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In an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (“Boy #1, Boy #2,” CBS, 1965) Rob casts their son and one of his friends in an episode of his TV show. The results aren’t as anticipated. He confesses to the two moms: “Those kids can’t act, they’re terrible…When they started out they were almost fair, but the more they rehearsed the worse they got!” When the moms remind him the kids aren’t professionals, he responds “Yeah, because professionals get better!” So true. One of the big differences between trained and untrained talent is that repetition and self-consciousness about being in front of cameras and crew often degrades rather than enhances their “performance.”  And each time you make your reality player self-conscious about the camera, chances are high they will be less natural—the very reason you wanted them in the first place. This, in turn, can radically affect your schedule and budget.  In other chapters, we address specific techniques for re-introducing a question during an interview, for blocking a re-enactment, or getting that scene from another angle for a documentary, all without making your subject feel awkward.  To keep your production schedule and budget on target, you need all the help you can get to minimize retakes and set-ups. Even if you are masterful at keeping your subject from feeling pressure during the shoot, every minute you spend in shoot planning will be paid back in decreased time and costs on the post-production side.  Since you never entirely know how a “real person” will react to being on camera, the following are some strategies you can use to minimize unpleasant surprises and budget-busting problems, while you maximize creative opportunities.

  1. Be sure you discuss options for on-camera clothing before the shoot. Bring extra ties on set. If green-screen, be sure your subject is not wearing any green!
  2. Have enough crew. A production assistant is worth their weight in gold to help move gear in place quickly, or handle the back-end of recording remotely. Non-actors are not used to the “hurry up and wait” pattern of production life.
  3. Give non-actors a break by shooting b-roll.  I often shoot a little bit of b-roll to warm them up to the crew, before sitting the person down for an interview.
  4. Use Locations Familiar to Subject to help them be more comfortable. If you need to move objects around for a better background, ask permission. (You may need to have the person themselves move things around for remote interviews.)

Excerpted from my book “The Producer’s Playbook: Real People on Camera”.  I love directing “real people” on camera. Please sign up for my additional tips ——–> see sidebar!

Amy Interviews

You’ve got to shoot and interview and ask the questions. How do you get the best from your interview subject(s)? How do you prepare? These four steps will improve the process every time.

  1. Research. I don’t just mean your basic Google search or Wikipedia page look-up. I mean actually reading something your interview subject has written or watching a speech they have given so you can a) learn from it and b) refer to it and build rapport. Also read articles about your person, so you understand where they come from and what they do.  Talking to people who know them well–a spouse, assistant, co-worker–can give insights into their style, character and personal history.
  2. Pre-Interview. Have a phone conversation several weeks in advance of your interview. Weeks not days, because you don’t want someone saying “As I said to you yesterday…” in their answer. I find phone is better than Skype or Google Hangouts, because people are more honest when they can’t see you. If you don’t have the time or ability to pre-interview, then talking to someone who knows this person is even more important. You don’t want to be blindsided by a strong viewpoint, a difficult to understand accent, or some other element that you could easily prepare for in advance.
  3. Create a Story Arc. Everything is story. Even reality. Find the challenge that your subject had to overcome. This is the high point of the story, and you can work backwards from it as you develop questions to lead up to the main high point. Also think of what might hook in viewers to this story. How can you elicit that bit of the story arc? Then think about how the story ends. What’s a good way to help your subject get to this conclusion?
  4. Reverse Engineer Your Questions. Reviewing your research notes, your pre-interview notes, and your draft story arc. Then build questions that can elicit those answers and topics. The goal is not to control every moment, but to help support your subject as they reveal their story.  people always ask me if I send interview questions in advance. Absolutely not! Send a list of topics, sure. But don’t give away your questions that are designed to elicit a story arc or you will find yourself interviewing someone who has over-prepared. If someone tells you that you MUST send questions, send three or four but write them related to themes. Get into the specifics on site.

Look, we all know that nothing is ever set in stone when you conduct an interview with a “real person” (i.e. not an actor or someone highly media-trained) on camera. Good preparation makes the shooting and editing process go much more smoothly.

This blog post is based on one of the chapters of my new book The Producer’s Playbook: Real People on Camera (Focal/Routledge).  Order copies here.  For more details on specific interviewing techniques and post-production strategies for working with interviews, see my Lynda.com courses here: Amy’s stuff on Lynda.com