Tom Hooker from Zest Productions explains what good video producers will do to make your interview pain-free.
As a video producer, it’s very easy to become preoccupied with technology. But it’s important to remember that even the most exciting bits of new-fangled kit are only devices to enable a subject to be captured. And the subject should be king. The ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of a film is not only affected by camera choice, lenses and lighting, but also, and perhaps more importantly, by its contributors. The way people look and come across on camera is of paramount importance and in many cases will even dictate the effectiveness of the finished film.
This blog article will put the ‘tech geekery’ to one side and focus on how good video producers get the best out of their human subjects. To most people, sitting opposite a camera is extremely alien and uncomfortable and it is our job as to make them feel relaxed and able to deliver their message effectively. At Zest, we pride ourselves on how we treat this important element and this article draws on our experience working not just with some of the most recognisable presenters, but also ‘everyday’ people who may not even want to be filmed, or contributors who are discussing sensitive or personal subjects.
Having some pre-production time to contact and build a relationship with the interviewee prior to the shoot is really helpful. If possible, we try to talk on the telephone in advance to get to know them and familiarise them with the process. It also helps our understanding of the purpose of the video, key messages and content. This will help us earn trust and respect, which is important. You can also discuss clothing! Imperative if you are using greenscreen, where green colours should be avoided. Cameras also hate small, tight patterning on clothes!
If the contributor is anxious about speaking on camera we sometimes discuss the possibility of using an autocue or prompt cards. This isn’t necessarily an easy opt-out, as both have their drawbacks and there is no substitute for a natural, conversational interview. Reading naturally from an autocue is a skill in itself, but it can provide valuable reassurance to some people.
However, in most cases, presenting a script verbatim isn’t necessary. What is more important is the subject focussing on key bullet points that need to be communicated. This will automatically prompt them with the structure and hopefully enable a more natural presentation in their own words. To achieve this, it is vital that the producer understands the content beforehand (send him/her those bullet points in advance!) in order to prompt correctly, and know how best to break it down if it needs to be tackled in sections. Without this planning, many contributors will turn up on the day nervously clutching their ‘script’ which they have tried to learn overnight and will attempt to deliver as a monologue. In this scenario, nerves often overtake, editing becomes tricky and the subject will never be themselves. Even the most confident person can fall apart under the lights trying to deliver a memorised script. So let your prepared producer guide you, step by step, through each section. And remember, you don’t have to do the whole thing at once. That’s what editing is for!
Another important issue to raise as early as possible is location, location, location! In an ideal world we always want a large spacious room with controlled lighting but more important than this is somewhere quiet and private. Those quality broadcast microphones pick up EVERYTHING. An echoey office next to the building site is unusable and trying to work around such disturbances will delay the shoot and frustrate/fluster the subject who has enough on their mind already... If possible try to arrange more than one space to give choice and backup on the day.
On the day of the shoot, always allocate more time than you think you need for an interview. This allows some time beforehand to warm-up and brief the contributor. Extra time means producers, clients and contributors will be relaxed, which creates a much better atmosphere for a pleasant interview. Frankly, there is nothing worse for a contributors nerves than a flustered crew running about because of time pressure! We sit them down in front of the camera early so they become used to the lights, camera and normal conversation before recording. This also means that the briefing can naturally roll into the shoot without the need for an ‘action’. We actually try not to ‘overbrief’. Many producers will completely overload a contributor with instructions! We check the subject is comfortable and has a glass of water nearby.
The setting and style of presentation must obviously be kept in keeping with the client’s image. Some setups may require a very formal approach whereas others can be more relaxed. You may sometimes find that the desired style is at odds with your subject. In this scenario, it’s important not to make them uncomfortable and force them into a situation where they look or feel awkward. This is something that should be discussed prior to filming so that they know what they are walking into.
If someone does appear nervous and is anxiously clutching their hands for example, the producer might consider changing the shot size. Asking them to stop is a last resort as will only distract them further and overload them with directions. Many people will become instantly agitated when they know the camera is rolling so we try to be discrete and keep recording for as much as possible. Stop/starts will often disrupt the flow.
People will always feel better on camera if they know they look good. If there is budget for a makeup artist then this will help. We consciously aid this by framing a flattering shot and lighting sensitively. Bi-colour lite panels are superb for this as they are soft, flattering and it’s even possible to dial some warmth into them if your subject looks pale. Generally, it’s not good practice to let the subject see themselves on the monitor before the interview but if they ask then we can confidently show them and reassure them.
We all know that budgets can be tight but wherever possible we always try to work with a minimum crew of two; director and camera. This means the director is free to meet the contributors as soon as they arrive and start building a rapport, confidently knowing that the technical aspects are being taken care of. They are also then free to focus fully on the content rather than thinking about framing or audio levels.
In many situations, a second camera may also be desirable. Whilst it will incur further cost, it means extra coverage and more flexibility in the edit. We often mount two cameras close together and frame a mid shot and close up simultaneously. Alternatively, if using a 4K system (allowing a variety of shot sizes and thus edit points), you have this flexibility already. It means fewer takes are necessary and pick-ups on stumbles needn’t mean a complete re-take which is good news all round!
Hopefully this article is helpful, and gives you some insight into what good producers will do to ensure a smooth and (mostly!) painless interview scenario. Jump in, the water’s fine!
Tom Hooker is co-founder of Zest Productions, a London-based production company. He has vast experience across television, commercial and web-based video production. Tom is best known for his work with the BBC Natural History Unit.