10 Tips to Capture Winning On-Camera Interviews: Part 1

In my first of two posts, I'm sharing 10 tips to creating a great interview environment. In part 2, I'll share my tips for bringing subjects and their stories to life.

Part 1: Set the Scene for Great Storytelling

*"Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today." * -Robert McAfee Brown

I have found that every person is a story in the making, and that means that there are millions of great stories out there. As a visual storyteller, it's often my job to help people--kids, moms and dads, executives and sales people--tell their stories onscreen through interviews. A good interview can help a subject to express feelings and make observations that resonate with viewers, pulling them into the story like a magnet. This pull creates empathy in the viewer and enhances their willingness to be a part of the conversation. They are moved to participate and contribute to the dialog. This engagement is what every website, every brand, every cause needs to succeed online.

But how do we get these real-people stories documented? How do we unlock their personalities, hear their insights, and share their feelings? Whether you’re producing, directing, shooting or interviewing, there are a few things you can do to ensure your subject will make a true impression on viewers. While the internet is jam packed with advice about lighting, microphones, composition and other technical aspects of the interview, the tips I'm offering focus on creating the best atmosphere for your subject. It's really quite simple: if your subject feels comfortable in front of the camera, they'll tell their story in a more relaxed, human and compelling way.

1-CONSIDER THE ENVIRONMENT. When you have the opportunity, scout your shoot location, and plan to put your subjects in front of backgrounds that make sense for your story. Sometimes, the relationship is easy: talk to a doctor in front of a hospital, interview a conductor next to the train. But you can get striking results by simply choosing the right corner of an empty room, or you may find an unexpected location that brings the story to life. I've shot interviews in taxicabs and abandoned stairwells, on elevators, and off the back of a Texas hayride. The producers of the music documentary “Muscle Shoals” use backgrounds that are at once thoughtful, harmonious, and well-fit to their subjects:

  A still frame from the "Muscle Shoals" documentary trailer. Music legend Steve Winwood, interviewed in front of a massive factory loft window, overlooking—what else?—Traffic.

A still frame from the "Muscle Shoals" documentary trailer. Music legend Steve Winwood, interviewed in front of a massive factory loft window, overlooking—what else?—Traffic.

2-CREATURE COMFORTS. Making your respondent comfortable during the interview isn't difficult. It starts with a good chair (one that doesn’t squeak) and plenty of water to drink. Whatever you can do to make your subject feel more at home and less on-the-spot will put them at ease, and an at-ease guest is what you want. If they feel more relaxed, you'll see more natural and thoughtful responses to your questions.

3-WARM-UP. It's up to you to set your subject at ease for the interview, and the sooner you do this, the better. When they arrive at the shoot, introduce yourself and give them a brief overview of the recording process. I always tell my subjects three things: a. We have lots of time to record your interview. b. Our process today is flexible: we can stop, start, take short breaks, and re-shoot some of your answers, so don't feel you have to be perfect. c. We’re here to help you look your best on camera, so let us know how we can help.

4-TALK TO THE FACE. Producer Jim Staylor in San Diego has written an excellent guide to shooting great interviews. He says, "Unless your subject is a professional spokesperson or bring interviewed remotely, don’t have them look directly into the camera. Many people are not comfortable talking to a camera." He's right. And your audience will feel a stronger connection to a subject who is talking to a real person off-camera, not staring blankly into the lens.

5-FINISH THE INTERVIEW BEFORE YOU START. Sometimes, a subject’s natural conversational tone disappears when the red light comes on. They clam up, or try to choose their words too carefully. That's why I always instruct the camera operator to unobtrusively begin recording as soon as the subject is seated. While they're settling in, I'll ask the interviewer to begin a casual chat. I find that you can often capture the storyteller at their most natural and conversational during this time, before the interview has officially started. This trick doesn’t always work, but when it does, you’ll be rewarded with some really natural responses, and you’ll be a hero for shortening everyone’s day on the set.

6-KEEP IT LIGHT. A sense of humor and a relaxed demeanor throughout the production go a long way toward putting respondents at ease. Even if you’re under deadline pressure, don’t let your subject know; just stay loose and let the good vibes flow. Your footage will definitely benefit from a great attitude.

7-SAY WHAT I SAID. Explain to the subject that, since your questions won't be used in the final product, they will need to incorporate your question into their answer. It helps to give an example. "If I ask you what you had for breakfast, you could answer 'For breakfast, I had coffee and a roll.'"

8-DO YOUR HOMEWORK. If you are looking for answers that are more compelling than a simple "yes" or "no", you'll need to ask questions and engage in a true conversation with your subject. Before the interview begins, take a good hard look at the questions you’ve developed. You should strive for a mix of basic, factual inquiries, and questions that dig deeper. Do some research on your subject. The more you know, the more you can use that information to ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions that will produce some truly insightful replies. You'll also gain the respect of the respondent once they realize you are on their wavelength.

9-TALK LESS. Train yourself to bite your tongue once you've asked your question. Your "mmm hmm", "Yes" and "Uh huh" interjections can be picked up on the subject's mic, making them difficult to remove in post.

10-LISTEN MORE. As an interviewer, if you’re paying attention to their words, and not focused on the next question you’ve written down, you can draw out more details and dig deeper into the subject’s story. Often times, the best material comes from your followup questions.

I'd like to hear from you: What tips and tricks do you use to ensure high-quality, content-rich stories from your interviewees? What parts of capturing interviews do you find most challenging? Next week, Part 2: The Art of the Interview, with 10 tips to bring subjects and their stories to life.

About the author: Marc Wellin is an award-winning digital content producer and the founder of Mothlight, a digital video production company that specializes in telling stories for agencies and their clients.  Follow Marc on Twitter @filmbilly and Facebook.