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.

Here's Why Your Short Film Script Isn't Working

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I really enjoy working in short films. Over the years I've written, directed, and edited close to 20 shorts. I've read many short film scripts. I've seen dozens of shorts at various festivals. I've judged short film screenplay competitions. The more I see, the more I read, and the more I create, the more I start to see and understand why certain short films succeed, and why others fall short.

Here are a few common denominators I've seen among those short films (including my own) that just don't work. If you avoid these while writing your next script, the finished film will be a lot stronger.

Too much backstory

Short films offer audiences brief glimpses into a world. We don't necessarily need to know how we got where we are. What's most important is what's happening right now, in this moment. Eliminate anything that has to do with backstory. 

Too much set up

Have you ever listened to people at a party try to tell a joke, but they get so bogged down in the details of the setup, that by the time they finally reach the punchline you've lost interest? The same is true for short films. If you take too long to get to the core essence of what you're film is about, then viewers will lose interest.

Too much exposition

Christopher McQuarrie, writer and director of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Mission:Impossible - Fallout, said (in an interview on The Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith) that "Information is the death of emotion." Don't have your characters tell each other exactly what they're thinking or feeling. Use subtext. Don't tell the audience exactly what's going on. Convey that information visually.

Too much voice-over

In my opinion, voice-over is often unnecessary for one main reason - it doesn't add anything to the story that can't already be ascertained by what's happening on screen. When executed correctly, voice-over can provide the viewer with necessary context. It can also be used for comedic effect. But if you're thinking about using voice-over, I would recommend first writing your script without it. See if the story works. If not, then carefully introduce voice-over in very strategic spots.

Too many flashbacks

Flashbacks are dangerous in a feature-length film because they can completely kill the forward momentum of the story. So they should definitely be avoided in a short film. But hey, we've all used them before. I know I have. However, I've since learned my lesson. Remember, you want your short film to get straight to the point. Flashbacks only add to the time it takes to get your audience from A to B.

Too on-the-nose

One of the great things about art, be it paintings, books, or films, is that it's always up to interpretation. It's fun to discuss art; its themes, emotions, motivations, etc. So it's disappointing when I see short films or read scripts that tell me exactly what it's all about. It feels like some kind of after-school special, where characters tell us the main lesson just before the credits roll. "See Timmy, good friends make all the difference." Don't preach to your audience. Be subtle. Don't be afraid to be ambiguous. Life is messy. Some things are better left unsaid. If your character motivations are clear, and the story lean and concise, the themes will be evident.

As you read through these tips you may have noticed how many times I used the phrase "Too much..." That's because the best short films are the ones that keep everything simple.

What other tips do you have for creating a really strong short film? Leave them in the Comments section below.

The Benefits of Vertical Video

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Vertical video. Among video professionals, the term may provoke feelings of frustration, anger, or disgust. Often it's been mocked and ridiculed as an invalid format choice (see below).

But vertical video is a preferred format for platforms like Snapchat and Instagram Stories. Already, vertical video has been added to my list of deliverables. Whenever I finish editing a project, I'm asked to create different versions, including one oriented vertically for social media. 

Last night I came across a thread on Twitter from Anthony Monteleone, a video editor I follow. He made some very good, rational arguments regarding vertical video I felt they were worth sharing and discussing. 

One immediate ramification I've seen in my own work with vertical video is that footage needs to be acquired in 4K. If you need to deliver vertically, it's nice to have that extra resolution to play around with when you have to scale up and crop in. Otherwise, the video can start to pixelate rather quickly.

What are your thoughts about the validity of vertical video? Continue the discussion in the Comments section below.