Documentary Interview Experiments

As part of our Language and Communications class, we split into groups of four people and conducted a series of interviews. One person acted as camera tech, another sound tech, an interviewer and an interviewee. The purpose of the interview was to try and learn something about the interviewee that the interviewer didn’t previously know. It gave us a chance to consider documentary ethics, practise the technical aspects of documentary production, and to experiment with different interviewing styles.

Our group decided to use a very natural, down and dirty interview style. The interviewer and interviewee sat on the ground just casually chatting away. The camera was also on the ground, shooting in a black and white mode, handheld, shakily shooting angled headshots of the two people. The reason for this was primarily to do something different from all the other groups, but also as we were shooting on video (a very natural and realistic medium compared to film – video basically looks like Neighbours), we thought that we might as well not try and attempt to make it look like film. Shooting handheld, in black and white, and with poor lighting, took advantage of the rather grainy and comparably low-resolution of the DV format. The lighting of the scene was natural, with sunlight coming through the window striking the girls from above. Although it would have been nice to ‘tweak’ the look, possibly by simply using a reflector to bounce sunlight into the girl’s faces, we simply didn’t have the time. Audio wise, despite my objections, the boom microphone was placed in shot, in the centre of the two girls. This meant that the footage looked cluttered, but also meant the audio quality sounded very poor, as the ME66 is very directional. Although I was personally happy overall with the look of the film (despite the microphone being in shot), others suggested that it distracted them from what the people were saying, giving the footage a very unnatural feel. The interviewee and interviewer didn’t like the footage either, saying that by being on the ground, with all the other class members looking down on them, made them act in a contrived manner. Personally, I disagree. I believe that by shooting them in this way, when they are under quite a lot of pressure to deliver something interesting, brought out their true personality – even if it was just them panicking and struggling. Both the interviewee and interviewer insisted that they had no problem discussing ‘interesting’ topics off camera, but as soon as the camera was shooting, they were in struggle town. I think that maybe they were just too scared to discuss the things they were talking about off-camera to tape, because they would be judged by the audience. And although they didn’t talk about topics they did before the interview, the camera still managed to capture a reality of the situation. Watching the footage showed two girls struggling to find an interesting topic to talk about for the audience. I found the footage we captured fascinating. However, shooting in this style did affect the interview in a way I didn’t predict. It made the interviewer feel like she was on the same level as the interviewee, despite the fact there was a visual sense of hierarchy. What I mean is that it felt like the interviewer and interviewee had equal power. Despite the fact that only one person was asking the questions, it felt as is neither person was in complete control of the interview. So, by shooting in the style that we did, we effectively changed the whole feeling and pecking order of the interview. Is that a negative thing? For the purposes of this exercise, I think it was a positive. As this was only an experiment, it gave a valuable insight into documentary interviewing practises. However, I would probably not use this style for most documentary pieces, unless I was evaluating or investigating human communication or something similar. I think one of the main areas lacking in this interview was pre-interview, that is, defining a solid list of interview topics. I think the fact that little planning was done was the main reason the interview seemed so hard. The other thing that really annoyed me was the quality of the audio, not only due to the positioning, but also due to the handling noise of the boom pole.

Other groups used several different styles. Some had head shots of the interviewee, some had wide shots, some had the interviewer in frame, but all of the other groups kept the camera on tripod. Audio wise, everyone used the ME66 microphone and all the interviews (except the last one, in which I acted as boom operator – he says arrogantly!), had really poor sounding audio. The reason being, like our groups interview, the positioning was bad (shotgun mics work best shooting directly at the source’s mouth at around three to five feet away), the manual riding of the gain was overcompensating, and the ME66 is not really suitable for broadcast quality indoor audio capturing (a hyper-cardiod is preferred). Also the boom handling was also very poor, resulting in a lot of handling noise coming through the track. Although the operator is partly at fault for not holding the boom pole gently, the fact that no shock suspension is available doesn’t make the operator’s job any easier.

Generally speaking, the best interviews were the ones with the best content. It didn’t really matter how poorly the technical side of the production was. If the interview was interesting, you can forgive the poor audio quality and lousy framing. Although in some of the interviews the poor camera work was slightly distracting, such as when in one interview, the camera started panning down the interviewee’s body for no particular reason (completely unmotivated). As is always the way, the moment the camera was off the interviewees face, they said something really out of the ordinary. What did I learn? You should only move the camera when motivated to do so, and even then, you have to seriously think about it and predict what’s going to happen next.

One of the interviews had the interviewers head on the far left of frame out of focus, with the interviewer centre frame in focus, with the shotgun microphone also in view. This visual style was very distracting, and seemed to waste a lot of the frame space as the whole right side of the image was just white. The most visually appealing interviews I found were just generally static shots of the interviewee, with the occasional slow zoom or pan to add a bit of life to the footage. The fact that everyone’s footage was shot from on a tripod gave the interviews a very manufactured, yet professional feel, as if you were watching a news program or police interrogation.

With documentaries it’s my belief that there should always be an invisible line between the crew and the interviewee. Unfortunately, in some of the interviews this line was crossed and in some cases completely ignored. For instance, in one interview the focus changed from the interviewee to the interviewer as the boom operator started to ask him questions. The camera operator had to follow the action, and filmed the interviewer, leaving the interviewee off-camera, off-sound, and probably very bored. This destroyed the pacing and authenticity of the whole interview. The viewer, who was just starting to become interested in what the interviewee had to say, all of the sudden has to watch the crew interviewing each other. Very unprofessional! What made matter worse was when the interview eventually shifted its focus back to the interviewee, the camera person asked him an extremely hard pressing question, abruptly ending the interview, in a very contrived manner. However, this was only an experiment – so not hard feelings, just another lesson learnt.

The main things I learn out of the days efforts were that production values are important. To get good usable footage you need a good camera, audio and boom operator. If you have someone that doesn’t really know what they’re doing, the whole shoot can be jeopardised. Planning is also extremely important. If you don’t spend time planning interview questions, and developing a well thought out plan of attack, there is a good chance that nobody will have anything appealing to talk about. An invisible wall also has to be developed, and then everyone has to stay on their own side. As soon as a crew member steps from one side to the other, the whole interview is put at risk. The camera operator and sound technician just need to do their job as quietly and professionally as possible, without interrupting or distracting the interviewer or interviewee.

The other thing I realised was that you really need a clear plan of what you want to get out of the interview. If you do in there just wanting to ask a couple of questions, then you may come out with some good footage, but footage that you don’t know what to do with. For instance, in our group, we went in there trying to find something we didn’t know about the interviewee, but actually came out with footage that essentially just explores human interaction. Although the footage we captured was good, and very interesting, it wasn’t what we needed to complete the task at hand. This was the same with the interview in which the crew started getting involved in. It started off just a traditional interview, trying to find something new about the person, but ended up being a train wreck, with cast and crew asking each other unplanned questions. Because the interviewer wasn’t connecting with the interviewee on a personal level, the interviewee decided to act, instead of being himself. The result – just a big mess!

Ethical considerations also came into question when watching the different interviews. In one case, the interviewee admitted to recently loosing a girlfriend, offering the interviewer the opportunity to ask some very hard-pressed questions, but decided to ignore the topic and move on to something else. The reason – he didn’t want to ask a series of very personal questions as he didn’t know the interviewee very well. Was this the right thing to do? Maybe – it’s a tough one. The interview probably would have been a lot more interesting if the interviewer decided to pursue the topic. But he simply didn’t want to. Even when the interviewee corrected the interviewer when he mistakenly said the girlfriend came from the same town as the interviewee, the interviewer just changed the topic once more. Without question, the interviewer could have gotten a lot more out of the interviewee. However, his morals told him not to do it. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is, like I’ve said, hard to say. I guess as these interviews were filmed in a university with the whole class watching the filming take place, and knowing that the class will be analysing the footage at a later date – it was the safe decision to make. Better to only ask innocent questions than to risk the interviewee becoming completely overwhelmed or overly uncomfortable. However, in a real filming situation, I would probably say that it’s better to ask the tough questions. I mean, in all honesty, although the interviewee was very nervous, I don’t think he would have minded being asked questions about his ex-girlfriend (despite the fact that they only broke up a couple of days previous). This was even more apparent when the interviewee corrected the interviewer.

It seemed to me that because these were filmed in a university, and everyone in the class was watching, no one seemed to ask any heavy questions. Everyone played it safe so they didn’t get their hands burnt. On the more technical side, people took risks. Our group shot in a very unconventional manner; the complete opposite to everyone else. Some camera operators decided to take the camera off the interviewees head and film more random things (like panning down the interviewee’s body). Although these would be quite major risks in a professional environment, in the context of this experiment they were just further tests, to see if it worked.

My favourite interview had the interviewer asking the interviewee a series of great questions, but also a lot of very random questions. For example, “if you were a tree what tree would you be”? This caught the interviewee off guard in most cases, making for a really fascinating piece of footage. The interviewer established a really good connection with the interviewee, and I think these random questions really helped do this. The important lesson to be learnt out of this is that to get good interview footage a good relationship needs to be built between the interviewer and interviewee. They need to be comfortable with each other. If the interviewee is scared of the interviewer or vice versa, the footage will look forced, fake and probably unusable.

After looking at the various different groups’ footage, it’s clear that the questions asked by the interviewer are also very important. You need to ask open ended questions that interest the interviewee so that they talk casually and passionately about their view on the topic. Questions that just result in the interviewee answering yes or no hardly make for an interesting interview. But how do you know what types of questions to ask? I guess doing your research before the interview helps. If you know where the interviewee’s passions lie, you can ask questions that you know will generate a lot of gusto. But also I think it’s very important that the interviewer actually listens to what the interviewee is saying. They need to listen and base their next set of questions on the interviewee’s responses. In the interview where the crew started interviewing each other instead of the interviewee, obviously the interviewer wasn’t listening to the person he was asking questions to. If he was then the conversations would have never had changed viewpoints. This is also a very good example of the interviewee becoming intimidated by the interviewee and as a result, he spent way to much time talking, instead of listening. The result – a self obsessed interview that didn’t really work.

Overall, I found this experiment to be tremendously useful. Although a lot of the stuff learnt could be regarded as common sense, it’s always better to do it yourself and learn from your mistakes than by just reading a book or being told what’s what. It’s also extremely beneficial to test out all the interviewing practises yourself and then evaluate what you’ve done. It’s one thing to know how to do something – it’s something completely different to actually follow your own advice and wisdom. It takes a lot of self control, persistence and self-confidence to listen and follow to your own advice. It’s a lot easier to be lazy and say “it’ll do”. I also strongly believe practise makes perfect, so any chance of practising our skill is welcome in my books!