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Articles | Jim's Interview/Documentary Tips


  • Research your topic and formulate your basic approach. Decide:
      • How will you start?
      • How will you end?
      • What are you trying to get across?
  • The structure of a feature story or documentary is a lot like an essay or article. Try to hook the viewer's attention at the beginning, present new information, and provide closure at the end.

  • Discuss the topic in advance with your interview subjects. They will probably have some ideas for you.
  • Schedule a time for the recording in advance of your shoot. If possible, make a site visit to scout possible locations. Be sure to schedule time after each interview to shoot B-roll.
  • Interviews can be shot in interesting locations. Ideally the location ties in with the topic or the person- but this is not always possible.
    • Where would you shoot the director of the Musical Arts Center? What would be in the background?
      • What about an ice cream vendor who works out of a van?
      • How about a local skateboarder?
  • You'll want access to the location to setup lights and audio about an hour before you start recording the interview. As you consider possible locations, keep the following in mind:
    • Is it quiet? (fans, construction, car & pedestrian traffic)
    • Consider the background behind where the interview subject will be located. Does the background tie in with subject or content, or is it a distraction? Can you position the camera far enough away from the subject to get a small depth of field?
    • Is it free from problematic lighting issues (large windows, etc.)
    • Enough room to set up lights?
    • Is there AC power for lights and other gear?
    • B-roll opportunities?
  • Discuss clothing/makeup requirements with your interview subjects. (Avoid white clothing, commercial logos, other people's intellectual property, etc.)
  • Think about and plan the B-roll - this is what makes the story interesting.

Production & Set up

  • Assemble equipment and supplies. Sample gear list:
    • Camera (+ batteries)
    • Tripod
    • SD/CF card(s)
    • Lav microphone (extra AA batteries)
    • XLR cables
    • Headphones
    • Light kit, gels, diffusion, & extension cord
    • Reflector & extra C-stand
    • Releases
  • Get to the location an hour before the start of the interview. This will give you time to setup lights and audio- and also time to fine-tune it.
  • Check your recording format! (proper bit-rate, frame rate, 0 dB gain, no shutter, proper timecode, etc.)
  • Use your PA or yourself to check framing and lighting. Be sure to keep your subject's focus/gaze close to the camera. (If the interviewer's gaze is too far away you'll end up with a profile.) You want to see both eyes clearly. If you see the reflection of light in the subject's eyes, your key light is in the right position.
  • Is camera level? Are there distractions in the background. Is lighting close to perfect?
  • Make sure your audio is working and sounds good.
  • Make a test recording.
  • When the guest shows up make them feel comfortable, thank them for their time, and have them sign a release form.
  • Final tweaks:
    • Check talent’s physical appearance (hair, clothing) before shooting.
    • Audio: check levels
    • Lighting: Does your subject stand out from the background by a few f-stops?
    • Is the subject framed nicely? (Strong composition following the rule of thirds with proper lead room and head room, pleasing background, nicely lit, camera level, etc.)
    • Make sure there are no distractions in the background


  • Sit just to the left or right of the camera with your eyes at the same height as the lens.
  • Don’t forget pre-roll and post-roll. (I usually just keep rolling during the whole interview.)
  • Check audio levels and monitor the recording with headphones
  • Give yourself room to push in if needed. I almost always shoot at a MCU or CU with room to move into a CU or ECU.
  • Start recording and have your subject spell his/her name and title. You might need this for their ID graphic. If you forgot to get a talent release, record an on-camera release.
  • Keep your eyes open for potential problems or bad habits. (Collar straight? Hair neat? Bad Habits: rocking back and forth, shifty eyes, etc)
  • Use an “ice-breaker” question to start. (Where did you grow up? When did you move to Bloomington?)
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Don’t interrupt - always wait an extra few seconds before jumping in with the next question.
  • Listen carefully to the responses (They might lead you to another angle.) Also consider your planned B-roll and any other footage you also need to shoot.
  • Look interested. Nod and act encouraging.
  • Don't hesitate to have them repeat the response if there is a noticeable flaw or if you want to get a closer shot for editing.
  • Sometimes you need the question restated in the answer.
  • With microphones in place record at least 30 seconds of room tone.


  • Ask the talent if there is anything they'd like to add.
  • Shut lights off immediately and strike all other equipment before putting lights away. They need up to 15 minutes to cool down.
  • Shoot appropriate location B-roll.
  • Thank your talent
  • Remember which batteries are dead, which have some use and which are still fresh.

Shooting B-Roll

Can you name some techniques you learned in class that will help you get outstanding B-roll?

  • Shoot mini-continuity sequences (think about the 180 degree line, cut on matching action, etc.)
  • Shoot film-style (Changing shots by 30% or so, and overlapping, repeating action)
  • Remember the rule of threes (consider the shot you are taking, the shot you'll use before it, and the shot you'll go to after it)

Avoiding Jump Cuts in a single character sequence: Sometimes you need to shoot a sequence of a subject for B-roll over an interview or for a montage. When shooting, have the talent enter the shot or leave the frame, or use a camera movement to change the focus either up to or away from the subject. The reason is that we don’t want to cut from a shot with the subject in the frame to another shot with the subject in the frame.


  • Start with something to capture the audience's attention.
  • Your topic and approach should be obvious to the viewer in the first 15-20 seconds.
  • Try focusing on audio first (Your soundtrack will be interview audio, music, nat sound, & possibly some SFX). The next step is to fill jump cuts with B-roll, montages, etc.)
  • Avoid jump cuts in your interview (cover interview edits with B-roll)
  • Cut out "ums, yeahs, buts, and "so" (frequently tacked on at the end of a sentence).
  • Use several shots at a time for B-roll (not just a single shot). This lets you set a rhythm and use the mini-continuity sequences you have artfully captured.
  • Capture audio - Nat audio is important.
  • Find a strong close/conclusion. Consider book-ending as a technique. (Begin and end in a similar manner.)