Photography Tips

9 Easy-to-Avoid Mistakes When Shooting a Documentary Interview

9 Easy-to-Avoid Mistakes When Shooting a Documentary Interview

Here are a few simple guidelines when shooting a documentary interview, and common mistakes you’ll want to avoid.

Shooting a documentary interview can feel overwhelming, especially when you’re on a tight schedule. There are a million different aspects that make up a documentary that add up—quickly.

That’s why it’s so easy for filmmakers to make mistakes when shooting an interview. With the proper preparation, however, you can avoid these nine common documentary mistakes.

1. Interviewing Subjects in Moving Chairs

Filming Interview
Make sure the interview chairs are sturdy. Image via G-Stock Studio.

When shooting an interview, one of the worst mistakes you can make is placing the interviewee in a chair that moves. When it comes time to edit, you’ll find it incredibly difficult to trim an interview when the subject is obviously bouncing around the frame.

It’s even difficult to hide it when you shoot two-camera interviews, as the subject will be leaning or moving around the whole time. Do not use swivel chairs, rocking chairs, or rolling office chairs. Look for a sturdy stool or solid chair that will keep the subject still.

If you don’t have one, consider taping them to the floor . . . just kidding. You can also put gaff tape on the bottom of the rollers if all you have is a moving chair. Don’t be above putting gaff tape on anything, I always say.

2. Asking Yes or No Questions

Documentary Set
Avoid “yes” or “no” questions. You want your interview to be conversational. Image via Grusho Anna.

You should have already prepped your questions before arriving to shoot the interview. While going over your questions, be sure to avoid any questions that will elicit “yes” or “no” answers. Phrase your questions to be more conversational so the subject is more likely to give a relaxed response.

When you ask “yes” or “no” questions—and get the obvious response—you’ll have to ask the subject to answer in full sentences. This can cause them to feel like they did something wrong, and they may become less comfortable on camera. You want to keep subjects as comfortable as possible.

3. Writing Answers or Notes During an Interview

Try to avoid writing answers or production notes during an interview. It’s often distracting to the subject. Interviewees will start to look at your pen and paper—missing their eye mark. Even worse, they may slow down when speaking, as they are trying to let you keep up with them as you write.

It’s also not courteous, and it makes it look like you’re not interested in what the subject has to say.

I’ve found that recording notes into your phone’s voice recorder once you’ve stopped rolling can be a quick, effective way to get down whatever lightning speed thoughts you have.

4. Not Allowing for Pauses and Silence

During the interview, be sure to allow for breaks and silent pauses. It may feel a little awkward, but rushing into the next question as soon as you get an answer for the previous one can cause you to talk over the subject. This can be a real pain in the edit bay.

Leave a second or two of silence before you ask your next question so you can have a nice cut point. As a bonus, if you pause longer, you’ll have additional room tone.

You’ll also give the interviewee time to expand on their answers if they want to, without prodding them. Sometimes, after finishing a thought, they might realize they have more to say.

5. Letting Interviewees Ramble off Topic

Conversation Between Women
Give your interviewee enough space in the conversation to feel comfortable. Image via fizkes.

To make your interviewee comfortable, let them ramble before you ask the real question. As soon as they get off topic, you need to redirect them. Don’t immediately cut them off, as you may startle them, but figure out a way to get them back on topic with transitional phrases like, “Now, earlier you said _____. Can you elaborate on that?”

Part of getting good natural responses with fully fleshed out answers requires them to feel comfortable. It’s up to you to direct the conversation in a way that gets you both to the finish line.

That being said, good documentaries often take you to unexpected new places, so sometimes letting a subject ramble isn’t a terrible thing? You just have to judge how much time you have and if what they’re saying might lead somewhere interesting.

Trust your gut and let the conversation go to interesting places.

6. Not Checking White Balance and Camera Settings (Especially in Multi-Cam Shoots)

Save yourself time and trouble by properly setting the white balance, and match the settings on all cameras if you’re doing a multi-camera shoot. While you can often fix white balance in post, it’s so much easier to match your footage in camera while recording. Also, make sure all cameras are shooting in the same frame rate, or you’ll run into sync issues when editing.

Now, if you want an approachable look at how to manage white balance, check out Lewis’ tutorial below. With documentaries, more often than not you’re entering into people’s spaces with little control over the setting and lighting. You might be thrown into unfavorable lighting conditions.

The guide below will help you to find a balanced look:

7. Not Properly Lighting Subjects or Using the Best Available Light

Properly lighting a subject is more difficult than just putting one light on top of your camera. Depending on the location of the subject and the light, you may get some harsh shadows in the background.

Bring interviewees away from walls or backdrops, and try to use an uplight for some nice backlighting. You can also get great light using the available practical lights you may find on set. In offices, there are usually plenty of desk lights or lamps that can help balance your composition.

Let’s also say you find yourself in a small space, like an office, a cubicle, or something that’s just less than ideal. How will you light it? Or, I guess I should ask, how will you light it interestingly?

Todd with Shutterstock Tutorials is here (yet again) to save the day by walking you through how to choose your lens, as well as certain lights you can place in particular spots that will help your final shot.

8. Not Using a Dedicated Audio Recorder

Not all cameras are created equal. If you’re using a professional video camera with XLR inputs for microphones, you’re often in the clear. For those shooting on a DSLR or mirrorless camera, the audio will likely be terrible (I mean, it kind of goes without saying that you shouldn’t use your in-camera mic).

Those cameras don’t have true dedicated audio inputs, nor do they have proper controls for leveling. Invest in a quality audio recorder, there are plenty of great affordable audio recorders that will record a much higher quality interview.

How to Improve the Audio Quality of a Built-In Camera Microphone

9. Not Checking Audio Levels

Audio often gets overlooked, but it’s such a crucial part of filmmaking. If you go through the trouble of using a dedicated audio recorder, be sure to also check levels during the interview.

Here are three more tips on getting better audio. Having a general understanding of where your levels should be will help you stay sane while recording. It’s all about peace of mind so you can be present during the interview.

Cover image via True Touch Lifestyle.

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