9 Tips for Shooting a Documentary Interview

Everyone has their own interview style and manner of shooting a documentary. The following are simply guidelines and rules to make your documentary a success and capture the true feeling of the film.


1. Be Prepared and Adaptable

It is general practice to prepare questions and have an idea of how exactly you want your video/documentary to be. However, being prepared does not mean being rigid, and not accommodate feelings that may arise, your questions can slightly change. It is important to have a general concept for your interview. This depends not only on the type of filmmaker you are but also on the tone of the documentary.


2. Avoid Yes or No Questions

Ask questions that will open your subjects up and force them to elaborate. For example rather than “Do you enjoy painting?” ask “What made you want to paint?” or “What first inspired you to pick up the paintbrush?” This invites your subject to tell a story rather than simply answer a question.

Some interviewers prefer to avoid questions all together and simply use statements such as “Tell me about your art…” or observations that keep the conversation rolling, “That must have been incredible to be part of…” It feels more natural than asking a series of questions, which can make an interviewee feel nervous and on the spot.


3. Do not do Pre-interviews.

During the entire interview, keep your cameras rolling. Very often the subject of the interview shares a compelling story off camera, and when asked to repeat the story it’s no longer as natural, at times it even sounds paraphrased and emotionless. To avoid this, keep your camera rolling and capture all the best moments.


4. Try to Avoid Speaking or Exclaim Audibly.

This may seem obvious but it is a natural reaction to make noises when in a conversation especially when you are trying to make your subject forget it’s an interview. There is nothing more annoying than trying to edit out ‘um’ and ‘oh right’ over and over again. The footage is more stilted and ruins the flow. To make your subject feel comfortable, communicate with a smile or a nod.


5. Be Energetic, Curious and Animated

Energy feeds of energy. If you want your interviewee to be free and comfortable, give them that energy. Make them want to tell you everything and leave no stone un-turned. The interviewee will respond to your charisma and feed off of it.


6. Keep Filming When The Interview is Over

Often you can get your best shots post-interview. The pressure is off and the conversation might continue with your interviewee more relaxed, that might be when you get your best footage. If it was a really emotional and tense interview it is interesting to see the subject wind down and regain their normal composure.


7. Make sure there are no background noises

Less about the interview technique but just as important. Noises that your ears are able to block out will be picked up clearly on the microphone and can block out what the interviewee is saying or puncture a cathartic moment. The coffee machines and blenders in a cafe are not your friends or the honking from nearby cars.


8. Embrace the pauses

Pauses are not necessarily awkward or unwelcome. Some of the most powerful interviews have long silences where interviewer, interviewee, and audience reflect on what has just been said. With a difficult subject, reluctant to share, it can act as a subtle power-play.


9. Follow your instinct

Each person is different. You may have to draw them out of their shell by being sharing some of your stories first. Or make sure they do not veer too far from the original theme/subject, although if you have the time, such tangents might bring up some gems.  Also, don’t shy away from tough questions. If the subject is reluctant to answer, don’t push it too hard. Maybe approach the question in a different way. It will seem less probing and more like a choice they made.

But all these rules can be broken to great effect as long as you are aware of them. Keep in mind the type of film you want to make. Some filmmakers may want to interact with their subjects, draw attention to the camera and to the documentary being made. Then the interviews tend to be more conversational. Others want to stay concealed, allowing the attention to focus entirely on their subject.

We can assist in shooting, and producing documentaries for you, or corporate videos. Visit our website for more information.

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