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Interviewing for video

By Marshall McPeek

Interviewing for video is, inherently, a different process than interviewing for print. It's goal is two-fold: to gather information and context as well as to create a visually-appealing, understandable conduit for information. We need to approach every interview with both objectives in mind.

Think before you hit the street.

Outline your story, if not in your notebook, at least in your head. Start by thinking about what kind of format youre using. Is this a stand-alone video that will appear on the web? Will it be a segment in a newscast with anchors introducing it? Does it need to be a “look live?Would photo-essay-style storytelling be the most compelling approach? Will voice-over narration be necessary or do you want your interview subjects to tell the entire story themselves? How long is the piece? What time constraints are being imposed on your interviews and/or your story?

The format you choose will dictate how you approach your interviews and how you work with your interviewees.

Find real people.

Are you interviewing only experts, cops, and officials? Or are you collecting sound from real people who have experienced the issue/hardship/elation your story is trying to explain? How can you personalize the story? Will you need sound from the dreaded POS (person-on-the-street) interviews?

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

If you have the luxury of a two-person team, talk to each other! Talk about the format, the interviews, and the potential images. Make sure youre both on the same page and both working toward the same goal. If youre each telling different versions of the story, youll be in deep doo-doo when you get back to the newsroom and try to weave it all together.

Interviewing for Video

Do two interviews.

While youre with your interview subject, youre actually doing two interviews: one off-camera to collect facts and information and one on-camera to collect context and emotion.

In most cases, your on-camera interview is not the place to dig for facts. (Your photojournalist teammate would appreciate you not using the limited space on the video card as a personal notepad, especially if he or she is forced to shoot the interview off the shoulder.) Collect that information while youre chatting with your interview subject off camera. Youre still on the record; youre just not on camera.

Use the on-camera time to elicit a reaction to the facts youve collected. Get the emotion. Ask how he felt about being rescued from the burning building. Let her tell you how scared she was when she saw the bank being robbed. Find out how mad he is about the citys snowplows skipping his street.

Use the voice track in your story to present the facts and figures. Let your interviews provide the emotion.

Get comfortable.

Putting a camera in someones face often makes them nervous. You may be accustomed to being on camera, but there's a good chance your interviewee is not. Take a few minutes to help them relax and begin to ignore the ominous piece of equipment staring at them from atop the tripod.

Use some of your off-camera prep time to set them at ease. Yes, youre on the record (dont lead them to think youre not), but treat it more like youre having an informal chat. Be friendly. Be personable. If its at all appropriate, lighten up and laugh a little. Help your subject become comfortable talking to you. By making them comfortable, theyll be more likely to open up once the camera is recording.

Keep in mind, theres a fine line between insincere fakery and gracefully helping someone relax in a stressful situation. Be a real person, not a conniving reporter digging for good sound. People can sense the difference and theyll clam up in a heartbeat.

And if youre with someone who is excessively nervous, deactivate the cameras red tally light. Instead, without making a big deal of it, just off-handedly mention that youve started recording and continue your chat as the camera rolls.

Make it all about them.

People like to talk about themselves. Its human nature. Go with it.

Even folks who protest about being shy (and thats often a load of rubbish) are willing to talk about themselves. Open the door, show them the path, let them take a walk down memory lane, and gently guide them back to the topic when they begin to ramble.

Move it forward.

In your on-camera interviews, youre looking for soundbites that advance the story. Ask open-ended questions that encourage people to explain, emote, reminisce, and be thoughtful. Questions that elicit a yes-or-no answer are often useless.

Having an interviewee regurgitate basic facts is dreadfully boring. Use your tracked narration for that instead. Besides, a well-written script can sum up those facts much more succinctly than an off-the-cuff soundbite.

Use soundbites to add context or emotion, not minutiae.

Keep it brief.

Once youve started recording, get to it. Dont dawdle. Ask the big questions. Try to make every frame of video count.

Every second of video you waste is that much more youll have to sift through when you get back to the edit bay. Its also that much less time available on the cameras limited video cards or videotape (does anyone still use tape?). When you're hurtling toward a deadline, you'll be glad to find those six-second soundbites without having to slog through 30 minutes of video.


Have a few queries in mind (or written down to jog your memory) but don't get stuck on a list of specific questions. Listen. Comprehend. And ask the follow-up question.

Sometimes, youll hear an answer that totally changes the direction of your story. Go with it. Follow that new path. Ask the new questions. It may be an even better story!


If an answer doesn't make sense or you just don't understand, ask him to clarify. Don't let your pride get in the way. Make a joke about how it went right over your head... and ask if can she explain it a little more simply. If you didn't get it, neither will your viewer.

Stay on task.

While youre chatting on camera, remember that you still have a story to construct from beginning to end.

Depending on your storytelling goal, you may need to ask specific questions to get specific responses. For example, if you want to avoid narration and have your interviewees tell the whole story, make sure youre asking questions that will lead to that end. For example, youll probably want them to introduce themselves in the video; it may make them feel a little awkward to do it, but itll really help tell the story.

Location, location, location.

Get your subject out from behind the desk. Avoid the bookcase background. Walk around. Play show-and-tell during your interview.

Take your subject for a stroll. Have her show you how she accomplished her goal. Ask him to take you to the place where he made the astounding discovery.

Putting your interview subject in their natural environment is more interesting visually. It also helps them relax, open up, and tell their portion of the story because they become more comfortable.

Shut up.

Stop talking. This interview isn't about you. Your question is not the highlight of the story. Their answer is. So, let them get it out without interruption.

When youre ready to ask that follow up question or move on to the next topic, wait for them to finish. If you step on their answer, you may lose a great soundbite.

Silence is golden.

Sometimes, when your interview subject isn't being quite as forthcoming as you might have hoped, at the end of an answer, let the silence fill the room. Keep good eye contact so they know you're interested in what they have to say, but let them feel compelled to fill the awkward silence. It often takes only a few seconds for them to start talking again, expounding from wherever they left off.

Avoid officials.

Interviews with company spokespeople, cops, government officials, and politicians often suck the life out of a good story; they tend to drain all of the emotion out of it (unless its Toronto Mayor Rob Ford). Their media traininghas taught them to do that. You can get fantastic information from them but their soundbites also can bring a good story to a grinding halt.

The biggest exception to the rule is when youre holding that company, politician, or official accountable for their actions (see again: Rob Ford). At that point, their reactions are absolutely vital to your story.

Make them look good.

What you're doing is inherently visual... and, like it or not, cosmetic. If THEY look good, your story looks good. Let them look like a disheveled mess and even your best sources will lose credibility with viewers.

Have her take off her sunglasses. Ask him to remove that ridiculous hat. We need to see their eyes. And, if you notice something hanging out of his nose or her necklace is askew, gently let them know so they can fix it. Despite half a second of embarrassment, they'll appreciate the chance to improve their appearance.

Mic it. Light it.

Dont use the built-in microphone on the camera for your interviews. At least use a stick mic. Or, better, clip on a lavaliere. The built-in shotgun is great for natural sound but far too hollow for interviews. You want your subject to be easily heard and understood so they add value to your story. Otherwise, why do the interview?

When a light kit isnt available, try to conduct your interview outdoors or in a room with plenty of natural light. And dont put your interviewee in front of a window where theyll be totally backlit.

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