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Do these 5 things during documentary interviews

Conducting an interview is more than just the settings on the camera, by building trust and using communication skills used in counselling you can understand more about the person you are interviewing and help them tell their story. You never know what you might find out and what direction your documentary will go.

Tip 1: Have a cup of tea

Never underestimate the power of a cup of tea and chat, especially if you are filming in someone's home. Building trust and having a calm friendly presence sets the tone of the day and helps our interviewee feel comfortable sharing their story with you and the cameras.

We recommend scheduling a minimum of 30 minutes into the start of your filming day to simply have a chat with the people who are going to be on camera and introducing them to the crew. Leave the gear unpacked in the car/van, and take this time to get everyone feeling happy and confident. This is also a great opportunity to take a tour of the surroundings, learn about topics of interest, and meet any animals or children.

Doggy tip: When filming a dog we always allow a lot of time for this so they get comfortable with people and strange equipment around the house. Make sure you secure any items such as tripods and lights with sandbags and keep equipment out of reach of teeth!

Tip 2: Make an interview sandwich

Follow the formula: B-roll - Interview - B-roll

The purpose of an interview sandwich is to help your participants feel comfortable and confident around cameras without needing to speak. This will help them open up and feel more at ease when it’s time to answer questions during the interview.

Start with capturing some b-roll around the house or chosen location, you can ask them to show you something or take you on a tour of a room, once you have done this you can move onto your interview setting. Once you have completed your interview, you can then dedicate some time to capture any additional key shots that will support information discovered during the interview itself.

Doggy Tip: We always ask the participant to either take us on a short walk with their dog, or take us outside into the garden. If you have 2 participants ask them to recall their dog between them - this is your chance to capture adorable running shots toward the camera!

Tip 3: Keep it Sound

You may choose to use a shotgun or boom mic, however if using lapel mics then communication shouldn’t be underestimated when placing them on a participant.

We may need to physically touch our participant and/or use tape on their bare skin which can be awkward for people who are not used to this, while celebrities and actors are used to this process, for the average person taking part in a documentary for the first time - this can be a bit nerve racking. Consent is important here and it’s also useful to acknowledge that they might feel more comfortable with a different crew member.

We can say something like: “we’re almost ready to start filming so I’d like to place a microphone onto your clothing / on your skin, is this something you are happy with, or would you like to do this yourself?”

If they’d like to do it themselves, then talk them through the process, otherwise describe where on a person's body you’ll be touching if necessary, such as their collar, shirt or whether you need to go underneath their shirt to use tape. Keep checking in while you do this.

Finally, always let them know when the microphone will be turned on or off, especially around bathroom breaks!

Tip 4: Be Prepared

A stressed or nervous person is easy to spot on camera so before you start, let the participant know what to expect during the interview, including what they should do if they make a mistake, and remind them that pauses are good because it means a clean cut between dialogue and easier for editing.

There’s nothing worse than having a massive audience when your subject is trying to talk about something emotional, not to mention too many cooks can cause distractions and unnecessary interruptions. Only required crew and cast members should be present in the room with you while the interview is taking place - and make sure phones are off!

Finally, have a glass of water and/or hot drink at the ready and remember to take breaks. Talking on camera is exhausting so look out for any signs that your subject is tired or struggling so you can take a break and come back to it.

Doggy tip: When we are interviewing someone with a dog, we start by creating a positive association of the area in front of the camera by giving the dog treats and praise for being near the cameras - dogs will soon realise being in front of the camera is a great place to be!

Tip 5: Learn to Listen

You may have heard of active listening, it’s used in counselling, helplines, bereavement support and even hostage negotiations. Active listening shows empathy and makes a person feel heard and helps them to feel comfortable with you - and you can do this even if you don’t agree with what they are saying.

Start by asking open ended questions and always allow for going off script - you never know what you might find out.

Withhold judgment

Your job as an interviewer is to tell someone's story. In the majority of cases, it’s not important what your opinion on the chosen topic is, after all, you're not the one being interviewed. It’s important to withhold your own judgment on a topic (even if you don’t agree with them) and keep the focus on them.

Non-Verbal Cues

How do you communicate with someone without saying anything at all? Non-verbal cues are a great way to encourage a subject or even change the direction of an interview. An enthusiastic nod of the head when they get to a key piece of information, a smile while talking of a fond memory, or even a raised eyebrow at a scandalous event can act as a prompt for the subject to know that they are on the right track and to expand on a point.

Talk Less

Most people hate awkward silences and will do anything to prevent them from happening. When the subject finishes speaking, try holding off on verbally responding immediately, you might find they avoid a potential awkward silence by expanding on their previous point and giving you new and valuable information.

Repeat the last few words

An effective way to continue the conversation and help our subject expand on their answer is by repeating back the last few words of their answer in a questioning tone. This implies that we don’t quite understand fully - but we really want to. It encourages our subject to delve deeper into a specific area of what they have just revealed. For example:

Interviewer: “Tell me about your dog”

Subject: “This is Alfie, he absolutely loves playing in the park but he sometimes gets a bit nervous around other people”

Interviewer: “Nervous around other people?

Subject: Well Alfie is a rescue dog, he was mistreated as a puppy and that’s why he isn’t very confident, we just hope we can help him feel more comfortable now he knows he’s safe”

This encourages your subject to share new information about that specific topic, if we were to say something like "tell me more", they may respond by answering the first question again, for example, "Alfie loves playing with balls". However when repeating the last few words of their answer they will attempt to expand on what they said to help you understand - resulting in new information.

Summarise how they feel

Once you’re ready, a summary is a powerful way to show your subject that you really understand what they feel and you are listening. It shows empathy and can be really effective in getting a heartfelt response and building trust.

Interviewer: "It sounds like you really love your dog and you just want what's best for him?”

Interviewee: "I do, he’s such a lovely dog and we all love him so much. He deserves the world, he gives us so much every day just by being himself, and we just want to give back to him too."

Avoid saying the phrase “what I’m hearing is…” the word ‘I’ is personal and implies you're more interested in yourself than the other person, it can get their guard up and even cause offence if you’re wrong. Try to use neutral phrases like “it sounds like”, “it looks like” or “it seems like” instead.

Camera settings, lighting, sound equipment and set dressing all play a huge part when filming an interview - but all of this will mean nothing if your main subject is nervous, uncomfortable and isn't able to share their story effectively. Remember, taking these steps to make sure your subject is feeling confident is just as important as the camera you use.


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