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.

How I Conduct On-Camera Interviews

Transient

I'm always looking to capture that perfect sound bite from an interview subject; a comment that perfectly encapsulates the main idea that the video is trying to communicate. However, reaching that goal depends a great deal on the rapport I can build between myself and the subject, and the way in which I conduct the interview. Here are a few things that I've learned in my years as a director that have helped me get better comments for my videos.

Pre-Interview

If my project affords me the time and/or budget, I try to conduct pre-interviews with the people I plan to interview. Conducting a pre-interview is valuable for a number of reasons:

It establishes a good working relationship with myself and the subject.

It’s less intimidating. It gives the subject a “dress rehearsal” before he/she has to go in front of the camera. I know that the more comfortable my subject feels, the more confident he/she will be when sitting under the lights.

It helps me gain insights into the subject matter. Sometimes I can uncover new and valuable information during these pre-interviews; information I hadn’t thought of previously. These new insights can help me revise the script.

Warm-Up

On the day of the interview, I don't like to throw my subjects in front of the camera. I try to take them aside and talk with them, casually and informally. I prepare them for what will happen. I go over any last-minute questions they may have. Sometimes I just talk about things that interest them - anything to make them feel relaxed. When the interview finally does begin, I start off with a few very easy questions so the subjects can get used to the feeling of being on camera.

Open-Ended Questions

I want the subject to do the talking. I want them to expand on their ideas, so I refrain from asking “yes” or “no” questions. Sometimes I might ask a leading question, if I'm really trying to draw out a particular point or sound bite. However, I let the subject put the answer in his/her own words. 

Frequent Breaks

I realize that some people I interview will have experience being on camera. Others may not. For those that are new to the process, I might stop to let them take a quick break, have some water, and take a step away from the lights. This is especially helpful for interviews that last more than 45 minutes.

Re-state, Rephrase, Repeat

As the subject responds to a particular question, he/she might continue talking non-stop for a good three minutes or so. And within that lengthy answer, the subject may have a few good nuggets of information, but it will be difficult to mine a short, cohesive sound bite from that amount of information. If I have a talkative subject, I will let him/her finish the answer, but then I will go back and ask him/her to repeat a key thought or phrase in a more concise manner.

Go With the Flow

I always have my interview questions organized according to topics or themes. This helps me to keep my subjects on a particular line of thought, so the entire interview becomes more like a conversation than an interrogation. I find that I get more thoughtful responses if I pursue a particular line of thought until the topic is exhausted.

Alter the Script

I'm always open to new topics as I conduct the interview. Sometimes an answer can trigger a new question, so I make a quick note and then ask a follow-up question. A story can take on a new direction simply based on new topics I explore during an interview. And before concluding, I always ask the subject if he/she would like to add anything else, or cover anything that wasn’t previously asked.

I realize that being a great video storyteller is not just about the technical skills one possesses. It's also about capturing insightful comments/thoughts that can round out the story in a meaningful way.