How to best record video interviews with older family members
November 10, 2017 5:07 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I would like to record documentary-style interviews with our parents, aunts, and uncles while they're still around - asking about their lives, where our families came from, etc. I'd like to do this with the highest quality possible, I'm ready to rent a camera and proper mics, but I have no idea what kind of files come out of the high-end video cameras and how to edit them -- my only experience is with iMovie on a Mac. More inside...

Can you suggest a video camera available for rental that can output files I could edit on my Mac? My budget is $100/day. Do I need 4K? How do external mics work with video cameras? Can I hook up 3 or 4 mics up to a single video camera or am I going to have to record audio separately?
posted by exhilaration to Media & Arts (3 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea what kind of files come out of the high-end video cameras

You probably want something that has high quality MP4 using the H.264 codec or AVCHD. AVCHD is better quality but harder to work with. High end codecs like ProRes 422 are probably overkill for your purposes.

Can you suggest a video camera available for rental that can output files I could edit on my Mac?

It is worth considering buying a ~$1K camera (DSLR or mirrorless with video capability is what I'd look at personally) rather than renting something that may be capable of producing higher quality video but that you don't have the time and experience with to get the best results.

Do I need 4K?

Quality lighting will get you better results than going from 1080p to 4K IMHO. There's things out there that advertise 4K capability but the lenses aren't capable of resolving to that resolution so you effectively have lower resolution or the quality of the sensor is junky and you have high detail of just how junky they are. That said, if you are renting high end gear, your displays will be 4K or better within the next decade or so, so it doesn't hurt to make the videos at a high resolution, assuming you have space for them.

Get a good tripod too.

How do external mics work with video cameras? Can I hook up 3 or 4 mics up to a single video camera or am I going to have to record audio separately?

As a hobbyist, you do not want to record them separately. Badly synced audio is awful and distracting and you don't want to be learning how to do timecode.

Most devices will handle two channels of audio - you can use a small mixer to handle going from four mics to a stereo image. You might want to consider having four channels of audio compression (the type that reduces dynamic range, not the digital type) so you can gently compress each speaker discretely which will probably improve intelligibility.
posted by Candleman at 5:53 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

This gets complicated. Hiring Pros out to do this would be ~$1000-2000/day. Doing it yourself is doable, but if you could practice a few times with you and your wife interviewing each other your results will be much better. Remembering to make two cameras run, and focus, and have the audio all working, etc, etc, etc gets to be a lot to keep in your head.

I would look at a setup like this:
  • Panasonic gh4 x2
  • Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 x2
  • Sennheiser G3 Wireless Mic x2
  • Zoom H4n x1
  • Manfrotto MVH500AH Head w/ 755XB MDeVe Aluminum Tripod Legs x2
  • Manfrotto LYKOS Bi-Color LED 3-Light Studio Kit x1
If you rent all this stuff from LensRentals for seven days it'll run you about $100/day. You'll need two fast SD cards, AA batteries, headphones, BIG external hard drives, and some odds and ends.

Please Please Please have a legit backup system in place; one external hard drive connected to your Mac running time machine does not count.

4k Isn't required, but you wont be unhappy about it going forward. Plus downscaling 4k video to 1080 (aka 2k) looks excellent. The cameras I suggested, will look great with enough light, but won't look great in low light.

High quality audio is a MUST. No one will watch a video where you can't hear the people being interviewed. Viewers are surprisingly forgiving of bad video quality if you can hear what people are saying. When you're setting your audio stuff up make sure to plug headphones into the recorder and make sure that the audio sounds right.

Basically your setup will be something like this, one or two relatives sitting in a comfortable space. You will wire them up with a lavalier mic (make sure the cord isn't visible in the shot!). Ask good questions, but try to not make much sound while your relatives are talking, it's weird having someone off camera making a bunch of noise. Minimize background noise!!! Turn off the air conditioner, unplug the fridge, put the dog in the back yard, turn off the tv, make the kids sit still, etc etc. People ramble all the time, no one will watch a video of someone rambling; don't be afraid to say something like "I loved that answer, but can you tell me the 30 second version not the 3 minute version? I loved detail 1, 2, and 3; focus on those details"

For one person interviews one of your cameras will get a wider room shot, the second camera will get a closeup on the person's face (don't cut the top of their head off). For two people, one camera will get a wider shot with both people in it, and then the second camera will move between the two people depending on who's talking. Do not let your relatives sit in chairs that move; they will look fidgety and you'll have to reframe your shot every 10 seconds.

Set your three lights up so that you have a light left and right of the person. Have the lights slightly tilted down and a bit above the person's eye level. Have one of your lights be slightly dimmer than the other. Think about mimicking how sunlight looks. Use your third light to fill in as needed-- maybe the back of the room looks really dark? Match the color of the extra lights to the color of the light in the room.

Remember to get b-roll shots of stuff; here are some ideas, the outside of the house, your relatives petting their dog, your relatives opening the fridge, the mantelpiece, the mailbox, the relatives sitting in rocking chairs on the porch, etc

Ditch iMovie, use Adobe Premier, it has a bunch of features that make it worth it, but that's beyond the scope of this question.

Just to keep things in perspective, for every 30-45 minutes of interview, you'll probably get 1-3 minutes of really interesting usable content. Keep the videos you edit very short say under 3 minutes. No one watches videos of people talking for more than a few minutes unless they're riotously funny or really famous.
posted by gregr at 8:12 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Family stories are so great. They help us know who we are. But: seriously consider your audience and your degree of commitment to help decide on the scale of the project. If you're new to video production like this, it's easy to bite off more than you planned to chew.

If it's for family only, they will likely be more forgiving of less-than ideal quality. I made some recommendations for intermediate equipment in another thread. Practice and more practice to build your skills can result in surprising quality without a huge financial investment.

If you're looking for a larger audience and/or wider distribution, then the time and trouble required for better quality will be more important. There are reasons experienced film crews earn $1k/day. As gregr and Candlemas say, light and sound are vital but neither quick nor easy. The rigs they discuss above are complex and will be time-consuming to assemble and learn before you shoot anything. You'll see why it takes professionals months to make a relatively brief production.

Whether you're going for pretty good home brew or going for a higher level, the equipment and its management can be distracting and even intimidating to some people. In the moment, you need to focus on them and their stories. You want them to relax and tell their stories with minimal attention to lights, mics, cables, etc. If you're not relaxed and comfortable, they won't be either. Get as much experience as you can with the process.

After shooting, the follow-through has been the death of many projects. This is arguably the hardest part, and certainly the most time and emotion-consuming. Be ready. You will find yourself watching and re-watching and re-re-watching as you edit.

I don't want to discourage you; I want to help prevent you getting discouraged later. You're undertaking a great and wonderful task that can have rewards after they and you are gone. All the best.
posted by conscious matter at 2:04 AM on November 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

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