Conducting on-camera interviews can feel downright intimidating when you’re first getting started. Besides needing to pull interesting-yet-cohesive information from a human being, you have the added pressure of capturing it perfectly on camera.
As every video professional knows, there’s always the (strong) possibility that something can — and will — go wrong. Maybe your subject arrives early, and you don’t have time to white balance. Or you hit playback on the audio and realize you never hit record (been there, done that). Harrowing mistakes aside, I’ve actually grown fond of interviews and the incredible perspective they can lend to your film.
And, while I’m by no means a master at it, I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way. But one lesson always proves to be the most important: your interview will only go as well as you’ve prepared.
So, how do you do that?
Do your homework
I’ve never conducted a successful interview by winging it. Research your subject, their body of work, their background, their hobbies, their dog’s name. This is incredibly important if you want to connect with this person. Ask productive questions, and allow the conversation to flow. Dig deep. Read everything you can. Study other interviews featuring your subject. This will prevent you from asking questions they’ve already answered a thousand times before.
Based on your research, write up a list of questions that will keep you going for awhile. And make sure to actually bring that list with you to the interview. It’s way too easy to blank on your thoughtfully crafted prompts once the person is in the room.
Pro-tip: if possible, pre-interview your subject over the phone. It can be as simple as a casual conversation to get the basic details out of the way. But this initial point of contact before you’re in the room together is so valuable. You’ll find out whether or not they’ll make for an easy on-camera interview, or if you’ll have your work cut out for you.
Be fully set up before your subject arrives
Never make your subject wait for you to set up a boom mic or find fresh batteries. Besides looking unprofessional, it can make your subject feel impatient and you will come off as flustered, (because you probably are).
So prepare your interview space as fully as possible. Check those camera settings, format those cards, and sync those lavaliers. Have water bottles available for your subject because they’ll be doing the talking. They should feel as comfortable and appreciated as humanly possible, so make sure they have everything they need. Always, always have extra gear handy, so that if anything breaks or stops working, it’ll be a quick fix.
Your subject is a human being
In 2015, I worked at Rolling Stone as a video producer. The morning after Scott Weiland — best known as the lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots — passed away, I was asked to interview the senior editor at the magazine, David Fricke. Since he knew Weiland personally, he was understandably upset. So I knew that it was important to acknowledge the situation as human beings, and establish some sort of real connection before I asked him anything. After all, this tragedy was far more important than getting the perfect interview.
The first thing I did was offer my condolences. I assured him that I wasn’t there to focus on Weiland’s personal life, and the addiction he tragically lost his life to. I told Mr. Fricke that audiences admired him for his intimate recollections of artists, and that’s what I wanted this interview to be: a proper remembrance and farewell to Scott. An hour later, we shook hands and I went to edit the most sincere interview I’ve ever recorded.
If your subject constantly goes off track, steer them back gently and ask more pointed, “leading” questions. I once interviewed a person who was upset with the product I was asking about. So I let him vent for a few minutes. And then I asked him if there was anything at all positive about the product, to which he responded, “well of course there is!”
While I love the No Doubt song, remember to do this when you’re interviewing people on-camera. Do your best to avoid making vocalized responses to your subject, like “uh-huh” and “oh yeah.” No matter how audacious your audio setup is, your voice will be picked up in the recording. And there’s little you can do in post-production if you overlap with what your subject is saying.
Have your camera and audio rolling as soon as your subject enters the room and don’t cut until after they leave. Let them know when they arrive that you’ll have B-roll recording the entire time. That way there’s no surprises in the final cut, and you’ll be set up to grab any hidden gems that come out in the more casual moments of your conversation. I can’t tell you how many times metaphorical pieces of gold have occurred while I was warming up my subject or at the end of the interview when they finally relaxed. These magic moments can make a piece that much more interesting. So make sure you’ve got those extra SD and CF cards ready. And don’t cut unless you really have to. And even then, don’t.
While these bits of advice can make for a smoother, more productive interview, remember that you can only control so much. An interview will very, very likely go awry at least once in your career, no matter how much you’ve prepared. In those situations, all I can say is: don’t panic.
By being as prepared as possible, you will have every tool and bit of knowledge working for you to bring the conversation back to interview gold.