Filmed interviews: How to interview someone on-camera

Filmed interviews are used to convey information and experiences directly to the camera.

And from high-rolling executives, blasé faire musicians, through to excitable university students, every interview we’ve done for one of our films has been different.

Nevertheless there are a set of guidelines we follow that help get the best from each interviewee. If you are looking to capture ‘talking heads’ footage, we recommend the following:

Keep it impromptu

Filmed interviews are most engaging when they feel natural and conversational. If your interviewee knows the exact questions you will ask, they may deliver scripted answers that sound forced. Sure, let them know the topics you will cover and what kind of questions you will ask, but don’t share everything before the camera rolls.

Build rapport

We often work with people who aren’t professional actors, so helping them relax in front of the camera is usually our first priority.

One way to do this is by building rapport with them, even before production starts. We try to meet interviewees face-to-face a few days before the shoot or at the very least, speak on the phone. This means that in most cases, we’re not meeting our interviewee for the first time on the day of the shoot.

We’ll empathise about the lights and cameras feeling intimidating, but reassure them that we will make them look and sound great on camera. We’ll remind them that we can redo any answer as many times as necessary, so there’s no pressure.

Get your interviewee in place

As the film crew finish setting up the scene, ask your subject to take their seat in the scene. Use a comfy, stationery chair that doesn’t rock, rotate or squeak.

Provide some water for your interviewee and remind them that they can take a break whenever they like.

Make sure the only people in the room are the ones that need to be there. This avoids the extra pressure of watching eyes and reduces the build-up of body heat if you’re recording your filmed interviews in a small space. It also minimises the number of people whose noises and movements might get picked up by the mic.

Look eye to eye

Interview your subject at their eye level. If your subject sits and you stand (or vice versa), he or she will either be looking up or down. This looks unnatural.

Instead, make sure you’re sitting or standing at the same eye level as your interviewee. This applies whether your subject is talking off-camera or looking directly down the lens.

It’s natural for people to look away when thinking about a question. But, if your subject avoids looking at you or the camera completely, it can look awkward and shifty. Check that they are maintaining good eye contact when delivering their answer.

Test the sound

Before you start recording your filmed interviews, you’ll need to run a sound test. This is your opportunity to make your subject feel comfortable talking in front of the camera.

Ask them something topical – like the best meal they had recently, favourite place to holiday or even what they had for breakfast. Take a genuine interest in their answers and this will help build rapport too.

Ask the subject to include the context in their answers

If you want to cut your questions out of the final film, then the interviewee will need to answer in full sentences.

To do this, ask your subject to include the context of the question in their answer. For example, if you ask, “What’s the best thing about your day?”, the answer should start with, “The best thing about my day is…”.

This will make jumping between points in the edit far smoother.

Start with the easy questions

It takes at least a couple of sentences to get subjects warmed up. So even if you don’t plan to use the answers in the edit, get them to talk about something they can easily answer.

For example, ask what their day-to-day tasks are, how long they’ve been doing it and/or what the most fun part is.

Check the length of each answer

If your subject gives a long, winding answer to a question, it will be hard to edit into something snappy. Give him or her an opportunity to summarise their answer now they’ve been through the thought process while delivering their longer answer.

Follow the flow

Although you will prepare most of your questions beforehand, be ready to follow-up or rephrase a question if an answer doesn’t quite hit the mark.

In addition, following the conversational flow comes across most naturally in filmed interviews, so allow time to go off on a few tangents. It may lead to some of the best material.

Once you’ve finished your preset questions, ask the client, crew and interviewee if there’s anything else they feel is worth adding in. It’s better to have too much footage to choose from than too little!

Start again

If everything’s gone the way you’d hoped it, you’ll probably find that your subject is the most comfortable by the end of the conversation.

In contrast, their first answer and initial introduction, “Hi, I’m John Smith and I’m the boss”, will probably feel the most robotic. So get another take of the first segments. Using this take in the edit will immediately establish a casual, more approachable tone in your films.

See how it’s done

We recorded a series of filmed interviews for a US technology company called Wearsafe. Watch one of the founders of the company explain why they started the business in this 90-second interview.

Do you want to create a filmed interview?

We can help. We’ve created short films for international commercial brands, educational institutions and small start-ups.

Use our project planner form, email hello@weareclearhead.com or call us on 02074941589.