Frames Per Second: Interviewing 101

July 25, 2012

By Greg Scoblete

© Jenn Ackerman

Tim Gruber interviews an inmate for the award-winning documentary on aging in prisons that he and his wife, Jenn Ackerman, created.

Famed British journalist and TV interviewer Lynn Barber once noted that “the best interviews, like the best biographies, should sing the strangeness and variety of the human race.” Easy for her to say: She had just a pen and notepad to worry about. For photographers and videographers, coaxing the strangeness and variety out of the human race in an on-camera interview can be a bit more demanding.

“Interviews are inherently contrived situations and it’s the photographer’s job to make them feel organic,” says portrait photographer Michael Lavine. Doing so requires a mix of skills—some technical, some emotional and intuitive—that may not always come easy to photographers accustomed to letting their images do the talking.

“It can be a real challenge, because in your mind, you’re worried about your stills too,” observes shooter Ben Baker. “I had an editor tell me, ‘We don’t hire you for two average things, but for one great thing.’ That really stuck with me.”

Nevertheless, it’s increasingly common for photographers to be hired to deliver two great things. And while every interview is as unique as the subject being interviewed, there are some general lessons that can be distilled from experience. Interviewing is equal parts science and art.

The Science

How an interview is executed depends largely on the number of assistants on hand, says photojournalist Ed Kashi, who has taught many multimedia workshops. While it’s “hard to find the intimacy” with a large crew, Kashi says, having someone operate the camera frees the interviewer to closely monitor the audio or use a second camera for close-ups and unique angles. “I would use the second [Canon] 5D to focus on a subject’s hands or mouth—just to gather some interesting footage that we could cut to during the editing,” he notes. “Ideally it’s a two-person job,” he adds, with one person operating the camera and monitoring audio, and a second person devoted strictly to asking the questions.

Also ideal: two sources of audio—one from a lavaliere mic pinned to the subject and the second from a boom or shotgun mic in case the lavaliere source fails. “Everyone backs up their photos, and you need to be just as diligent with your audio,” says photographer Tim Gruber, who, along with his wife, Jenn Ackerman, has won awards for videos on U.S. prisons and a beauty pageant.

The logistics are a bit more complicated for those who, whether by necessity or choice, are shooting alone. “It can be tricky, particularly when traveling overseas,” says Maisie Crow, whose multimedia work on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster earned her an Overseas Press Club of America award. To economize on packing, Crow would use a Zoom recorder, often with a shotgun mic, while simultaneously asking questions and monitoring audio as a stationary Canon 5D recorded video. “I’ve used a boom pole before as well, but doing that alone isn’t really graceful,” she says.

For the lone shooter, simplicity is key, says Lavine. With a Canon 5D Mark mounted on a tripod, he would slide a Zoom recorder close to his subject, ensure the environment is as free of ambient noise as possible and “have a conversation.” The Zoom wouldn’t necessarily be the audio source of choice for a broadcast piece, Lavine notes, but it’s appropriate for the Web.

Finessing a great interview also entails plenty of homework. It’s not simply a matter of dutifully drumming up a list of questions, photographers say, but understanding the subject matter of the conversation as deeply as possible. You can’t get good answers if you don’t ask good questions, and you can’t ask good questions unless you really know your stuff, Kashi says. Besides, he adds, “People appreciate when you’ve done your homework—it leads them to trust you more, and the reactions you get can be incredible.”

Doing your homework also means understanding the over-arching story you want to tell so that questions produce relevant, usable sound bites. “I’m specifically looking for a gem out of [my subject’s] mouth and I don’t stop asking questions until I get it,” Lavine says.

In fact, a good interview should produce clues for visuals that will support the story, Gruber says. “Photographers, whether they know it or not, are searching for clues and the interview can tip you off.” An interview is not simply camera fodder, but a piece of the story-building process. The resulting footage can stand on its own, particularly if it’s emotionally powerful, or can be used over other visuals. “We’re always collecting ambient sounds too, since those can be used to reinforce your visuals,” Gruber adds.

“I’m constantly editing in my head” while listening to her subjects talk, Crow says. In this way, she can begin to think about which audio clips work, and which ones should go with certain visuals. Before the editing process begins, Crow will transcribe all her recorded interviews. “I try to remember a lot of the key points in what was said, but you can miss a lot. By transcribing it, I can build out a structure of the interview and then know the audio I’m going to use before I even open Final Cut.”

The Art

Few people outside the glare of the public eye are comfortable giving on-camera interviews. It’s up to the videographer to create a relaxed environment. Doing so is often a matter of establishing personal rapport and being charming, Kashi observes.

For Crow, it means conducting a short pre-interview before the cameras are even rolling to get the subject in the rhythm of fielding questions. The pre-interview serves a secondary purpose as well, she says: It can deliver new insights that can be explored on camera. Crow always reminds her subjects that they are running the interview. “[If] at any point they feel upset or want to stop, I tell them it’s OK. I find people appreciate that sense of control.”

There are also a few subtle conversational tricks to coaxing out usable sound bites. “I literally pause slightly while I’m talking,” Lavine says. “If you just have a conversation, you’ll talk over a person and that’s impossible to edit out. So without being obvious about it, you pause and you give your subject time to talk and you hold your own response for a couple of seconds.”

Gruber agrees. “People instinctively want to fill silence, but the idea of silence is OK. We let the subject linger on what they said, let it simmer. Often after a pause, they’ll come back with something even better.”

Silence also provides needed breaks in the audio track for editing, Lavine adds. “Without some kind of natural break in the conversation, it’s very hard to edit.”

For the interviewer, giving non-vocal feedback—head nods, thumbs up, etc.—is a useful way to keep the talk rolling without verbally trampling over your subject, Gruber notes.

Sometimes, though, it’s not possible to be in full control of an interview. For a film on the devastating impacts of Agent Orange in Vietnam, Kashi had to work through a translator. Rather than navigate a three-way discussion, he decided to give a rough outline of what he was looking for to his interpreter “and told him to have a conversation.” The result, he says, was “magical,” with the subject opening up and bringing everyone, Kashi included, to tears.

In many ways, the art of crafting a compelling on-screen interview is a lot like being a good photographer, Gruber notes. “You have to show that you’re curious about people, that you’re sincere and that you want to learn about their story.”

If all else fails, Gruber says, he reassures his subjects. “We always remind them: Hey, if you screw up, we can always do it over.’”

Half-Lives: The Chernobyl Workers Now from VQR on Vimeo.

Served Out: Aging and Dying Behind Bars – The Trailer from Ackerman Gruber Images on Vimeo.

Bryan Cranston – Video Portrait from Michael Lavine on Vimeo.

Related: Frames Per Second: Using Video to Tell a Controversial Story