DVworkshops Newsletter Subject: The Documentary Interview


in this issue
  • Finding the Right Interview Subjects.
  • Shooting the Interview
  • Lighting the Interview
  • Interview Audio techniques
  • Tips on creating questions for Interviews, and interview styles.
  • Release forms
  • Summary


    Please click here to view Free 5-minute video Learn Documentary Film and Corporate Video Interview techniques in 5-Minutes   Filmed at CBS Television and features DVworkshops instructor Aron Ranen



    Finding the Right Interview Subjects.

    The first part of the interview process is finding the right person to talk with. Once I start calling people, they tend to lead me to others who have knowledge on the same topic. It is a good idea to ask people if they know anyone else who might be helpful to talk with. Sometimes you have to "Social Engineer" your way up the ladder

    Shooting the Interview

    The first thing I do is find a background to film the person in front of.

    Never film a subject right up against a wall, allow at least 5-15 feet between them and the wall.

    The Background should enhance what the person is saying. If it is a doctor, use books behind him..a race car driver interview in his garage etc.

    Frame the person using Negative space..which means have the face fill roughly one third of the screen, while the background fills the other 2/3 of the screen. See photo on top of this chapter for an example. The camera lens should be at the same level as your subject's eyes. The interviewer should be asking questions from right next to the camera lens, at the same level as the lens.

    Make sure the person is looking towards the Negative Space.


    Lighting the Interview

    Lighting the interview can range from a full light kit..to a on-camera LED light or just available light.

    Natural light from a nearby window is a great source.  Some camera people put a shower curtain liner in front of the window as diffusion. 

    Make sure the light source is coming from behind you (don't film the person in front of a bright window unless you have put ND9 Gel on the window).

    A light kit is best for important sit-down interviews. I use Three point Lighting. Key Light, Back Light, Fill Light ( use a large White Bounce Card opposite the key Light). I also add a Background light to light the background or wall behind the person. My favorite Key light is a Chimera Soft box ( see photo on top of this chapter). This provides a nice even light. Always use a back light ( Lowel Pro lighT and attach a dimmer to it in order to quickly control it's output level. I also use an Arri 650 with barn doors on the Background. My "Fill" is a white Bounce card.

    If you are shooting in a mixed light environment ( outdoor and indoor light mixed) you need to put Blue Color Correction gels on all your "WARM" lights ( I use 3/4 CTB which allows some of the light's "warmth" to hit my subject.

    LED lights, KINO Lights are "Native" outdoor and are another great solution to lighting mixed situations.

    Interview Audio techniques

    Use a clip-on Lavalier Microphone for all important interviews. I own a wireless Letrasonics with a Countryman Lavalier

    Tram also makes great lavaliers for wireless systems.

    I like wireless mics because then I can walk and talk with someone instead of making them sit in the same position for the whole interview.

    Click on the link below to see my "walk and talk" interview with the man who closed the capsule door on the Apollo 11 capsule right before take off.

    Sennheiser has a $500 wireless system which is the Best Cheap wireless I have tested. Letrasonics cost around $1,500 with a good lavalier mic. You can always buy a "hard wired" (non-wireless mic) for around $200. I like the Sony ECM 44B 

    I love bringing a person into an environment where something happened, and conduct the interview as we walk around. Wirele4ss mics make that easy to do.


    Tips on creating Interviews QUESTIONS and conducting the actual Interview

    I always try to develop themes for all my interviews....try and fiqure out the three or main themes you want to explore with the person you are going to interview.

    Then I come up with three or four questions for each theme. Questions should be "Open Ended" and elicit a well developed response.

    Never ask a question that can be answered by "Yes or No". Try using phrases such as " Can you describe?"...Tell me about...How do you feel.?".

    I also like "Contrast and compare questions". For example: "Can you describe the difference between Today's Building materials and those of the past?".

    Once you are in the middle of the interview, never get "Trapped" to the questions you wrote down prior to the interview.

    I always "Build my Questions" from the subject's answers.

    An easy way to do this is to simply repeat the last few words the person just said.

    This "feedback" technique helps to insure that you are not "Leading " the interview.

    Never "Step" on a person's answer...always wait for the person to finish talking before you ask a question or "Feedback".

    You should also be a good listener and try and build questions from new ideas and subjects that arise during the interview.

    At the end of every interview ask the person,

    "Is there anything I have not asked that you would like to share with me?"

    This last question often prompts new and interesting information.


    More tips on conducting the Interview at this free DVworkshops video featuring Aron Ranen

    Release forms

    It is important to get a signed release from everyone you interview. There are some circumstances where you do not need a release. News crews almost never get a release, and if you film someone in a public place, and do not libel them...there is a good possibility you do not need a release.

    For EXAMPLE: I was making a documentary about a City Tow TRUCK Driver in San Francisco...while filming on a public street he and the Meter Maid were attacked and I got it all on tape.

    I later sold the footage to Judge Judy and they never requested a release form from me. The same for Real TV, Hard Copy, Maximum Exposure and KNBC news in Los Angeles who all purchased non- exlusive rights to the Tow Truck Attack footage from me. That is because it was clearly shot on a public street.


    Interviews make up a great deal of the storytelling process in documentaries. Always think about your background, watch the lighting, and build your questions from people's answers.

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    View clips from Instructor Aron Ranen's documentary "Tow Truck Attack".

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    Sample includes:

    • How to film an interview
    • Understanding Negative Space
    • Correct framing
    • Best Microphones
    • How to use a lapel or Lavalier microphone
    • Intro to Zebras

    75-minutes $49.95

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