How to Shoot an Interview

There is an art to getting good information from someone who is on camera. There are many ways that you can do this, but we’d like to divide interview styles up into a few basic types.

Talking Head: The standard type of interview that many people think of when they hear they are shooting an interview is the ‘talking head’ or ‘three button interview.’ In this scenario, the subject is placed by themselves in the frame and they talk to the interviewer off-camera. It is by far the easiest one to capture and the easiest to get good clean talking bits from.  A variation of this might be a sit-down interview where the interviewer and the interviewee are both talking to each other, but with similar framing.

Walk and Talk: In some ways, this is a difficult interview to pull off. You establish the host in the shot and they’ll talk to each other. The goal might be to make the interviewee more comfortable, but it does take a lot of coordination with the camera crew to make sure everyone moves at the same pace without distracting the two on-camera people.

The Follow: In many situations you may just want to follow the action during the interview. This is my favorite type of interview, as it gives life to the people on camera. It’s also the most difficult to pull off because you have to have good audio, hosts and camera people who are able to capture the action while it’s happening.

Shooting Interviews on a Budget

Shooting interviews is a basic skill as a filmmaker. It should be something everyone learns early on in their progression. They don’t need to be shot with a fancy camera or with any fancy gear either. A few years back we made a video specifically for students whereby we tried to show them the basics of shooting interviews so that they could go make their own. We focused on simple techniques and using basic gear – like a phone or Gopro. The following video highlights those simple techniques.

The main points to remember are:

  1. LOCATION: Choose a good location such as making sure the light isn’t too bright and it’s not too windy
  2. AUDIO: Remember to get good, clean audio. That means getting a lav mic or boom microphone.
  3. COMPOSITION: Compose the interviewee according to the rule of thirds.
  4. QUESTIONS: Prep your interviewee and ask good questions.

Advanced Interview Skills

Expanding on the above video, we made this one that gives more tips on the interview process.

In it where we covered these basic points.

  1. Types of Interviews: Walk-and-talk interviews vs. Locked down (stationary)
  2. Choosing what lens to use. Wide angle lenses are busier as it shows more of the stuff going on in the background but can feel more “personal” (news report look). Long/telephoto lenses are more cinematic and more studio-like. They have a fixed backdrop and are often cleaner.
  3. Equipment you Need: Besides the camera, there are a few essentials, like tape and a light or two.
  4. Interview Prep: To make the interviewee comfortable, there are a few things you might want to say to get the comfortable and make sure you don’t get them answering yes or no to your questions.

Answering Interview Questions:

As a special thanks to our patrons, we wanted to spend a second to cover their questions in more depth.

1. Where to Look?

Tobias asked: “Is it better to ask the people to look into the lens or to a person standing next to the camera?”

There is no right answer here. However, I would say that in my experience, having an expert talk off camera gives them some cred as a person who is simply giving the facts or stating their experience. As soon as you start looking into the camera you have changed the interaction that person has with the documentary. They are now subtly part of the narrative. Now, they come off as a kind of host. It is as if they are now, no longer impartial to the story that the documentary is telling. I think this now establishes them as the storyteller.

Also, looking directly at the audience through the lens is a skill that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s generally difficult for most people do to this and so I rarely use it when we interview experts. The other challenge is that if you do have a host, you may not want to compete with multiple people talking to camera. One exception to this was with the emerald ash borer video we just finished featured below.

Jiri, our expert really owned that story and had a story he wanted to tell. He was good at talking and actually suggested he just talk into camera for that interview. We shot many backups where he didn’t, but I liked the ones where he talked into the lens.

2. Green-screen or Natural Background?

Jeff asked, “What about green screening a backdrop with another video or motion graphics playing in the background? Is that a technique that is looked at as being a pro look or is it thought of as being kind of cheesy (technical term lol) or an amateur move? Thinking that having a background of let’s say white with a transparency of 50% and then a video behind that. Just a thought. Looking forward to Tuesday as always:-)”

This I think is a stylistic choice. First, let’s remember that you can almost always tell that it’s in front of a green screen. So, what does this tell you as the viewer? I think it tells you that it was shot in a studio first and foremost. If you capture more of the background in your shot, it clearly shows that you’re out in the environment. To me, this feels more natural.

However, there are situations where I think it works well, if not even better because it gives consistency to a program. Take this clip show piece of our friend Carin Bondar on Outrageous Acts of Science.

The benefit here is that the producers can fly to 10 different cities to interview the subjects, but put them all in the same background. This would give unity to the show. Plus, nothing in this show’s background is possible in a real set and it lightens the mood to something that was intended to just be fun.

To get to your point about it being cheesy. Yes and No. It can feel cheesy if it’s not done well or the background looks bad. I think it’s really easy to mess it up and that’s why I prefer sticking to a more basic blurred out and “real” background.

3. Stand-up Interviews or Follow Interviews?

Johanna asked, “What is the main purpose of the stand up interview, on site? What I’m noticing in reviewing our projects, is that a walk around interview seems to go better, in terms of the quality of naturalness of the interviewee, but the visuals run amock as we try to follow and get focus. So, is it a trade off? Also, over the shoulder while driving or looking at a computer screen seems to get better comfort and enthusiasm from the biologists. I’m to the point of telling our team, don’t even bother with the stand up interview. The most interesting stuff (to me anyway) seems to be when we are over the shoulder, following, chatting. Yet, pros, always do the stand up interviews, so why?”

This is a great questions Johanna. It’s not something that a lot of young filmmakers even think about. How many have really though, “what is the benefit of getting a static interview?” and “what does this do for our story?” First, let’s be clear – it is much easier to get a stand up interview or static interview with clean audio and everything in focus. You will, however, loose the dynamic nature of the scientist unless they’re really good. And, even if they are good, the static nature of it is usually dry. I almost always shoot these purely as backup. I try to get as much as I can following the researchers. It makes for better storytelling, but as  you’ve discovered, is much harder to do. I only do this style of filmmaking when I know I have Jonas or Haley with me, both of whom I’ve shot with for over a decade.

I think when you’re on a mountain cliff though, I’d have skipped the static interview. You can always get that back on dry ground with a long lens and blurred out background. When you’re in the midst of the action, I’d shoot for the action.

4. Self Shooting Interview Tips

Corey asked, “Any tips on self shooting in these situations would be helpful and appreciated!”

Self shooting interviews is clearly harder than not, but it’s doable. Here are a few tips that come to mind.

  1. A tripod is your friend. Set it up and lock the focus. Then, trust your settings and turn into the interviewer.
  2. Try not to look at the camera too much as this will distract the expert.
  3. Given that you can’t control the camera as much, understand you’ll have to forfeit excessive shot changes. One (or two) types of shots is all you can feasibly do.
  4. The tips Jonas gives in his interview videos above do a good job walking through key things to tell them. I recommend doing all of those.

Other than that, I think it’s about the same as shooting with two people. The benefit of shooting with a camera person is that you can spend more time getting the person you’re interviewing to feel comfortable with the process and you. When I do interviews I almost ignore the camera crew and talk a lot to the experts. I make sure we only have small talk though – nothing about the subject we’ll talk about. This way they’re telling it to me fresh each time.

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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