The 7 Cardinal Sins of Interviewing
Interviews are the connective tissue of documentary storytelling. The sound bites you collect will drive home the main themes of your video and stitch together key topics with smooth transitions.
When you’re scripted and working with actors delivering lines there’s a creative process all filmmaking professionals are used to. Interviewing people who aren’t used to being in front of the camera or knowing what to say has a much greater level of unpredictability. But you as the interviewer need to generate the same level of entertaining results.
An interview, like any part of video production comes down to preparation, creativity and adaptability. There’s no one way to do it. Nobody’s ever come down from a mountain top with a set of interviewing rules written in stone. But if you commit any of these 7 common sins of interviewing you may find yourself serving penance for eternity in an editing room trying to make something out of nothing.
1. You Didn’t Prepare For Your Interview Enough
How much do you have to prepare to conduct an interview? Once you have a list of questions typed out isn’t the rest pretty obvious?
As the interviewer you’re a journalist.
Ask yourself the who, what, where, when, why and how of the story you’re trying to tell. If you don’t know what the story is or how you’re trying to tell it, the interview can almost be useless. It might even help to script out your documentary narrative with the types of soundbites you’re looking for. Then you’ll know what you’re trying to get your interviewees to naturally say. Worst case scenario, you’ll have something on paper for them to read and you’ll never be short on transitions from topic to topic.
2. You Forgot You’re Field Producing And Directing Too
Preparation is only half the battle. Once your interview day arrives there’s a lot to keep in mind besides reading off your list of prepared questions.
How do the people on camera look? Does it match the tone of the story?
Am I getting the sound bites I need?
Are people talking clearly? Enunciating their words properly?
Is the interview set controlled?
Sometimes interviewers forget that they’re actually directing and field producing as well. And you’re not coaching an actor. But there are ways to get usable content from almost anybody you interview.
If you’re interviewing an all star sound bite machine keep going with them. Have more surface level and go shallow on multiple topics. You’ll always have them to edit with and their sound bites might inspire you to get a similar one from someone else if you don’t want too much of one person in your video.
If you’re interviewing someone not so well spoken, that’s okay too. Choose fewer topics but go deeper with them. By being more specific on a particular topic you may get finer details or transitions you weren’t expecting. That’s all part of recognizing your talent level in the field and directing them to success.
3. You Didn’t Pre-Scout Your Interview Locations
Pre-scouting your locations is a given for filming b-roll or any specialty shots you want to capture for your video. Why wouldn’t you pre-scout your interview locations?
Think about the background you’re going to use. What’s it saying about your interviewee, their company or the subject matter of your video? More importantly, make sure you know what your interview locations sound like. There’s nothing like showing up on set to an interview location that’s in the heart of foot traffic next to a rickety old air conditioning unit with planes flying overhead from time to time. That would be a bad place for recording audio.
4. You Made The Subject Of Your Interview Really Nervous
Most people aren’t used to being on camera. And most don’t like it. They see the lights, the cameras, microphones and a group of people staring back at them like a firing squad ready for an execution.
And then… silence.
All of a sudden your prize interviewee succumbs to brain freeze without enjoying a tasty frozen treat first. What a bummer.
Keeping your on camera talent relaxed is crucial for their best performance. That’s true for any scripted or documentary style project. But once again, keep in mind you’re not interviewing actors. You’re interviewing normal people who see a lighting kit or camera rig and think “Hollywood”.
Before you bring the person you’re interviewing onto their mark, have a conversation with them. Don’t even talk about the subject of the interview. Ask them how they’re doing. What’s new? Progress the relationship forward as acquaintances. They’ll feel better knowing you care about them and not just what you want from them. Then get into what you’re going to talk about.
When you talk about the interview, start feeding them some of the keywords and sound bites you’re looking for. You’ll be surprised how subconsciously your interviewee will regurgitate them back to you when the camera's rolling. They’re trying to come up with answers on the spot and you’ve planted the thoughts that are freshest in their head for them.
Finally, don’t be afraid to take a break. You’re shooting schedule is important. But sometimes trading a few minutes for your interviewee to take a breath, compose themselves with a drink of water, or just stepping out of the spotlight for a second is worth the return in better sound bites.
5. You Stepped All Over The Sound Bites
It’s good to keep an interview conversational but your editor will hate you if your interviewee is in the middle of giving sound bite gold while you’re in the background saying…
“Right.” “Yeah.” “Uh huh.” “Oh that’s so true.” “That’s a great line.”
Too bad you can’t use that great line because you didn’t give your editor enough dead air to edit with. Or you just flat out stepped on the audio.
If your interviewee is entertaining enough that you’re compelled to engage with them that’s a good thing. Just internalize it. Harken back to your days of school when the teacher talks, everybody stays quiet and listens… if you were one of the good kids that is.
When your interviewee finishes their thoughts always give 1-2 seconds of space. This will help your editor out and it’ll keep everyone relaxed as opposed to rushing through the questions.
6. You Let Your Subject Ramble
We’ve all been there when you ask a simple question to the interviewee and instead of a simple answer they ramble on… and on… and on… and before you know it you have a sound bite longer than the actual Led Zeppelin song.
This goes back to keeping your interviewee relaxed. It’s important for them to get their ideas out and feel comfortable doing so. What’s more important is doing your job and hearing the parts of the ramble you really want to use.
As you’re hearing your interviewee speak, recognize what those sound bites are and have them repeat those sound bites in a more focused way. This will save your editors time trying to dissect a long piece of audio down to the frame and your sound bites won’t sound so clipped in the final cut.
7. You Forgot About Transitions
One of the hardest parts of stitching together a documentary narrative is finding those natural transitions to get you from topic to topic. But you can’t just hope your interviewee will strike lightning in the moment.
This goes back to scripting out your documentary narrative. Know where you’ll need audio transitions and what you’d like them to sound like. You can have your interviewee repeat them verbatim but it’ll be challenging for them to not come out scripted.
Instead, always politely remind them to repeat the question in the answer. Feed them keywords and phrases to start their sentences.
“Were you excited?”
“Yes I was very excited to start working at....”
“How did that make you feel…”
“Is it just about the work or something else?”
“For me it’s not just about the work it’s about giving back to the community.”
Natural transitions. If you have them, the editing room will be a happy place.
There’s a lot that goes into capturing great interviews to make your documentary narrative shine. No, you will not spend the rest of your existence surrounded by fire and brimstone if you don’t hit every interview out of the park. But you will come out with better options and plenty of them the more you can fine tune your interviewing skills. So repeat after us…
Thou shalt not forget the aforementioned.Have a question or need consulting on this topic?
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