How to film an interview in 22 easy steps!

The interview is one of the most used elements in video, from TV news to documentaries. It ought to be straightforward to film – but dig down and there’s a lot to think about. We hope this step-by-step guide might come in handy. For simplicity’s sake, we do not go into the technicalities of lighting, sound, composition and so on but we will cover these in forthcoming articles.

So, here goes:

1. Pick your interview location, bearing in mind:

  • The quantity and consistency of any light that will illuminate your subject (more light, of consistent brightness is best)
  • Any light from behind that will tend to silhouette your subject (bad!)
  • The ambient noise level (quieter is better)
  • The backdrop that will be seen behind your subject (remove unwanted items)

2. Place your tripod a couple of meters from your subject and ensure that it is level – use the spirit level on the tripod if it has one. If you can get the tripod even further back (and zoom in to compose the shot) this will help put the background out of focus, which can make the shot look more artistic and helps to concentrate the viewer’s attention on your subject.

3. Mount the camcorder on the tripod and raise its height until it is at eye level with your subject so it neither looks up at or down on them. Lock the tripod to prevent it from dropping down mid-interview!

4. Attach a fully charged battery to the camcorder (or attach the mains power adapter, ensuring it is switched on at the wall).

5. Attach headphones to the headphone jack. Never film an interview without wearing headphones the whole way through otherwise you’ll never hear any sound problems until you get back and start editing – and that’s the worst time to find out there was a problem.

6. Attach the microphone lead to the camcorder; exactly how will depend on the model of camcorder.

7. Assuming that you are using a tieclip microphone – it’s easiest to use these if you’re filming solo, rather than try to film and hold a mic up to the guest – attach the microphone to the interviewee’s shirt about six inches below their mouth. Ensure that the cable runs inside any clothing or is otherwise hidden. The mic should ideally be mounted upside down to minimise any breaths or pops from the interviewee’s mouth.

  • Ensure that the mic is not covered or even touched by hair or clothes as these will rustle and ruin the sound. Ruined sound = probably unusable interview.
  • Listen carefully to the ambient sound (ask the interviewee to be quiet for a second) – is there anything that’s going to spoil the audio such as an air conditioning unit or fridge humming away to themselves? Any fans running (including computer fans) – turn them off. You need everything as quiet as possible except for the interviewee. Also, check the sound is not too echoey; this depends on the location. For example, a bathroom will be very echoey, a lounge should be OK due to all the soft furnishings which absorb the sound. Soft furnishings are your friend.

8. Ensure the camcorder has sufficient recording time; probably best to put an fresh, unused memory card in it.

9. Switch on any lighting you intend to use – lighting is outside the scope of this article but we will return to it in another.

10. Ask the guest to hold up a piece of white card in front of their face, with all the light falling on it exactly as it will during the interview. Zoom in on this card and set the camera’s white balance. Take the card away.

11. While you’re zoomed in on the subject, focus the image. Then zoom out.

12. Compose your shot by zooming and panning / tilting the camcorder until you have a nice-looking image.

  • Consider if any unwanted elements will spoil the shot such as a plant apparently growing out of the subject’s head.
  • Bear in mind that you should ideally be positioned between the main light source (eg a window) and the camcorder, and the interviewee will be looking in your direction, so ensure your shot has them on the correct side of the image.
  • You may need to get the guest to remove their glasses because reflections off nearby windows when they move their head can be really distracting.

13. Set the exposure using the iris and (only if it’s really dark) the gain. Leave the shutter speed on 1/50th (1/60th in NTSC countries) otherwise any movement in the image will look either blurry or stuttery. Unlike stills photography, altering the shutter on a video camera is not a good way to change exposure. Use the “zebra” tool if your camcorder has it. Like lighting, exposure is not something we will cover in this article but we have done a video about it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vo86fpfyyuE

14. Ensure the microphone is switched on; there may be switches on the mic body, the mic cable and / or the camcorder itself.

15. Check that the camcorder’s sound level meters are moving when the interviewee talks to you and confirm that you can hear them clearly in the headphones. Adjust the recording levels so that they’re not hitting maximum on the meters, so as not to distort the sound. Practice makes perfect in this.

16. Sit down and ensure your headphones are on. When you are ready, press the “RECORD” button on the camcorder – ensure that it really is recording! Usually there’ll be a red recording dot on the screen and/or it may say “REC”.

17. Conduct your interview (see our article about this here: http://tubeshooter.co.uk/2013/05/16/how-to-conduct-an-interview-part-1/)

  • If necessary, you can press “record” again on the camcorder at any time to pause but remember to press it again to restart. This advice is not as silly as it sounds; forgetting to press record happens a lot.

18. When the interview is done, press the “record” button on the camcorder one final time to stop the filming. Before the guest gets up and walks off, play a few seconds of the interview back to yourself, to check it recorded OK and sounds OK. Best not to let the guest see it at this point, they always think they look and sound terrible and start demanding to do it again. Don’t let them.

19. Remove the microphone from the guest before they get up and walk off (this also happens a lot). If your microphone is battery-powered, switch it off else next time you do an interview it won’t work.

20. Turn the camcorder off.

21. Remove the memory card from the camcorder and label it immediately. On most types of memory card, there is a tiny slider on the side which can be flipped so that the card cannot be over-recorded; it should show a little red mark when this slider is set thus.

22. Thank your guest profusely, pack your bags and go.

Extra Tips
It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to be listening for any sound issues throughout the whole interview – crackles, scratches, electrical glitches etc. Most video problems can be ironed out in an edit (not that you want to rely on that of course) but sound can be much harder to fix.

Before you press record, ask the guest to ensure they look towards you throughout the interview and not even to glance at the camera. If they do keep glancing at the camera while you film, stop and beat it into them. Having interviewees stare directly into the camera (at the viewer) can be very distracting to the viewer; the camera should be considered as if it’s eavesdropping your conversation with the guest, not the guest “presenting” direct to camera, and their eyeline should reflect that.

Good luck!

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