Strategies for Real People on Screen

Amy DeLouise, author of The Producer’s Playbook: Real People on Camera, shares tips for making the most of your interviews.

Working with so-called “real people” is the soul of documentary and non-fiction storytelling. But besides great interviewing techniques, what are some of the tools we can use—both technology and workflow--which allow us to reveal essential human connections on screen? Here are a few that have worked in my productions over the years.

1. Pre-Interview. Before they go on camera, we need to understand our on-screen subjects. We need to know how they like to tell stories, what difficulties they may encounter telling their story, and any biases or challenges when it comes to the film topic. Pre-interviewing allows us to:

  • make a connection with the interviewee prior to stepping in front of the cameras
  • record the pre-interview (with permission) so that we can get this transcribed
  • use our notes/transcriptions to start working on our possible story arc and the interview questions needed to elicit the story

There is always a concern that you might reveal too much of the story before the shoot. It’s true that pre-interviews are best done well in advance, so there’s no chance of the person saying “as I told you yesterday”. But the pay-off for this time spent together is huge. I’ve also found that while Skype is handy for getting a feel for someone’s persona on camera, I prefer phone interviews for truly delving into the story line. It seems that people are much more willing to be honest when they know you can’t see them. If you have the luxury of an in-person meeting afterwards (even a few minutes alone together before the shoot begins), that’s even better. You can often discover what kind of learner you are dealing with (everyone is some of each, but some people are predominantly audio learners, others kinesthetic or visual), which will help you design the right kinds of questions. I talk in more detail about that strategy in my Lynda.com course on interview techniques.

2. Second Camera. For years, having a second camera was a budget-buster. Now thanks to more affordable digital cameras, it’s not. Here are some simple strategies for added cameras:

  • mount a second DSLR camera as a lock-down side angle
  • put the side camera on a slider, just to add subtle motion—there are so many great sliders to choose from
  • try a parabolic automated slider for your primary angle (they use infrared beams to ensure the focus stays accurate—pretty nifty)

The beauty of having a second camera is of course the ability to cut around tricky bits of an interview more easily. But a side angle gives another emotional window into the character on screen, especially if there’s an interesting background that informs their story line. As an added bonus, if you are using a DSLR, you can use it to shoot some behind-the-scenes shots for your social media promotion for the film.

3. Transcripts. I’ve been preaching about transcript workflow for many years. It seems to have fallen out of fashion with the rise of digital editing. But the reality is, it’s still faster to scan a document for a good soundbite than scrub through footage, even you can do that in double-time. And transcription services are ubiquitous and highly affordable (I’ve never spent more than a few hundred dollars for multiple interviews). Here are some tips for transcript workflow:

  • get transcripts done immediately following the shoot
  • If you aren’t in a rush, ingest your footage, then output mp3 or wav files to upload to transcriber
  • If you want timecoded transcripts, the fee is slightly higher, but the transcriber can output a handy runtime in the margin.
  • You can also approximate timecode by giving the transcriber the starting timecode for each interview or segment of audio. They have run clocks which can approximate the timecode pretty closely and insert it throughout your transcript.
  • If you’re in a rush, many of today’s digital recorders can read a timecode signal from another device (e.g. the camera) and stamp it on the recording. I usually run these for backup audio anyway, so as an added bonus we output these files directly from the field for transcribing.

4. Script Notes. Creating a strong story arc with real people interviews requires knowing all the elements you have to work with before you edit. Whether you go low-tech or high, filmmakers now have a range of tools to make notes in the field and transfer those notes into post-production. For example:

  • ScriptE™ system
  • Adobe Live Logger
  • Lumberjack system for FCP
  • Google Docs

5. Slates. Slates aren’t just for narrative filmmaking. Slating allows you to identify footage easily for arranging prior to edit. Slating is a life-saver when scanning hours of footage to digitize and organize multi-interview, multi-camera productions. You can use a digital smart slate for complex productions, a traditional “dumb slate,” or even a slate app on your smart phone. While I always try to keep technology at a minimum around interview subjects, I’ve found most people really love a slate. It makes them feel like a movie star and doesn’t seem to distract from the intimacy of the interviewing experience.

Ultimately, real people stories are about human connections. But the right planning, technology and workflow can make the difference between a good story and a great one.

Amy DeLouise is a Washington, D.C. based non-fiction director-producer and the author of The Producer’s Playbook: Real People on Camera (Focal/Routledge).