February 6, 2013

Interviews are a cornerstone of video storytelling because they provide emotion, content and structure, especially in documentary-style stories with little or no narration. Good interviews make for good videos.

Fortunately, most of what you’ve learned about interviewing applies to video. Open-ended questions produce revealing answers. Good follow-up questions create deeper insights. Long and double-barreled questions confuse subjects, or give them an easy out. And good listening can lead to answers with more detail and depth.

As in print, the video interview is a key reporting tool. But it’s also an essential part of the presentation. Footage of subjects discussing their lives, work and expertise is the engine that drives a video story forward.

That’s why it’s important to consider a range of factors when interviewing for video. Good questions aren’t enough, no matter how compelling the answers.

The success of your stories will hinge largely on the quality of video and audio you capture for your interviews.

Thinking in stages

Video interviews are easier to tackle when they’re approached in phases.

  • First, think about the prep work needed to make the interview work. This will entail a combination of upfront research and reporting, notes on the questions you want to ask, and logistics planning. Will you conduct the interview indoors and/or out? What time of day? What equipment will you need?
  • Next, once on location, set up the interview. You’ll need to determine where you and your subject will be positioned, and then set up equipment based on that choice. Consider the backdrop, lighting sources and potentially problematic background noise.
  • Lastly, start recording and conduct the interview.

Here are some tips for navigating through these steps.

Prep work: What could go wrong?

When preparing for an interview, brainstorm things that could go wrong. What could happen in the middle of the shoot? Who might walk behind or, worse, in front of the subject? Might the lighting change in the middle of the interview? Could something about the sound change?

Most of all, can anything be done to minimize the chances of a mishap? You can’t prepare for or control every possible hitch that comes your way. But you can take some steps to safeguard against some of the biggest threats to the quality of your interviews.

Prepping for an interview also entails gathering equipment. Plan to bring backups whenever possible, especially for accessories like batteries and memory cards. While you’re at it, make sure the batteries you think are charged really are, and double check how much space you have on your recording media. It’s important to know how long you’ll be able to record before entering the field.

Setup: Interview audio

Audio is easy to overlook but crucial in most video productions. And the most important audio you’ll capture is for your interviews. You want your interview clips to sound good; if audiences struggle to hear your interviewees, your story’s toast.

A few basic steps will set the stage for good results. First, use either a lavalier mic, shotgun mic or portable recorder. The key here is positioning the microphone close to the subject. Second, monitor your volume levels. That means listening to what you’re recording with a good pair of headphones (not earbuds) and, usually, tracking a visual indicator of levels on your recording device.

You’re looking for a happy medium. If a signal’s too weak, lots of background noise will be audible when you raise your levels in post production. If it’s too strong, it will “peak,” creating an unpleasant distortion that’s difficult to fix. For digital recording, -12db or a little under is the best level to aim for.

A good practice when you’re checking levels is to start recording. It’s always better to record sooner than later. During the soundcheck, you can ask subjects to pronounce and spell their first and last name. That’ll come in handy when you find yourself needing to reference them in your narration. Remember that even common names can have unusual pronunciations.

Setup: Shot composition

Shots can be composed in many ways. For interviews, there’s a tried-and-true formula that’s best to stick to, especially when starting out. It involves six factors:

  • Use medium shots. The standard interview shot puts a little bit of headroom above the subject and extends down to the shirt pocket. Closer and wider shots can be effective, but they may not work in every scenario. The closer you go, the more intimate the shot becomes. You’re taking your audience from arm’s length to within inches of your subjects. Wide shots create distance, but can also help establish context for where the interview’s taking place.
  • Follow the rule of thirds,a photographic principle that applies to video, too.
    This shot follows the rule of thirds. The subject’s eyes are positioned along the top horizontal line. His body lines up with the right vertical line. (PBS Arts)

    In a nutshell, the rule of thirds tells us to divide any frame into nine segments via equally-spaced horizontal and vertical lines. The regions that appear along these lines, and especially at the junction points between them, carry the most visual potency. Applying this rule to a video interview, you want to position the eye lines of your subjects along the top horizontal line of the frame. The subject’s face should rest along either the left or right vertical line, but not in the center.

  • Pay attention to the background.What’s happening behind your subject? Does it add to your shot or detract?
    In this shot, depth of field is used to keep focus on the subject, despite a very busy (and interesting) background. The background is blurred, but we still have a sense of place. (Kornhaber Brown)

    It’s important to guard against several pitfalls here.
    If your subject is positioned in front of a wall, make sure there’s space. Too little space can create a cramped, imprisoned feeling.

    You also want to make sure there’s not too much happening in the background. Too much action — people walking, cars zooming — can distract viewers from the subject. One workaround to this problem involves another photographic technique — shallow depth of field. In any shot, the depth of field is a measurement of how much of the shot is in focus. When the depth is shallow, just a few feet (or less) is in focus. The result? Your subject is crisp and in focus but the background is blurred

  • Pay close attention to lighting. Viewers want to be able to see who’s talking.
    This interview shot, a close-up, benefits from the effective use of natural lighting. The window is positioned in front of the subject and to the side, creating a sense of dimensionality. (Pat Shannahan)

    Shadows can become big distractions, and too little light can have a big impact on the overall image quality. Remember this foundational idea: Always position the key light (the brightest light source) in front of the subject, favoring one side slightly over the other.

    If you brought a light with you, you’ll want to position it about 45 degrees off your subject’s line of sight. If you’re relying on available light, think about how you can use windows as your key lights. Put the window behind you and shoot toward the subject.

  • Use a tripod (or another device) to stabilize your shot. Hand-held shots have a place in video storytelling, but they don’t tend to work well for interviews. If you’re working on your own, interviewing while holding a camera is a challenging feat best reserved for quick-hit conversations. Most other times, a tripod will help you establish your composition. Don’t have a tripod? Get creative. A shelf or stack of books on a desk can work in a pinch.
  • Angle the subject slightly away from the camera. In most cases, subjects should be facing the interviewer just off camera. Subjects positioned along the left vertical line should would angled toward their left. Facing the subject, the interviewer should be positioned to the right of the camera. (When subjects are on the right vertical line, move to the other side of the camera and have subjects look to their right.)

During the Interview: Focus and listen

In video, how an interview unfolds is just as important as the content of the interview. Audiences benefit from all the nonverbal cues that are lost when you transpose interviews to the written word. But you want to be careful not to direct subjects’ actions. Interviewees need space to be themselves and share their stories. Nonetheless, you can push things in the right direction. Here’s how.

  • Set the tone. The enthusiasm you project will rub off on your subject. Think about the pacing and energy you want to convey.
  • Interview people in their environments. Interviewing people where they live, work or play helps them feel more comfortable in front of the camera. It also makes for a more interesting environment and creates more opportunities for good b-roll, or supplemental footage — something that’s always worth capturing before or after the interview.
  • Be careful about making noise. Usually, interview responses are presented in isolation, without the interviewer’s question. This makes it easier to weave together different interview clips and tie things together with narration recorded toward the end of the production process. The challenge is to make sure your audio doesn’t get mingled with the interviewee’s. Talking while they’re in the middle of a response, starting a new question while they’re wrapping up, even murmuring the natural “hmm hmm” can complicate the editing process. That’s why it’s important to give subjects “space” when they’re responding. Don’t be afraid to pause before asking your next question: Those extra couple of seconds can prove invaluable in the editing bay. And, who knows, maybe your subject will add to the response, revealing an insight you might otherwise have missed.

Here’s a tip: When recording an interview, put your audio on a separate track. This will isolate your sound, making it easier to filter your voice from the presentation. An alternative is to not mic yourself at all, and that can work, but you limit your options later if it turns out you want your voice in the production.

Conducting a good video interview can be challenging, especially for the solo video producer. If you’re working on your own, you have to wear two hats: producer and reporter. By planning ahead, then focusing on audio and shot composition, you can ensure that the presentation and substance of your interviews complement each other.

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Casey Frechette is a visiting assistant professor in the journalism and media studies department at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, a Web strategist…
Casey Frechette

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