Interviewing techniques for the amateur videographer. GO!
January 22, 2009 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Interviewing techniques for the amateur videographer. GO!

For instance, when watching various television shows and documentaries, the person being interviewed usually responds to questions in a way that recaps the question without the interviewer's voice having to explain anything. Is there a special way to craft this sort of question? "Never ask a yes or no question," I once heard, but it seems like there's more to it than that.

What are some other tips and tricks to get good responses (read: natural, not nervous, real) out of people on camera?

Please note: I'm not looking for any tips on the technical process (sound, camera, lighting, etc.) I've got those covered!
posted by nitsuj to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've done a lot of interview-type shoots, and aside from asking the subject to answer "in complete sentences", I've found the best way is to explain, before the interview starts, what you're doing and how you plan on editing things together. This helps them to understand why you need them to answer like that.

(That, plus one or two corrections at the very beginning, is about all you can hope for. If they don't get it after all that, they aren't going to.)
posted by ASoze at 6:56 AM on January 22, 2009

Best answer: The way you phrase questions should be as welcoming (and open-ended) as possible, unless you're purposefully trying to probe for something specific.

For instance, pose a question as "Tell me about X..."
Rather than "So what was X like?"

This way, you invite a much more detailed and thorough response.
posted by tybeet at 7:04 AM on January 22, 2009

When asking for complete sentences, it can be helpful to give an example: "If I ask you your name, instead of saying 'John Doe' please say 'My name is John Doe'."
Also good to make sure folks are comfortable physically as well as mentally if they're not used to being interviewed. Have a bottle of water within reach for them. Explain that they can stop and start over if they're not happy with an answer, that things will get edited and that's not a problem. It's just a conversation. They can ask for the camera to hold the roll if they want to answer something off the record or simply take a break for a minute.
The best interviewers seem to really get folks to relax and not worry about the camera and the other folks in the room.
posted by zoinks at 7:12 AM on January 22, 2009

Re: "including the question in their answer". Stay on top of people and don't be afraid to interrupt them the second they have transgressed. You will have to suspend your natural instinct for politeness, and this will be difficult. But be reassured in knowing that (the vast majority of) people are so, so eager to please on-camera, that they will not resent you for it in the least.

Catch them early in the "too-ambiguous statement" they're making and succinctly (and with benevolent and polite authority) say "Can we take that again from the top, and start off with explaining for folks watching what it is we're talking about?" 98% of people will be absolutely thrilled to do so.

Before the interview, make sure they understand why they have to include context in their answers. After explaining, we have a little prep script "exercise" prepared that goes something like: "Now if I ask you 'Who was George Washington?', a less-productive answer would be: 'He was the first President of the United States'. A MORE productive answer would be...?" At which point they should respond (something like) "George Washington was the first President of the United States." If they say this, they "get it", and you can play-ball.

(Even if/when they "get it"... Even if they're sharp, well-spoken, and media-saavy, the conversational-form of most interviews will prompt them to stray from this periodically... you STILL have to be vigilant in keeping them in-line with this directive -- employing, as needed, the above "interrupt and ask to re-state" method. You'll feel like an asshole at first, but it'll get easier).
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 8:06 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

No no, don't ask people to think of the editing, while they tell their story. That's your job!

You want your interview-subject to feel "in the moment", not to sit and think "did I tell it, like he wanted it?? Is he happy now?".

Just donĀ“t be afraid to ask again in a different way. And use "tell me" in your questions, like tybeet suggests.
posted by up!Rock at 8:49 AM on January 22, 2009

Best answer: > You want your interview-subject to feel "in the moment", not to sit and think "did I tell it, like he wanted it?? Is he happy now?".

I don't know anything about the asker's project or aims... but I'll tell you that -- with very few exceptions -- I'd prefer "professional, organized, succinct, and giving me quality shit that I'm likely to use" to any nebulous "in the moment" considerations...

"Mother talking about the death of her son"... Sure, keep them comfortable and "in the moment". But those kinds of moments are the exception, not the rule, and you should adapt to that situation accordingly. "Tell me about your field of expertise" and they'll "in the moment" your entire afternoon away if you let them.

For most of the interviews I've ever conducted, I would absolutely love it if they were constantly thinking "did I tell it like he wanted it/Is he happy now?" Relate to me, fear me, trump me, whatever... the key is "give me good shit", and their motivations are personal, highly-variable, and ultimately, not my watch.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 9:38 AM on January 22, 2009

You need to coach them before the interview starts, let them know that the questions won't be kept as part of the final product, and that they should be sure to encapsulate the question in their response.

Occasionally you'll need to ask people to restart or repeat themselves when they start off with "Yes" or "No." This is pretty standard.

When asking questions ... don't ask questions. In other words: rather than asking "did you go to the store on Tuesday?" which tends to prompt a yes/no response, instead say "tell me about Tuesday." This tends to encourage the interviewee to start off with something more neutral, like "Last Tuesday I ..." which is what you're looking for.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:49 AM on January 22, 2009

Best answer: Contrary to what others have said, I wouldn't ask someone to repeat my question in their response. I find that makes people nervous (too much to remember!), and a good editor should be able to splice their answer together in a satisfactory manner even without the introduction. That said, I interview for documentaries - for the nightly news, I'd want much more straightforward and simple sound bites.

A few simple tricks I've learned:

- Use your setup time to get to know the interviewee. Joke around, explain what you're doing, and generally try to make them feel at ease. Let them know the sort of questions you'll ask, so they can feel prepared.

- Even if you (the interviewer/cameraperson) are out of the shot, make a point of nodding and otherwise reacting to what the subject is saying. DON'T interject 'mhmm's, as those will be recorded, but show that you care about their response.

- Conversely, don't spend the time they're talking frantically coming up with your next question. They can tell you're not paying attention.

- If you're well-prepared, an interview should flow much like a regular conversation. Use a couple of canned questions to get the ball rolling, but if you listen well and ask good follow up questions, the story should unfold naturally.

- Wait a few seconds longer than you normally would to ask your next question. That pause will feel uncomfortable to the subject too, and they'll usually elaborate to fill the silence.

- Always leave the camera rolling after the formal interview is done. 9 times out of 10, once you announce you're finished, the subject will ditch their stage persona and keep talking about the interview topic, but much more candidly. Those last few minutes of footage are almost always the best of the interview.

- Similarly, after I finish my questions I ask if there's anything they'd like to add. The answer is almost always no, but usually they'll keep talking and restate something they said earlier much more clearly.
posted by meghosaurus at 10:13 AM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Cover up your record light. Set up the camera. Record the pre interview. Talk to them. Tell them to take a moment before they respond to you, to think a moment about their response. Feel free to comment (a little), on a bit more of what you're after... after their response and ask it again.

Never step on them speaking. Never cut them off. Wait a good long moment to see that they're finished.

Be prepared. Have a guess what their response will be. Under no circumstances "wing it."

If you intend this to be the main narrative of a Documentary, a "in their own words.", have a loose script of what responses you're looking for. There's nothing wrong (especially as an 'amateur') with having a narrator bridge the gaps.
posted by filmgeek at 10:14 AM on January 22, 2009

A pause always feels much longer to you than it actually is. Give good long pauses, and they'll elaborate on what they were saying to fill the space. This takes practice getting used to, but makes a big difference.

Asking people "why?" makes them feel defensive. Instead of "Why did you move to this city?" try "Tell me about what brought you here."

Prompts, prompts, prompts. "Can you give me an example of...?" "Can you tell me about a time that happened?" "What do you mean by...?" "How did you come to that decision?" "What makes you say that?"
posted by arcticwoman at 12:34 PM on January 22, 2009

> Never step on them speaking. Never cut them off. Wait a good long moment to see that they're finished.

This advice is unprofessional and inadvisable -- and, if followed, will hurt the quality of your final product.

Once they are in the chair, the clock is ticking. The interview will end at some point -- whether because of a mutually-agreed schedule/stopping point, or because the interviewee will hit a wall of mental exhaustion. Their task is fairly arduous, and stressful... it's numbing. I have an admiration for those I've interviewed that carried their eloquence and enthusiasm gavel-to-gavel; my admiration stems from A.) my inability to do the same in his/her chair, and B.) how god-awful rare these champs are.

Some people crap out at 45 minutes... most others will by an hour and 45 minutes, and some -- either superhumans, or verbose self-deluders, will try to press on in good faith after that point. The quality of their responses has dipped, though, noticeably. Perhaps catastrophically. You can try to gauge their stamina beforehand, to some degree, but it's easy to be way wrong. You can't bet on it.

Now, Because you couldn't or wouldn't corral them or cut them off so that you could get the footage that you went into the interview needing while they were at their peak, you instead get your crucial footage in a cursory way from a timorous, unanimated, slumped-shoulders Jr. Varsity shell-of-his/her-potential. Your crew has a right to be mad at you (they will be), and if the interviewee is savvy enough, s/he'll be miffed, as well. What you just did was to announce to your crew AND your subject "I have a pervasive lack of respect for your time, for our subjects' times, and for the quality of our project. Forsaking my only job today, I will let the interviewee run this interview. Yes... the interviewee -- the person who can't and doesn't know what we need from them, or what role they are likely to play in the finished film." On two unrelated occasions, long, long ago, I have been that guy. It's a horrible feeling.

You gotta make the right read and cut 'em. You did prepare, right? You talked to them on the phone, exchanged emails? You know their stories, and you know what you need them to do... Short leash, get your game face on. "Not in the film?" Step on 'em/Move on. "Not his/her role in the film?" Step on 'em/Move on. The first few questions are going to be like Halloween night, and your subject's gonna try to eat all his fucking candy. Cut 'em/Say you'll get back to anything interesting he's trying to force into an inopportune moment/Move on.

Do you miss things this way? Hell yes, of course. BUT you get what you were supposed to get from them, which is TEN TIMES more important. It's goddamn triage, to borrow a metaphor... Miss a few charming things you would've liked to have had, but GAIN the essential things that you scheduled this interview to get. Good films aren't wall-to-wall charming "i'm glad they left the camera on" moments... those things accumulate naturally. That's the garnish. The steak is the reason you scheduled the interview, and the steak gets first priority.

There may be some perfect world out there where half-days of work magically extend themselves, crew work for free, equipment doesn't break, your subject would love for you to come back tomorrow so she can sit under lights and have to be charming and witty for hours, and you're utterly unworried about going thru and finding the good content on the 20 hours you shot this week (including an entire P2 card of jam recipes, remember that!?) ... Until that day comes: Interviewer. Do your job. Step all over your subjects' attempts to ramble away from what you want them talking about. They'll thank you for it when they see the finished product.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 2:00 AM on January 23, 2009

This is definitely a tip, rather than general advice, but people never tell a story as well the second time around. They'll give you the condensed and less energetic version, because they feel like they've already told it and you already know. So you think they've got something interesting to say, try not to ask them about it until the camera is on them, or if it's unavoidable, get them to re-tell the story to someone else.
posted by Emilyisnow at 3:24 AM on January 23, 2009

(As a side note: I'd hate to leave the impression that my disagreement with a few of the pieces of advice given was a rejection of the quality of ideas generated in this thread. There are some absolutely fantastic points made here -- many of which I am eager to incorporate into my own interviews. Even in the posts where I might disagree with one thing said, the posters have given other pieces of very useful advice that I would wholeheartedly agree with. Even the things I disagreed with may be a reflection of differing styles/goals/projects demanding different approaches. Horses for courses.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 3:48 AM on January 23, 2009

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