In my time with Stone Ward and 360 Filmworks, I’ve had the pleasure of conducting on camera interviews with a variety of people for long and short videos. I’ve spoken with members of state agencies, business leaders, sales and service professionals, surgeons, teenagers, senior citizens and even convicted felons serving life sentences in prison. Although each interview was done with a different goal in mind, my approach was always very similar. From time to time I’m asked to provide a “tip sheet” for others wishing to perform on camera interviews. Below are some of rules I try to follow. 

Research Gets Results

Whether I’m producing an informative video or a feature piece that will highlight an individual, I always try to learn as much as I can about the subject before the interview. Generally, I can find all the information I need to get familiar with a topic by conducting a simple Google search or reading previously produced materials about the subject matter. Whenever possible, I like to speak to the person I’m going to interview before I show up with a camera. A 10-15 minute phone conversation can serve as a great ice breaker and lets me know if my line of questioning will be appropriate.

Where Should I Look?

There are different philosophies about whether or not an interviewee should look directly into a camera or slightly off camera. I generally abide by this rule — if the subject is making an appeal to, or addressing the viewing audience specifically, I have the interviewee look directly into the lens. If the interviewee is telling more of a story or describing an event, I direct their eye-line slightly off camera. When the interviewee looks slightly off camera, I have the person talk to me rather than the lens. This approach tends to make people more comfortable for long format or documentary style interviews.

Ask the Right Questions

It may seem obvious, but it’s sometimes easy to forget the importance of asking open-ended questions. Questions that only require a short answer won’t get you very much material. For example, don’t ask a person, “What is your job?” Instead, you might want to say, “Can you tell me a little bit about what you do here?”
I always go into an interview with a list of questions, and I try to be familiar as possible with those questions. I don’t want to spend my time looking down at my notes. I want to be able to engage the person in a conversation. That also means I can’t be afraid to veer from my question list or outline. One of the most important parts of conducting an interview is listening to the subject and adjusting the conversation to get what I need to best tell the story.

Think Like an Editor

I am no pro in Adobe Premier, but I do understand the principles of editing. No matter what editing software you are working in, they all require you to set an “in” point and an “out” point. This means each statement needs to have a natural beginning and a natural end. Things in the middle can always be adjusted, but if you don’t have a good start and end point, it’s difficult to make a story flow. This concept applies to every sound bite you capture. I always remind the interviewee to speak in complete sentences and to assume no one is hearing my questions.  I never hesitate to ask an interviewee to answer a question again or even a third time if I don’t feel like I have a natural start and finish. My job is to make the people I interview look their best, and sometimes that requires a few repeats.

Have Fun and Be a Student

One of the things I enjoy most about conducting interviews is that I actually get to meet interesting people and learn more about what makes them interesting. If I haven’t learned anything new from the person I’m interviewing, I haven’t done my job. It’s very important to remember that no one knows a person’s story better than the actual person. I might have an idea about what I want them to say or certain things that need to incorporated, but I always let the interviewee do most of the talking and remember that it’s my job to listen.