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p interviewing e with everyone!

A lot can go wrong with an interview.

A crucial piece of gear was left at the studio…

There’s a construction crew outside…

The talent isn’t opening up about anything…

It’s always an intense shoot with lots of pressure on everyone involved, and if the interview does go wrong, it usually starts going wrong during the process of setting up.

These are Stillmotion’s 11 biggest tips for making sure an interview goes smoothly — and it all centers around the preparation. Giving yourself enough time, communicating with your team efficiently, studying up on your story… these things and more are what make for a relaxed and meaningful interview in the end.

We hope you’ll come back to this list before your next interview, and share any tips of your own here on the blog :)

1. Arrive early.

Whenever possible, we try to arrive twice as early than we think we need to. Setting up always, always, ALWAYS takes longer than you expect it to take. There are going to be problems — a lot of them — and you’ll need to solve each one individually before you start rolling.

In fact — most of the tips on this list require you to be early… with a positive, take-charge attitude.

2. Set up the camera and lens first.

Your first instinct might be to break out your light setup and start piecing things together… but don’t! Set up your camera and pick out your lens first, so that you can see how things are coming together in the frame of the camera as you’re setting up your lights. This way, if something’s not working with your lights you know right away, and you can adjust in the moment.

3. Use less gear.

It might seem like using all your best gear would mean you’re more prepared and “professional,” but we find that with an interview less gear is often more. Why use a fill light when a white foam core can bounce the light back in just as well?…

There are several reasons why the “less gear is more” mentality is going to make the interview smoother overall…

  • A smaller setup is less intimidating for the talent, less “produced” feeling.
  • Less gear to set up = less things that can go wrong.
  • More opportunity to be creative with your setup!

We’ve said it many times before and we’ll say it again: filmmaking is all about problem solving. Bringing less gear is also going to scare you a little — and therefore push you to be more resourceful when it comes to solving problems with what you’ve got in your immediate surroundings (hint: there’s always a way).

Which is a nice segue into our next tip…

4. Be aware of outside noises.

This is a big one!

Right when you show up to your location, take a look — and a listen — around you.

Is there construction outside? A buzzing fluorescent light? A band practicing next door? The sooner you start developing a plan to conquer these challenges, the sooner you’ll be rolling.

While we were shooting for #standwithme, we once had to pay some construction workers $100 to stop working for 30 minutes so we could do our interview… yikes.

That’s a more extreme measure we’ve had to take in order to quiet down the area for an interview before… usually if you ask nicely and confidently you can solve these issues without losing a Benjamin in the process. The point, however, is that you need to solve issues like outside noises before you start rolling.

5. Test your audio and expect problems.

If you forget to pay attention to step #4, you’ll definitely figure it out when you test your audio… one of many reasons you need to test your audio!

Reserve time during your setup to test the audio and make sure everything is working. Adjust your levels, make sure you’ve got a nice clear signal, and expect some bumps in the road.

The last thing you want is to bring in the talent, record the entire interview, and then come to find later that your audio levels were off and the whole thing sounds terrible. A thorough testing of the audio is the only way to prevent this!

6. Let the director do the directing.

This is one of the easiest things for a crew to forget. Generally the director has the best relationship with the talent, and it’s important that the interview feels as much like a conversation as possible.

For this reason, it’s important that communication with the talent once they’re on the set (i.e. “can you turn a little more to your left?”), is done by the director and not the DP or whoever.

7. Take a moment to double check camera settings before hitting record.

Technology can be a very mysterious beast, and even though you might have all your camera settings squared away ahead of time, it’s a good idea to double check them before you press record. This is how you avoid tragedies like finishing the whole interview and realizing you were shooting in 30fps!

8. Communicate with the talent if you’re running late.

Things go wrong. They just do. For whatever reason, you’re probably running behind — and your talent is sitting outside the door waiting to do this interview already!

You might be wanting to just avoid going out there, because you keep telling yourself everything is SO CLOSE, and you don’t want to deliver the news that you’re still not quite ready to go. However, for us it works best overall to have the producer or director talk to the talent and explain that adjustments are still being made, and it should be just a few more minutes before we get started.

It’s important when you do this that the talent feels important — because they are. They’re the whole interview, and while it’s easy to forget how important they are when you’ve been tweaking the same two lights for 15 minutes. But perfect lighting isn’t going to do anything when it’s directed toward an unhappy interviewee.

9. Start the conversation outside.

You’re trying to get the talent to open up and help you tell a better story. You want them to feel comfortable talking to you, like they’re not doing an on-camera interview.

This can obviously be challenging, because of course they ARE doing an on-camera interview, but we find that for us it helps to begin the conversation with the talent outside, keep it going as we walk them to the set, and let the actual interview be a continuation of that conversation.

You don’t have to be an expert conversationalist to make this happen. Look at it as “warming them up” for what you’re about to ask int he interview. Walk them toward the set and start talking about the things you plan to ask in the interview… don’t worry about the talent saying something juicy off-camera. You can always revisit it later in the interview.

10. Avoid “action,” “rolling,” and “soundspeed!”

How can you avoid saying these cues when they’re such a necessary part of the production?

We use a series of signals among our crew members to communicate when we’re ready. The director walks in with the talent (with the conversation flowing!), and as she sits down, audio gives the signal that he’s ready to the DP, and when the DP is rolling she’ll give a nice firm shoulder squeeze to the director, and then he knows that everyone is good to go.

Of course, this is easier for us because we’re almost always the same team. Sometimes you’ll be working with people you just met, and this system of hand signals is not easy for new acquaintances.

The point is not to draw attention to the production. Your crew might not be at the point where they can silently communicate, but we encourage you to push yourself to get there — because it’s done so much for our interviews and we believe in this method.

Eye contact, nodding, a thumbs-up… whatever you can do to communicate without yelling “rolling!” is a step in the direction of a smoother interview.

11. Know the story.

Last but not least, everything is going to go smoother if you know your story.

Interviewing someone can be nerve racking. You don’t want to sound stupid, and you want this interview to be special so that your film stands out. This is a lot of pressure, and it’s only going to make you more anxious if you don’t know your story well.

To make the whole process easier and the interview far better in the end, you’ve got to know your story. Do all the research you can, and don’t be afraid to call the talent ahead of time if you need to ask them something that you know is going to make the interview better overall.

The talent understands that you’re trying to make a good film, and they’re usually excited to be a part of the project.

It’s like digging a hole: dig down as far as you can before the interview, and from there you can only go deeper.

What did we leave out?

These are our own strategies for making our interviews run smoothly… but we know there are all kinds of strategies out there that might work for other crews.

What steps do you take for a smooth and successful interview? Share them with our readers!


About Stillmotion


  • Steve Crow says:

    Sounds like you are not doing any kind of clapper / sound to help you sync sound? I usually don’t either so I was just asking.

    • Margaret says:

      We usually do clap, but we always try to avoid doing it at the beginning of the interview so its not the first thing the talent experiences when they sit down. We usually do it at the end of the interview :)

    • Tyrone says:

      What do you suggest when you’re limited to a DSLR that records only 12 minutes at a time during a longer interview? Clapping would be required more than once so do you have any suggestions in that scenerio?

      • Margaret says:

        Really good question. Ideally, if you’re moving into more interviews it’s best to rent or invest in buying a new camera that can handle the length of the interviews you’re shooting. However, if that’s not an option you can get crafty with the DSLR you have. I spoke with Jeremy about his experience with this, and he says that he would usually find a creative way to make the clapping sound (without actually clapping) — and incorporate it into the interview without the talent really knowing what he was doing. So, the DP taps him on the shoulder to let him know that time is running out, and he then finds a moment to make a popping sound with his mouth and say something like “boy, the acoustics are really great in here…” Kind of a silly solution, but still an option when you absolutely have to conduct an interview with the 12-minute time constraint.

        As some other comments have pointed out, PluralEyes is also a good option in post for syncing audio automatically — we love this program and use it all the time. However, relying on a piece of software in post as your only option for syncing isn’t going to be a good idea long-term.

    • Tyrone says:

      Thanks for the reply Margaret! I currently use PluralEyes and it’s great but I agree that it shouldn’t be the primary solution long term. I am thinking about investing in a camera that can better handle longer interviews but in the short-term I will use the recommendations you suggested. Thanks again!

    • Greg says:

      Just curious, since PluralEyes works great what are some reasons why it’s not a good idea to rely on it?

  • Garry says:

    Make certain your subject knows how you intend to use the interview and get them to sign a release form, enabling you to actually use the great stuff you just captured.

  • Zach says:

    Do you prepare them before you guys get there and let them know what types of questions you’ll be asking so they aren’t caught off guard?

    • Margaret says:

      We don’t prepare people too much for the questions that we ask — usually when we set up the interview we give them a general idea of what we’ll be talking about, but nothing detailed. It does depend on the talent, however — sometimes they’ll ask to see the questions and that’s fine. When we interviewed Paul Rice for #standwithme he made us hand over our list of questions before he even sat down.

  • Interviewees are much more likely to open up when they feel that they’re being heard — not just answering questions. Our main job as interviewers is to LISTEN and HEAR what’s being said, so that we pick up the cues that enable us to ask our questions at the right time, and within the context of the interview where the interviewee essentially forgets that they are being interviewed. It’s the difference between “I ask, you respond.” and having a conversation. In the latter, the gems come naturally as a result of the relationship of trust and genuine interest you’ve established.

  • PluralEyes is a magical tool for syncing sound of multiple clips/sources quickly. No clap required (but it doesn’t hurt).

  • Dave Patterson says:

    Good information. A friend and I shot an interview this week, and all your points were considerations at our shoot.

    Creating an environment that the talent is comfortable in is key. I like your thoughts about keeping the production aspect low profile. It can be a distraction that throws people who aren’t used to being interviewed on camera. Also, Plural Eyes allows for syncing without clappers that remind the talent they are on camera.

  • Lionel says:

    Like Tyrone, what would you suggest for those who’re limited to a DSLR that records only 12 minutes.
    By the way, great article. Thanks

    • I also shoot a lot of talking head interviews, my canon 550d ML only gets 12mins also.. so i went out and brought a tiny little Sony RX-100 for $500 which records 29mins straight and actually has a cleaner video image as a bonus. only downside to the org RX100 is that it only records at 50p, so I shoot at 25p on the canon and also 25p on my gopro for the wide group shots. only hate thing about using three different cameras is colour correcting in edit to get the same look and feel between all three cameras. it’s impossible so i want a new Sony RX10 now – it should be the same look/feel as the sony rx100mk2 ( same chip ) but can zoom in without changing F stops, very handy for CU shots :) So when that hits the streets I’ll be grabbing one(/or maybe two) to replace the canon :P

      here’s a sample of a interview i shot with this combo last week here in China.

    • now in my sample video – the director scott dressed in white is shot with the canon 550d and 50mm 1.8 plastic lens, the couple with irene the cancer patient and her husband was shot with the Sony RX100 ( org model ) and the wide group shot with the gopro black3 model. i use three sony styled LED lights with scrims and lav mics hooked SLR into the Zoom h4n for sound. on and a backup RODE video mic on the canon for backup sound. no mic input on the org sony rx100 so thats just for sync

    • oh yeah – one more thing about the canons.. I use magic lantern on my 550d, it has a auto-restart feature to restart the recording.. you will loose about 4 seconds during this restart at the 12min mark.. so that’s why i love using the sony rx100 as it’ll allow me to just change camera angles in FCPX and use that footage or the gopro’s while the canon is down during those 4 seconds.. you can also use ML to try your luck at extending the recording time ( and get lesser quality footage in the process, so i don’t use that )

  • Mase says:

    And what’s so wrong with 30fps?!!

  • John Moon says:

    I’ve actually been in the investigative field for over 20 years and interviewed over a thousand people for various reasons and one common theme that encourages engagement is to remove barriers and that can be anything from a table, chair or even the way the interviewer is seated. Unfortunately the equipment we have to produce an interview as mentioned can be a barrier. It is very important to make the “interview” conversational and initial questions should be easy. One of the things we do is spend a little time with the person and let them know that there are no mistakes and if they say something incorrectly, its as easy as just saying, let me start that over. One of the biggest fears that people have is that they are going to make a mistake. The more the talent connects with the interviewer and I also believe that if possible there should be an engagement with the crew. This is all about trust and whoever is in the room, the more trust you have with everyone present the more likely you are going to get them to let their guard down.

  • The advice offered in the article is very good. I think one of the most important skills for interviewing is also listening to the way that people answer the question. I’m always doing the edit in the back of my mind when interviewing and only interjecting if I know there is something going on that will make them look unprofessional in the edit. Some examples:

    – Remind the client to identify the subject in their answer and not to use too many pronouns. Example: Instead of saying “We keep them in focus at all times.” I’d ask client to restate the answer with the subject being identified “We keep the client in focus at all times.” Sometimes when the interviewee knows the subject too well or is too comfortable, they forget to identify what they’re talking about, making the edit harder.

    – There are certain types of interviewees who will start their answers with, “Sooooooo….”. That long “so” at the beginning can be tricky to edit out or fade up from. If you remember what they said, you can often ask them to just go back and repeat the start of the sentence. You have to listen and comprehend their answer, while still listening for their mistakes and trying to fix them if possible without being rude.

    – Letting them know you’re going to ask the question more than once because you need to reframe the shot. Sometime you do need to reframe the shot to be able to have more dynamic content in editing (first part of answer MS, cut away, then back to subject with CU for emotional conclusion to the answer. Sometimes you just need to get them to answer again so you can delve further or get them to say the answer in a clearer way.

    – Letting them know where they are at in the interview process and how they are doing. Often these people are taking time out of their lives without compensation and if you tell them, “We’re about done, you’re doing a fantastic job, just a few more questions for you.” they will give a bit more energy in their answer and have a more conclusive tone in their voice for the final important questions you have to ask.

    – Go back and ask them to introduce themselves at the very end of the interview. By now they are comfortable, maybe the light has changed, and you can get that solid intro. You can always use the first introduction one you shot, but often we use the one shot at the end because the interviewees seem much more natural on camera by the end.

    – Don’t jump in right away when they’re finished with an answer. Keep eye contact and sometimes they will add that little something amazing on the end of their answer that caps it off perfectly.

    – Finish with a good “Thank You.” and mean it. They will leave feeling like what they had to say was valuable and not be so upset if later they find you didn’t use much of them at all.

    • Patrick says:

      All of your points are awesome ways to make the performance stronger, as well as the edit. Our style is to make everything as conversational as possible and to avoid or reframe anything that feels like a performance. Telling them you are reframing the shot and asking again, avoiding pronouns, telling them they are doing great – all help us as filmmakers, but they can hurt that connection between an interviewee and put their focus on ‘doing well’ over just being open and in the conversation with you.

      For me, the test i always use is, would i say this in a regular conversation? If not, i find a way to achieve the goals of the filmmaker with the language of a friend/conversation.


  • Peter Proniewicz-Brooks says:

    On 3, I often prefer to bring more, but dicsipline myself to use less. Just because I have kit with me doesn’t mean I need to use it. My 3 light kit is a great example, its more likely to be damaged if I take some of it out, and taking it and only using one or two lights means a less fidly issues if a bulb blows or something. Swappijng a bulb on a hot light takes more time and has more ways to go wrong than just swapping in an entire new head.

    On keeping the client comfortable, I find theres often a balance some you want to keep the whole thing as un production like as possible to keep them comfortable, others are made comfortable by the extra razzamtaz, it might just make them feel more special, it maight keep them focused and not getting bored, some clients are really interested in the whole thing and so just saying why you are doing things can help. The budget hand clap for synch i find is often a source of convosation that has helped keep the talent at ease, you can practically see the moment they connect it to the clapper on the clapper board and their enthusiasm raise. This judgement call is of course easier with repeat clients. Being able to explain as you do unavoidable changes can help keep some involved.

    Greg, backups are always useful, and pluraleyese can sometimes make mistakes. A nice clear visual cue from something is a nice simple way to check that pluraleyes or similar has done its work well. If adding a failsafe system in isnt going to hurt you much time wise then its rarely a bad idea to do it. And an old fasioned clap or clapper board is a damn fine failsafe.

  • Miki says:

    I absolutely agree with your guidelines. What interests me is how do you solve a situation when the person speaking feels him/herself so comfortable and friendly that he/she doesn’t identify the subject while talking and you feel that it won’t work in the edit. How do you avoid to make them repeat the whole thing (where they also might forget to identify the subject)?
    It is about one of the replies you got above and Patrick also commented that you try to avoid those “straight” techniques, but how do you do then? What do you do when they talk for long about this and that, but we finaly can not figure out what lies behind “this” and “that”?