What do 60 minutes, Man on Wire, and ESPN’s 30 for 30 series all have in common? They all succeed in large part due to the use of great-looking interviews. Capturing interviews has unique challenges compared to other productions, so it’s important to be dialed in when it comes to lighting, shooting, and conducting them — and with these tips, you’ll be winning awards in no time! (*Awards not guaranteed.)
Lenses: A prime lens between 24-85mm is a great focal length for shooting interviews. Try to use a lens with a low aperture (f-stop), like f/3.5. A faster aperture will give you more flexibility with your depth-of-field, which means more separation between your subject and busy backgrounds.
Tripod: Don’t forget to bring your tripod! I can’t stress this enough. There should be no reason to shoot an interview handheld.
Audio: It’s best to shoot interviews with a wireless lavalier or boom microphone. If you don’t have a large budget, a shotgun mic will be one step better than your on-camera mic. Most DSLR cameras don’t have built-in XLR inputs, so if you’re using one, you’ll need an additional external audio recorder or XLR to 1/8 cable when using a lavalier or boom mic. Don’t forget to bring along some headphones to monitor and playback your audio levels.
Lights: If you’re planning on shooting indoors and have access to a three-point lighting kit, bring it. A nice key light with a fill can really add some separation between your subject and background.
Extra Batteries and Media Cards: Interviews can be long. Bring some extra batteries and media cards so that you have adequate power and storage.
Choosing Your Location
The location and environment you choose for your background will have a major influence on the look and feel of the interview, so it’s best to choose a location that complements your subject’s line of work or the interview topic itself. For example, if your subject is a farmer, then go out to the fields. If your subject is a professional snowboarder, get on the slopes! You get the idea.
If you don’t have access to a location that fits the subject’s line of work, no worries — just make sure the location you do choose is quiet, well-lit, and has a clean background.
Framing Your Subject
Backgrounds: Position your subject as far away from any walls as possible. Shoot with a shallow depth of field (f/5.6 or less) to separate your subject from the background. Remove any distracting objects from the background.
Rule of Thirds: Follow the rule of thirds. When positioning or framing your interviewee, try to position them either left- or right-of-center.
Focal Length: Start with a medium shot, which will include the subject’s head, shoulders, and waist. Consider experimenting with different focal lengths, like wide shots and close-ups, to motivate different parts of the interview. These focal lengths should be 100% motivated by the subject. For example, if the subject is talking about the location in which you’re interviewing them, zoom out to show more of the scene. If they’re talking about something more personal, zoom in closer to their face. Always wait to change your focal length between questions, never when your subject is talking. Lastly, make sure to give your subject enough headroom.
Look Off-Camera: Unless your interviewee is intentionally speaking to the audience, your subject should be looking off-camera at the “interviewer” and never directly into the camera. If the interviewee is in the left third of the frame, position the interviewer on the right side of the camera, so that they’re looking across the frame, and vice versa. The camera should be positioned at or just below the eye level of the subject.
Lighting Your Subject
When shooting indoors, avoid placing your subject in front of a window or other light source. Instead, use the window as your light source. Your subject should always be brighter than your background.
Three-Point Lighting: If you have access to lights, use the standard three-point lighting setup. This includes a key light, a fill light, and a backlight.
Key: This is the main light source that shines directly on the subject. It should be positioned around 45 degrees to the right or left of the camera.
Fill: The fill provides balance to the key light by “filling in” the rest of the subject’s face with a softer light. It should be positioned to the side that’s opposite the key light.
Backlight: The backlight creates a rim of light around the subject, separating them from the background. This light can be positioned behind the subject, off to the right, or low-center.
A good height for your lights is at least two feet higher than the subject’s eye line and tilted down toward the subject. Consider using some diffusion to keep glare to a minimum and soften the light.
If you’re filming outside, try and schedule your interview during the early morning or late afternoon hours (the “golden hour”) to avoid harsh shadows.
Last but not least, don’t forget to white balance!
All your hard work is for nothing if you fail to capture good audio. Equipment is crucial here, so be sure to use a lavalier, a boom, or a decent shotgun microphone to record the audio. Find a quiet area to film and make sure that you don’t have distracting background noise.
When using a lavalier, hide the cord underneath your subject’s shirt. Clipping the microphone just inside the collar is an ideal place, or any inconspicuous place that still can pick up the audio. Just make sure that the mic isn’t rubbing against any fabric or skin.
Monitor your levels. Levels should be between -12db to -6db (peaking at -6db). It’s good practice to test your audio before you begin shooting. Record your subject talking with a sound check, then play back the audio using headphones to make sure your levels are good.
Capture at least 20 seconds of room tone at the end of the interview. This will be helpful to have for post-production.
Conducting the Interview
Research your interview subject: Knowing about the person you’re interviewing will make your questions feel more natural, and it will help you come up with stronger topics, or questions to ask on the fly that you may not have thought about in pre-production.
Keep cool and stay relaxed: If your interviewee is nervous, start with a casual conversation on-camera to get them warmed up. Feel free to practice or re-ask questions throughout the interview until you get the response you’re looking for.
Question and answer: Unless you plan on using your own voice and questions in the interview, make sure your interviewee incorporates the questions into the answer. This is important for context. For instance, the question, “How did you get into full-contact badminton?” should be answered, “I got into full-contact badminton by…”
Avoid asking yes or no questions; keep it open-ended and let them fill in the details. The goal is concise, complete answers. Keep your questions brief, and try not to interrupt or talk over the subject. This will make what they’re saying unusable. Plus, it’s rude!
This may all seem like a lot to remember, but with enough practice once you start producing interviews, it will become second-nature. All of these rules apply to any interview, whether you’re talking to a friend or family member or the Dalai Lama himself.