is first switched on, it is normal practice to ask the interviewee to state their name and spell their surname. This serves several purposes: it acts as an icebreaker, getting the interviewee over the first hurdle of beginning to speak while being filmed, it allows the cameraperson or sound recordist to check their levels and it gives you a permanent record of who the interviewee is and how to spell their name, often a vital resource in the edit suite.
In interviews where the interviewer is going to be edited out of the finished product (the most common type of interview) it is essential that the interviewee incorporate the interviewer’s question into their answer. The next two videos illustrate this. In the first, the interviewer doesn't get the interviewee to incorporate the questions and the result is incomprehensible when taken out of context.
In the next video the interviewee does do the incorporation and so the result is comprehensible after the questions have been stripped from the video.
In normal conversation (and Robert Altman films) people tend to speak over the ends of other people’s sentences. While this is something people process without thinking in a live situation, it is a disaster in an interview. If there is no clear demarcation between the ending of one person’s sentence and the beginning of another’s, it is impossible to edit. The interviewer should ask the interviewee to be sure to leave a gap before answering a question; similarly, the interviewer must remember not to talk over the end of an answer.
Many people, when listening to someone speak, tend to provide verbal encouragement, saying things like “mm-hm” continually. This is particularly common in situations like an interview, where the interviewer is trying to reassure the interviewee. Not only does this make editing difficult, it is extremely annoying to hear on a recording. It is essential that the interviewer learn to make silent acknowledgements.
This need for silence coupled with the importance of the interviewer’s attitude towards the interviewee mean that the three most powerful tools the interviewer has are facial expressions, head movement and silence.
The interviewee not only responds to the interviewer’s facial expressions, but actually tends to mimic them. If you want your interviewee to look happy while they are telling an anecdote, be sure that you are smiling. If you want them serious, be sure you look serious.
This ability to manipulate the apparent attitude of the interviewee is clearly very powerful and raises serious ethical questions, but the fact is that every interview you see on television, be it with a politician or a high-street shopper, is conducted knowing and using this technique. It is impossible for the interviewer not to have an effect on the interviewee’s expression. The best we can hope for is that the interviewer responds appropriately to what the interviewee is saying and doesn’t use their control over how the interviewee appears to distort the sense of what they say and how they say it.
The interviewer’s head movements also have a marked effect on an interviewee. Most notably, the one way the interviewer has of encouraging the interviewee to speak is by nodding. Nods can be agitated and exuberant or slow and thoughtful, but they have the same effect. In fact, the interviewer’s head should pretty much nod continuously while the interviewee is speaking. (You will notice this for yourself if you see a televised interview where both the interviewer and interviewee are on screen, although most people don’t because they are looking at the interviewee all the time.) This continual nodding will feel unnatural to the interviewer, but they shouldn’t be put off by this: the interviewee’s response will feel natural.
Finally, a word about silence. It may initially seem paradoxical, but one of the best ways to get an interviewee to elaborate upon a point is to do nothing and, in particular, to be silent. An interviewee will say something and, having made their point, expect the interviewer to go on to another question. If they do not, the interviewee will pick up where they left off and continue, not only because they assume more is wanted, but because people find silence very uncomfortable. If the interviewer can control their own desire to end the silence, the interviewee will do so instead -- and the interviewee is the one the audience wants to hear.
Because of reasons such as time limitations it may be necessary for the interview to be conducted over more than one session. This is, of course, not ideal and should be avoided if at all possible. If it is done, however, one can choose to try and disguise the fact. In this situation is it necessary not only to recreate the original camera angles and lighting, but also the interviewee’s clothing and hair as well. Even then there may be changes such as the timbre of the interviewee’s voice. It is quite likely, however, that the viewer won’t pick up on such indications.
It is also possible to leave the differences between the two sessions undisguised. In this case two things should be remembered. First, it helps to keep the two sessions as different as possible (e.g. indoors vs. outdoors, night v. day, dark clothing vs. light). Second, when editing the interview, answers from the two sessions should not be mixed together. It is easier for the viewer to understand the interview when the editing reflects the reality of the interview and they see all of one session followed by all of another.
Interviews can also be shot where the interviewee isn’t sitting or standing in one place. Most commonly this may take the form of the interviewer and interviewee walking side by side and conversing. There are several added complexities about such a shoot that should be recognised. First and foremost is that sound recording will require more of an effort with either the recordist walking alongside and out of shot with a boom mic or else two sets of lapel mics, preferably with wireless transmitters. Second, great care must be taken by the camera operator, who will probably be walking backwards for the duration of the interview. It is not a bad idea to have a person on hand purely to assist the camera operator and ensure that they don’t have an accident.
Third is the question of editing. In a scenario like this, cutaways become a bit more challenging. Perhaps the most common technique is to take shots from a distance of the interviewer and interviewee walking and talking, possibly from behind. At a sufficient distance and angle it will not be possible to make out either person’s mouth movements and so this footage can be cut in wherever it is useful.
Finally, you may wish to interview two people at once. The techniques remain the same as with one person, although the setup will necessarily be a bit more complicated. Note that in this case the interviewees can be used for cutaways. For example, if interviewee A is speaking, you can cut in a shot of interviewee B listening to hide an edit.
We have discussed aspects of video production specific to the recording of interviews. The pairing of this document and Audio/Video Production: Recording Lectures, Seminars and Events should give the reader a solid grasp of the requirements and issues relating to interviews and the knowledge to create a video interview which is both informative and watchable.