Why On-Camera Interviews Are Harder Than You Think

Conducting an on-camera interview isn’t as easy as it sounds. It requires an experienced producer; one who understands the nature of editing and the elements of a good story.

I just finished logging some interview footage recently and it was obvious that the person asking the questions had little experience conducting an interview for video.

So, if you need to capture on-camera interviews for your next video, don’t just type up a list of questions and pick someone at random to sit across from your subject and go down the list one-by-one.

Why?

  • Because an interview is a conversation between the subject and the interviewer, with its own ebb and flow. The questions are meant to start conversation, and often that conversation can lead down a path of discovery that will take your story into a new, unexpected direction. But if someone inexperienced is just reading off a list of questions, he/she might not know to ask a follow-up question to a potentially revelatory statement. Follow-up questions can help your story to take shape by providing much needed context and background information. An experienced interviewer will know how to tease out those details.

  • Because the person conducting the interview might not understand that answers need to be in complete sentences. A video editor will often remove the interviewer’s questions from the cut, leaving only the subject’s response. If the interviewer doesn’t remind the subject to answer in a complete thought, all an editor is left to work with are answers like, “That’s right,” “Uh-huh,” “I think so,” etc. etc.

These are two main reasons why it’s important to hire video production professionals to conduct your on-camera interviews. Not only will the composition and lighting look their best, but the subject’s answers will be well-rounded, well thought-out, and well-structured.

Have any other video production tips, comments, or questions? Leave them in the Comments field below.

On-Camera Interviews and Why Eye Line Is Important

When setting up to shoot an interview for your video project, how do you decide where your subject’s eye line should be? I’m sure a majority of interviews you’ve seen feature subjects looking slightly off camera. Still, there are others that feature subjects looking directly into the lens.

So which is it?

When should a subject look off camera and when should a subject look directly into the lens? And even if you decide a subject should look off camera, how far off should they look?

The answer depends on three main things:

  • The topic(s) that the interview will cover

  • The subject’s relationship to those topics

  • The immediacy of the topic itself

Remember, every shot selection you make in your video will communicate something to the viewer. So, even when setting up for an interview, the lighting, the camera angle, and even where the subject is looking will tell the viewer something about the person and the nature of the story.

When to look directly into the lens

When I’m shooting interviews, I only ask my subjects to look into the lens when they are telling a very personal story that centers on their own experiences and the experiences of their immediate family members and/or close friends.

Why?

When you see someone looking directly into the lens, what does that shot communicate?

  • It’s intimate. The subject is treating you, the viewer, like a close, personal friend or confidant.

  • It’s vulnerable. The subject is opening herself up to you, laying her emotions out there on the table for your consumption and consideration. The subject wants you to listen, and listen carefully, and really understand her point of view.

  • It’s immediate. Even if the events covered in the video happened decades earlier, looking directly into the lens conveys a sense of immediacy to the subjects being discussed. It may have happened years before, but it’s still very important to the person speaking.

Consider this video essay about looking into the lens and what it communicates to your viewer:

When to look off camera

As I stated earlier, most on-camera interviews are conducted with the subject looking at someone off camera. But have you ever thought about why it’s usually done this way?

For me, seeing someone look off camera tells me that the person speaking has some authority about the subject, but not necessarily first-hand experience with the topic.

Now, obviously this isn’t always the case, as demonstrated by the above video. An interview subject may look off camera and still have had a first-hand experience with the topic. But looking off camera does communicate some level of emotional detachment, whether intentional or unintentional.

So, if you decide that you want your subjects to look off camera, be mindful of how their shoulders are positioned in the shot. To maintain a more three-dimensional look to your composition, make sure that the subjects square their shoulders with the person doing the interview. This will give the shot more depth and make it more interesting and pleasing to look at.

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This is a nice set up from Dream Engine. Notice how the subject is looking slightly off camera and his shoulders are also facing slightly away from the lens and toward the person conducting the interview. If this subject’s shoulders remained flat to the camera, with only his head slightly turned, the composition would have less depth.

As stated earlier, this kind of shot is a very standard interview set up, but when might you want to have your subject turn even further away from the lens? What would a shot like that communicate to your audience and when might you want to use it?

Consider this interview set up from the mini series Band of Brothers:

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It’s a very striking frame, and yet it isn’t very often that we see an interview subject looking so far off camera. He’s almost in profile.

When might you frame up your interview like this? I can think of two instances:

  1. When the environment is just as important as the subject. Maybe you’re interviewing an artist in his studio, or a craftsman in his workshop. If the environment tells the viewer something about the subject’s character, you might have him or her look far off camera and shoot wider so you can show off the space more.

  2. When the subject is discussing topics that, for him, are: a) distant memories, b) tragic and/or painful, c) still unresolved in some way. This set up is almost like an aside; a soliloquy from the theater. The subject is not so much telling his story for our benefit, but for his own, because he’s trying to reconcile something within himself. For me, the composition tells me that the subject is almost talking to himself; thinking through things that still need closure.

I hope this post encourages you to think through the interview set ups on your next video project. Remember, every shot tells a story and communicates something to your viewer, even your talking heads. There should be a purpose and a reason behind every shot selection.

Have something to add? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section.

Two Ways to Build a Solid Reputation in Your Local Film Community

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There's one thing ALL low/no-budget short films have in common: most everyone is working for free. It never ceases to amaze me how many talented people are willing to donate their time and their talents to work on a film project, just because they believe in the material and genuinely enjoy the craft. And it's remarkable what you can achieve if you simply ask.

But "nice" will only get you so far. In addition to being nice, you have to be respectful. Your cast and crew have given up their nights and weekends because they a) love the process of filmmaking, b) believe in you, c) love the material, or d) all of the above.

If you want to maintain a good reputation in the local film community, always do the following:

  • Come to set prepared. Be respectful of everyone's time. Show up to set with a solid schedule, a clear vision, and a thorough shot list. A short film set is not a social club. You aren't there to hang out. You're there to work. Believe me, your cast and crew will have a fun time on set if you provide clear direction throughout the day. Having fun is the result of being prepared. If your set is chaotic and disorganized, people will be less inclined to help you in the future.
  • Finish the film and get it out there. Nothing is worse than when talented actors and crew members donate their time for a short film project only to find out months later that the director a) didn't even finish the film, or b) finished it but doesn't want anyone to see it because he/she is too displeased with it. Let the cast and crew see the fruits of their labor. You don't have to submit it to film festivals. You don't have to post it online. But at least coordinate a private viewing party so everyone can see the final product.

Have any other tips for building a solid reputation as a low/no-budget filmmaker? Leave them in the Comments.

What Happens When the Video Crew Forgets the Light Kit

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You and your video crew are on the road, traveling to the interview location when you suddenly remember... The light kit is still in the studio! You're too far down the road now to turn back (plus you have a schedule to keep) and the interview location is in a small town where there are no rental facilities or other production companies.

What do you do?

First of all, don't panic. And DEFINITELY don't roll up to the location and announce to your client, 'Well, I left all of the lights back at the studio!" There are still plenty of ways to shoot an interview using only natural light. Here are a few things to try:

  1. Place the subject right next to a window. The natural daylight is usually soft and even. If you find that the light is too harsh, hang a sheet or a silk in front of the window to soften it. You might also try lowering the shade if the window is equipped with one.
  2. Take the subject outside. Make sure the background isn't in direct sunlight. Otherwise it will blow out. Use reflectors and bounce cards to add fill light to your subject. The image at the top of this post is from an interview I shot several years ago using only natural light and bounce cards. Notice how the background is dark, maintaining proper contrast and exposure. The light on the subject is soft, even, and has a nice fall-off.
  3. Use mirrors to direct light exactly where you need it. If you happen to be shooting in a tricky location where it isn't possible to take your subject to the daylight, then try bringing the daylight to your subject. You can achieve this by using a combination of mirrors (or any other highly reflective surface), bounce cards, and reflectors. In the video below, the production crew came up with a creative way to bounce the daylight around a corner and on to the talent.

Take some time to search YouTube and you will find hundreds of tutorials on how to light with natural light. Have any other suggestions? Leave them in the Comments below.