to Interview on Video
by: Gareth Powell
When doing an interview there need to be at least
three people involved. The person being interviewed,
you, the interviewer and someone to work the camcorder.
It could be argued - I would so argue - that an
extra person to handle the sound is a great benefit
but this is a policy of perfection.
Interviewing for video is a skill that can be
acquired with practice. The key to successful
interviewing is research, research and yet more
Before you interview a subject you need to know
as much as possible about the person you are interviewing.
And you need to read everything that anyone has
ever written about the subject.
This is what the Internet is for. Typically it
contains everything written in recent times.
The more information you can get, the more research
you do, the smoother the interview will go.
Having said that it is vital that you, the interviewer,
both asks questions and knows when to shut up.
The problem is that often you will find yourself
knowing more about a subject than the person you
are interviewing, and the temptation then is to
show off your knowledge.
This is fatal.
The viewer is not interested in your views. It
is the person being interviewed – the interviewee
– who should be the center of attention.
And before you ask, yes, this is a major problem
for me. I cannot keep my big mouth shut.
Be prepared for interviews that go smoothly and
those that get a bit ragged. Three examples.
I had an hour interview with Bill Gates in Sydney
for Australian television. My questions were well
prepared. He would listen to the question, stay
quiet for a moment and then give a cogent, grammatical
answer. Amazing. As an interview it went like
a dream. On the other hand, I got one very wrong.
The interview with the late Tony Hancock, perhaps
the greatest British comedian of his day, took
place in the Sebel Town House in Sydney. It started
as a shambles for I had not done enough homework.
It evened out after a while and in the end worked
reasonably well. As it happens it was the last
interview given by Tony Hancock.
Then I did a series of interviews with members
of my family. I stayed out of shot and just let
them ramble on what they thought about their siblings.
It was electrifying stuff. If you were a member
of that family.
Write all of your questions down and create supplementary
questions in case an answer, a good answer, is
not forthcoming. Avoid questions that invite the
single word answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
If you ask 'Are you in favor of premarital sex?'
you will probably get a single word reply, which
is not the idea at all.
Phrase your questions so that they lead the person
being interviewed into expanding their views.
'Your book suggests that you are against premarital
intercourse. What are your views on this?' is
much more likely to elicit a full and frank comment
than the first question.
To avoid a ‘yes’ or ‘no’
answer use the tried and true journalist technique
of asking who, what, why, how and when questions.
None of these can be answered with a straight
'yes' or 'no'.
Before the interview starts, you, the interviewer,
must meet the subject and establish some sort
of rapport. There are interviewers, a few, who
can go in cold and get a good result. But they
are few and far between.
The preliminary chat is, as it were, part of
your research. With it you will establish the
ability of the person being interviewed to talk,
to express themselves, to answer questions. It
is possible that this preliminary talk will end
in you modifying some of your questions.
In your preliminary chat avoid asking the specific
questions you will be asking in the interview.
Instead, indicate general areas of interest.
If you ask the specific questions the filmed interview
will give an impression that it has been rehearsed.
Before you start your interview have your key
questions laid out and ready. You need a certain
amount of flexibility but most of the time you
will find that your first and logical thoughts
or question order is much better than one you
compile while winging it.
There are two main way of handling an interview.
The first is where the question is not heard
and the questioner not seen. Instead, you get
answers that are obviously directed at someone
who is out of shot.
A series of answers like this can be edited together
from either one person or several, to provide
the effect of a continuous interview.
In this sort of interview you ask the question
and then you keep your big mouth shut. If some
sort of reaction is needed nod or shake your head
vigorously or smile encouragement. If you speak
you will have to be edited out afterwards. Which
is not always easy.
This technique can be seen being used to magnificent
effect in the movie 'When Harry Met Sally' which
contains a series of such interviews with married
couples describing their lives together. Magic.
The other type of interview is where you are
both on screen in the manner of a normal conversation.
This sort of interview can easily be covered with
Shoot the interviewee's answers first and then
shoot the interviewer from where the interviewee
has been sitting, asking exactly the same questions.
At the end you do a series of 'noddies' that can
be used for cutaways.
The key to making such an interview work is to
get the person relaxed. Try to film them in a
familiar surrounding so that they do not feel
threatened. Keep the camera work and the lighting
as unobtrusive as possible.
The first question should be a sound level check
and should be totally innocuous.
Start the interview very gently in a chat mode
and always move from soft to hard questions imperceptibly.
Do not start like gangbusters or the interviewee
will clam up or, in the worst case, walk off.
At the end of the interview I always ask 'Is
there some question you would like me to have
asked that I have missed out on?'
This allows the subject to expand on a point
or deal with an area they feel has been skipped.
It is quite remarkable how often you will get
an excellent and usable response after that last
Start off with a long shot of the person being
interviewed facing the interviewer. The interviewer's
back appears, which gives a three-dimensional
aspect to the shot and gets the scene in context
for the viewer. Change the shot sizes in rhythm
with the questions. New question, new framing.
Another form of interviewing on video is vox
pop – from vox populi, Latin for the voice
of the people – are quick interviews with
people in the street to demonstrate public opinion
on a subject.
What you want to end up with is a series of statements
that can be cut rapidly together and, in the end,
give a clear indication of the current attitude
on a subject.
To make the interview more interesting change
the shot size as a new question is asked. That
is, switch off, zoom in from, say, mid shot to
close-up, and then resume filming again.
Use different backgrounds and different eyelines.
Work out how many interviews you want and then
shoot to that number with perhaps a 50 per cent
safety margin. Do not go on shooting after that
point. You could be getting useful footage for
another scene rather than wasting your time. In
vox pop moderation is the key.
Note carefully that subjects can move backwards
and forwards when making a point and may even
wave arms around in the air and you need to be
prepared for this so they are always in shot.
That the camera does not cut off parts of their
bodies. Armless interviewees may be harmless interviewees
but that is not the point of the exercise.
Gareth Powell has done many interviews for newspapers,
magazines and television. He writes about making
videos on his site, Digital images, http://www.pixelates.com
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