The On Camera Interview

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Many projects are based on first person accounts using the technique of the on camera interview. This approach is used in documentaries, news specials, corporate image presentations, training, commercials, and more. I’ve edited a lot of these, especially for commercials, where a satisfied customer might give a testimonial that gets cut into a five-ish minute piece for the web or a DVD and then various commercial lengths (:10, :15, :30, :60, 2 min.). The production approach and editing techniques are no different in this application than if you are working on a documentary.

The interviewer

The interview is going to be no better than the quality of the interviewer asking the off camera (and unheard) questions. Asking good questions in the right manner will yield successful results. Obviously the interviewer needs to be friendly enough to establish a rapport with the subject. People get nervous on camera, so the interviewer needs to get them relaxed. Then they can comfortably answer the questions and tell the story in their own words. The interviewer should structure the questions in a way that the totality of the responses tells a story. Think in terms of story arc and strive to elicit good beginning and ending statements.

df4115_iview_2Some key points to remember. First, make sure you get the person to rephrase the question as part of their answer, since the audience won’t hear the interviewer. This makes their answer a self-contained statement. Second, let them talk. Don’t interject or jump on the end of the answer, since this will make editing more difficult.

Sometimes in a commercial situation, you have a client or consultant on set, who wants to make sure the interviewee hits all the marketing copy points. Before you get started, you’ll need to have an understanding with the client that the interviewee’s answers will often have to be less than perfect. The interviewees aren’t experienced spokespersons. The more you press them to phrase the answer in the exact way that fits the marketing points or to correctly name a complex product or service in every response, the more stilted their speaking style will become. Remember, you are going for naturalness, honesty and emotion.

The basics

df4115_iview_1As you design the interview set, think of it as staging a portrait. Be mindful of the background, the lighting, and the framing. Depending on the subject matter, you may want a matching background. For example, a doctor’s interview might look best in a lab or in the medical office with complex surgical gear in the background. An interview with an average person is going to look more natural in a neutral environment, like their living room.

You will want to separate the interview subject from the background and this can be achieved through lighting, lens selection, and color scheme. For example, a blonde woman in a peach-colored dress will stand out quite nicely against a darker blue-green background. A lot of folks like the shallow depth-of-field and bokeh effect achieved by a full-frame Canon 5D camera with the right lens. This is a great look, but you can achieve it with most other cameras and lenses, too. In most cases, your video will be seen in the 16:9 HD format, so an off-center framing is desirable. If the person is looking camera left, then they should be on the right side of the frame. Looking camera right, then they should be on the left side.df4115_iview_7

Don’t forget something as basic as the type of chair they are sitting in. You don’t want a chair that rocks, rolls, leans back, or swivels. Some interviews take a long time and subjects that have a tendency to move around in a chair become very distracting – not to mention noisy – in the interview, if that chair moves with them. And of course, make sure the chair itself doesn’t creak.

Camera position

df4115_iview_3The most common interview design you see is where the subject is looking slightly off camera, as they are interacting with the interviewer who sitting to the left or the right of the camera. You do not want to instruct them to look into the camera lens while you are sitting next to the camera, because most people will dart between the interviewer and the camera when they try to attempt this. It’s unnatural.

The one caveat is that if the camera and interviewer are far enough away from the interview subject – and the interviewer is also the camera operator – then it will appear as if the interviewee is actually looking into the lens. That’s because the interviewer and the camera are so close to each other. When the subject addresses the interviewer, he or she appears to be looking at the lens when in fact the interviewee is really just looking at the interviewer.

df4115_iview_16If you want them looking straight into the lens, then one solution is to set up a system whereby the subject can naturally interact with the lens. This is the style documentarian Errol Morris has used in a rig that he dubbed the Interrotron. Essentially it’s a system of two teleprompters. The interviewer and subject can be in the same studio, although separated in distance – or even in other rooms. The two-way mirror of the teleprompter is projecting each person to the other. While looking directly at the interviewer in the teleprompter’s mirror, the interviewee is actually looking directly in the lens. This feels natural, because they are still looking right at the person.

Most producers won’t go to that length, and in fact the emotion of speaking directly to the audience, may or may not be appropriate for your piece. Whether you use Morris’ solution or not, the single camera approach makes it harder to avoid jump cuts. Morris actually embraces and uses these, however, most producers and editors prefer to cover these in some way. Covering the edit with a b-roll shot is a common solution, but another is to “punch in” on the frame, by blowing up the shot digitally by 15-30% at the cut. Now the cut looks like you used a tighter lens. This is where 4K resolution cameras come in handy if you are finishing in 2K or HD.

df4115_iview_6With the advent of lower-cost cameras, like the various DSLR models, it’s quite common to produce these interviews as two camera shoots. Cameras may be positioned to the left or the right of the interviewer, as well as on either side. There really is no right or wrong approach. I’ve done a few where the A-camera is right next to the interviewer, but the B-camera is almost 90-degrees to the side. I’ve even seen it where the B-camera exposes the whole set, including the crew, the other camera, and the lights. This gives the other angle almost a voyeuristic quality. When two cameras are used, each should have a different framing, so a cut between the cameras doesn’t look like a jump cut. The A-camera might have a medium framing including most of the person’s torso and head, while the B-camera’s framing might be a tight close-up of their face.

While it’s nice to have two matched cameras and lens sets, this is not essential. For example, if you end up with two totally mismatched cameras out of necessity – like an Alexa and a GoPro or a C300 and an iPhone – make the best of it. Do something radical with the B-camera to give your piece a mixed media feel. For example, your A-camera could have a nice grade to it, but the B-camera could be black-and-white with pronounced film grain. Sometimes you just have to embrace these differences and call it a style!

Coverage

df4115_iview_4When you are there to get an interview, be mindful to also get additional b-roll footage for cutaway shots that the editor can use. Tools of the trade, the environment, the interview subject at work, etc. Some interviews are conducted in a manner other than sitting down. For example, a cheesemaker might take you through the storage room and show off different rounds of cheese. Such walking-talking interviews might make up the complete interview or they might be simple pieces used to punctuate a sit-down interview. Remember, that if you have the time, get as much coverage as you can!

Audio and sync

It’s best to use two microphones on all interviews – a lavaliere on the person and a shotgun mic just out of the camera frame. I usually prefer the sound of the shotgun, because it’s more open; but depending on how noisy the environment is, the lav may be the better channel to use. Recording both is good protection. Not all cameras have great sound systems, so you might consider using an external audio recorder. Make sure you patch each mic into separate channels of the camera and/or external recorder, so that they are NOT summed.

df4115_iview_8Wherever you record, make sure all sources receive audio. It would be ideal to feed the same mics to all cameras and recorders, but that’s not always possible. In that case, make sure that each camera is at least using an onboard camera mic. The reason to do this is for sync. The two best ways to establish sync is common timecode and a slate with a clapstick. Ideally both. Absent either of those, then some editing applications (as well as a tool like PluralEyes) can analysis the audio waveform and automatically sync clips based on matching sound. Worst case, the editor can manually sync clips be marking common aural or visual cues.

Depending on the camera model, you may have media cards that don’t span and automatically start a new clip every 4GB (about every 12 minutes with some formats). The interviewer should be mindful of these limits. If possible, all cameras should be started together and re-slated at the beginning of each new clip.

Editing workflow

df4115_iview_13Most popular nonlinear editing applications (NLE) include great features that make editing on camera interviews reasonably easy. To end up with a solid five minute piece, you’ll probably need about an hour of recorded interview material (per camera angle). When you cut out the interviewer’s questions, the little bit of chit chat at the beginning, and then repeats or false starts that an interviewee may have, then you are generally left with about thirty minutes of useable responses. That’s a 6:1 ratio.

The goal as an editor is to be a storyteller by the soundbites you select and the order into which you arrange them. The goal is to have the subject seamlessly tell their story without the aide of an on camera host or voice-over narrator. To aid the editing process use NLE tools like favorites, markers, and notes, along with human tools like written transcripts and your own notes to keep the project organized.

This is the standard order of things for me:

Sync sources and create multi-cam sequences or multi-cam clips depending on the NLE.

Pass 1 – create a sequence with all clips synced up and organized into a single timeline.

Pass 2 – clean up the interview and remove all interviewer questions.

Pass 3 – whittle down the responses into a sequence of selected answers.

Pass 4 – rearrange the soundbites to best tell the story.

Pass 5 – cut between cameras if this is a multi-camera production.

Pass 6 – clean up the final order by editing out extra words, pauses, and verbal gaffs.

Pass 7 – color correct clips, mix audio, add b-roll shots.

df4115_iview_9As I go through this process, I am focused on creating a good “radio cut” first. In other words, how does the story sound if you aren’t watching the picture. Once I’m happy with this, I can worry about color correction, b-roll, etc. When building a piece that includes multiple interviewees, you’ll need to pay attention to several other factors. These include getting a good mix of diversity – ethnic, gender, job classification. You might want to check with the client first as to whether each and every person interviewed needs to be used in the video. Clearly some people are going to be duds, so it’s best to know up front whether or not you’ll need to go through the effort to find a passable soundbite in those cases or not.

There are other concerns when re-ordering clips among multiple people. Arranging the order of clips so that you can cut between alternating left and right-framed shots makes the cutting flow better. Some interviewees comes across better than others, however, make sure not to lean totally on these responses. When you get multiple, similar responses, pick the best one, but if possible spread around who you pick in order to get the widest mix of respondents. As you tell the story, pay attention to how one soundbite might naturally lead into another – or how one person’s statement can complete another’s thoughts. It’s those serendipitous moments that you are looking for in Pass 4. It’s what should take the most creative time in your edit.

Philosophy of the cut

df4115_iview_11In any interview, the editor is making editorial selections that alter reality. Some broadcasters have guidelines at to what is and isn’t permissible, due to ethical concerns. The most common editorial technique in play is the “Frankenbite”. That’s where an edit is made to truncate a statement or combine two statements into one. Usually this is done because the answer went off into a tangent and that portion isn’t relevant. By removing the extraneous material and creating the “Frankenbite” you are actually staying true to the intent of the answer. For me, that’s the key. As long as your edit is honest and doesn’t twist the intent of what was said, then I personally don’t have a problem with doing it. That part of the art in all of this.

df4115_iview_10It’s for these reasons, though, that directors like Morris leave the jump cuts in. This lets the audience know an edit was made. Personally, I’d rather see a smooth piece without jump cuts and that’s where a two camera shoot is helpful. Cutting between two camera angles can make the edit feel seamless, even though the person’s expression or body position might not truly match on both sides of the cut. As long as the inflection is right, the audience will accept it. Occasionally I’ll use a dissolve, white flash or blur dissolve between sections, but most of the time I stick with cuts. The transitions seem like a crutch to me, so I use them only when there is a complete change of thought that I can’t bridge with an appropriate soundbite or b-roll shot.

df4115_iview_12The toughest interview edit tends to be when you want to clean things up, like a repeated word, a stutter, or the inevitable “ums” and “ahs”. Fixing these by cutting between cameras normally results in a short camera cut back and forth. At this point, the editing becomes a distraction. Sometimes you can cheat these jump cuts by staying on the same camera angle and using a short dissolve or one of the morphing transitions offered by Avid, Adobe, or MotionVFX (for FCPX). These vary in their success depending on how much a person has moved their body and head or changed expressions at the edit point. If their position is largely unchanged, the morph can look flawless. The more the change, the more awkward the resulting transition can be. The alternative is to cover the edit with a cutaway b-roll shot, but that’s often not desirable if this happens the first time we see the person. Sometimes you just have to live with it and leave these imperfections alone.

Telling the story through sight and sound is what an editor does. Working with on camera interviews is often the closest an editor comes to being the writer, as well. But remember that mixing and matching soundbites can present nearly infinite possibilities. Don’t get caught in the trap so many do of never finishing. Bring it to a point where the story is well-told and then move on. If the entire production is approached with some of these thoughts in mind, the end result can indeed be memorable.

©2015 Oliver Peters

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