Best Practices for Documentary Interviews

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This is the fourth post in a series I am writing on lessons learned in documentary camera work while attending the Maine Media Workshops. Be sure to catch up on the first three articles:

The focus of today's post is the interview. Among every documentary film ever made, the interview is the common denominator among all of them. Here are some things to keep in mind when preparing for, and shooting, your next documentary interview.

  • Have an idea ahead of time regarding where you want the interview to go. Communicate this with your subject. Tell him/her generally why you have asked them to be a part of the documentary and what you're hoping to cover during the interview. Determine how far you are willing to let the interview stray.
  • Always ask yourself, "What are the ways I can ensure that the audience is really going to pay attention to what the subject is saying?" You want the audience to feel as though they are right there in the room, speaking with the subject. Angle, perspective, lighting, and camera height all contribute to whether or not the audience feels a personal connection with the subject. You will be surprised at how different your subject looks on camera with just the slightest adjustment in camera height. 
  • The background can't compete with your subject. Even if the background is, in itself, a character important to your story, you want to give your subject some separation from the background.
  • Will the interview be driven by the one asking questions, or the subject who answers them? There is no right or wrong approach here, but it's important to know how you would like to conduct your interview beforehand. 
  • If you are looking to capture a specific sound bite before the interview, don't lead off with that question. You will never get the sound bite you're looking for. The subject needs time to warm up, both to you and to the setting. Gradually guide the interview toward the topics you consider most important. 
  • Most people repeat themselves, if given time. Be patient. If the sound bite you're looking for doesn't come out quite right, don't feel like to have to ask the subject to immiedately repeat himself/herself. Continue the interview. Inevitably he/she will cover the same ground.

Feel free to add your own thoughts and suggestions in the Comments section below.