Shooting Documentary Interviews

Shooting to Edit and Archive

For a filmmaker confronted with many of hours of interview material, editing can seem like a real “big data” situation. It can be both a daunting and creative opportunity at once, especially if you "shoot to edit" your material. Footage that is “shot to edit” in the first place contains a wide variety of potential narratives as well as a number options for editing the story. In addition to providing guidance on producing a rich collection of material to work with in editing, these essential shooting tips lay the groundwork for distributing your material in a variety of media forms (e.g. websites, live screenings, podcasts). And they will enable you to create an audio-video data set that could be analyzed with software tools, as well as serve as an archive for a variety of future uses. 

To be sure, actual practices of shooting interviews can vary as widely as the contexts of fieldwork! On one hand, interviews can be shot fluidly in the course of everyday interaction with more or less spontaneity (such as cinéma vérité). On the other hand, interviews may be formally solicited and planned in advance. Whatever your shooting style, you can involve these structured production techniques to give you the best options in editing and storytelling. 

Before the Interview

  • Prepare yourself:  The first thing people learn about video production is that things takes longer than you think they will. 
  • If you don’t already know them yet, get to know your interlocutor(s) before filming with them. Discuss some of the topics that you are interested in talking about in the interview. Do they have the perspective you expected them to have?
  • If possible, visit the location of the shoot and plan your setup before you arrive with equipment. Arrive before your interlocutor so that you can set up without taking up their time. 

Visual Composition and Content

  • Clothing - On the screen, bright colors (especially red!) will bleed images beyond their edges; white or black clothing can affect how you expose your shot by making shadows or darker areas of the image dark enough to lose detail. Consider whether you can provide guidance for your interlocutor on what to wear. 
  • Backlighting - avoid bright backgrounds such as windows or bright skies, especially if your subject is not illuminated or appears darker as they face you and the camera.
  • Backgrounds - avoid busy backgrounds that might distract from your subject. Remove distracting objects if possible, and move your subject away from walls where their shadows might be cast. 
  • Composition - compose the headroom so that the eyeline is 1/3 from the top of the frame (You will have to slightly tilt up or down as you zoom in or out, respectively, as you change your shot.) Look at the edges of the frame to see what is included, excluded and partially cut off. A typical camera height places the camera lens at the same height as your subject's eyes.  
  • Focus - Set the focus on your subject’s eyes, zooming in to focus on their eyes before you record will give the clearest image of your subject’s face.  When you zoom back out, they will remain in focus. 
  • Position yourself next to the lens of your camera, (easiest if you are using a tripod or someone is shooting for you). Wherever you are, maintain the same position throughout the interview to maintain continuity in the footage.
  • Vary your shot during the interview to give yourself a variety of editing choices. A good time to reframe is between questions or as you pose them.
  • Shoot B-roll of your subject:  That is, record a variety of shots of the surroundings and other material that relates to the interview. First, however, record cutaways of your interlocutor while they are still in position; chat informally while taking close-up shots of hands, feet, and wider shots from angles where their mouth and pronunciation do not appear on screen. Then take shots of relevant things in the immediate environment or other material related to the interview.
  • Coverage:  It will help your editing later if you have multiple “takes” of these b-roll shots; that is, record camera movements (pans, tilts) and any zooms from multiple directions and varying speeds. You cannot have too many versions or variety of your b-roll footage. Follow moving processes from multiple angles.

Sound Recording and the Acoustic Environment

  • Get good sound! Sound can easily be overlooked, but good quality sound is more important to your eventual audience than stable and clean video. Put differently, difficult audio is generally more distracting than dark or unstable video (to a point).
  • Recorded audio is not what you hear by standing in the room. And audio meters may indicate a strong of the audio level, but they do not display the quality of the sound.  Make a test recording and listen to it — with headphones.
  • Lavalier mics will help you get the best full sound from your subject, while diminishing the volume from the environment, including reverberation. A wireless "lav" mic can enable your interlocutor to move around or perform activities as part of the scene.
  • Take a moment to listen for a distracting background sound. Is there a loud air conditioner or refrigerator humming? If you unplug such a device, leave your keys or something important with it to help you remember to plug it back in. Whatever the acoustic environment, try to make the background sound and volume consistent from the beginning to the end of your recorded interview, for the sake of continuity editing.
  • Turn off a TV or music playing in the background. They may not be distracting, or might even be a part of the story, but know that these could create continuity problems in editing.
  • Finally, record a minute of “room tone” — the background sound of the room environment without conversation. 

Conducting the Interview for Editing

  • Be sure to tell your interlocutor about how interview will proceed, and how it will likely be different from a typical conversation. In fact, indicate how you will follow these very bullet points.
  • Avoid Yes or No questions. Ask for complete sentences or restated answers that incorporate the terms of your question. Repeated statements, however, are typically not delivered as well as the first time, but you may want options later.
  • Listen closely to your interlocutor and pull on specific words or phrases by asking, what they might mean by that or for examples of a general idea.
  • Return to compelling topics, ideas, or even specific words and ask about them in different terms or what they might mean by them.  
  • Avoid the inclination to respond immediately, especially as your interlocutor is talking. Pause before you speak to create sonic space for clean editing between utterances in your back and forth dialogue. 
  • Additionally, pauses after responses can elicit further and more interesting afterthoughts and insights from your interlocutors.

Editing Video - Getting Started

  • Reviewing your footage will help you familiarize yourself with material, and it will motivate meaningful connections that can orient your editing. 
  • Written transcripts can help you focus on the content, but it is worth noting on them where the important interactions that occur, or changes in the visual or audio quality. You can use the transcripts to generate a list of key words, noting their frequency and importance across the conversation. Review your list and ask if any of the terms are synonymous enough to be collapsed into a single term, or if the difference makes a meaningful difference. If you do not have resources to produce word-for-word transcripts, an outline of your interview takes less time to make, and will help you explore the the content and serve as a reference when you are editing. If you record the running time, or time-code numbers, on particular points on your outline, you can use them as indexes to go back and listen to the actual conversation.    
  • Use the tools of visualization to make sense of the topics and their relationships within the interview. Concept maps, for example, concretize the strongest terms as centers or higher levels of a nested hierarchy, which can help in plotting segments of an edited interview. As with making a lists of key terms, mapping them will reveal connections, areas of meaning and emphasis, as well as reveal new questions that you can pursue further. 
  • Where to start editing? Familiarity with rich footage could intensify the challenge of taking this next step, as any number of narratives may present themselves. Here are a few ways of getting started with putting material on that blank timeline facing you:
    • Look at your concept map and make a path through the map for the general structure for some or all of the edited piece;
    • More narrowly, focus on a particular relationship or intersection that you have mapped, such as a key transition or a juxtaposition, and build out a timeline in one or another direction from there (that is, the preceeding or succeeding material);
    • Try starting with content that you know is essential and then construct your movie, going either forward or backward on the timeline

Archiving your Audio-Video Data 

Archive your source material so that you will be able work with it later using a variety of existing editing tools, as well as with future generations of technology. Alas, as digital audio and video codecs and formats rapidly evolve, there is no consensus on a standard that could be used for archiving. Thus, in addition to backing up your footage from where-ever you store it for editing, such as an external drive or computer, make back-ups of the files directly from the recording media used in your camera (e.g. a SD card). Note that the metadata that you add to describe the ingested video is not embedded in the source video files themselves; the metadata only refers to the actual source files. Metadata is located in the specially formatted document created to manage your entire project in (proprietary) editing software (e.g iMovie, Final Cut Pro, Premiere, etc.). 

Explanation:  Both sets of data — the original camera files and the ingested files — may be wrapped in different proprietary formats, or “containers.”  On its website, the National Archives identifies a number of acceptable formats and other encoding specifications that are widely in use for a wide variety of digital media. Among the video formats are Quicktime (.mov files) and MPEG 2 and MPEG 4 codecs (file structures). NARA also recommends several audio-only formats and specifications for archiving, including AIFF and WAV. 

Some distribution channels (e.g. websites, YouTube, DVD) deliver digital video programs in highly compressed formats. That is, when you export your edited program for these channels, you are likely reducing their quality (e.g resolution, suitable screen size). These media formats are not suitable for archiving. Be sure to export and archive versions of your edited program at the full original resolution. 


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