Top tips for recording an on-camera interview

A Guide To Filming Interviews

Interviews are a staple of corporate video production. We should know. We’ve produced more than 3000 of them over the last decade. But for new clients there’s often some mystery, misconception and fear about what an interview for camera involves. In this definitive guide we unpick the process to debunk the myths, inform and calm those pre-interview jitters.

When is it best to do a video interview?

Given that there are various options for getting your message across in a corporate video, including animation and b-roll shots with voiceover, is an interview always the best approach? 

Without doubt having a representative of your company on screen provides a human touch, in particular for an About Us style video in which your goal is to convey your company’s ethos or character as well as your services. For viewers a human face on screen makes an otherwise anonymous entity feel more relatable, while with a smaller business it reassures them that there’s actually someone there to fulfil their order. 

An interview with a staff member is perhaps the most effective way to set the tone for the way in which your business operates, giving you control over how you present your company: through what they say; their tone; how they dress; the filming location; and what we might call the overall ‘production values’. High production values lend a glossiness to a video. The interview plays a key part in this, as does the way this material is edited together with other elements such as broll (general supporting shots), graphics (charts, kinetic text), stock footage (stills or video clips that have been purchased) and music. 

While viewers find it comforting to see someone from a business talking about their services, perhaps nothing quite beats a Case Study interview with a client of that business. When a client takes the time to speak on camera to promote a business other than their own, the audience finds this incredibly reassuring, especially if that client hails from a recognisable organisation or brand. Of course, it’s also possible to mix interviews from both company reps and clients in a case study video, with the client giving the praise. 

Interviews might also be the natural choice for conveying a message if the filming takes place at an event or if you’re capturing the thoughts of people on the street. These sorts of interviews are generally called vox-pops and the approach tends to be less formal. With vox-pops the subject is probably standing up (in a more formal interview setting the speaker tends to be seated) background noise is tolerated (though it helps to see what’s creating the noise) and if any lighting used it tends to be rudimentary. This piece is concerned primarily with themore formal interview approach. 

Who should be interviewed?

If you’ve established that a formal interview is the best format, then you will need to decide who appears on camera.

Of course, who you chose as an interviewee will depend on the exact nature of the video, and while it might make sense for the CEO or CFO to share their thoughts, it’s always best to put people in the hot seat who actually enjoy the process of filming and are good at speaking on camera. 

The challenge is to guess who will make a good interviewee if they haven’t tried it before. 

Certainly the presence of a camera can make the most garrulous freeze with uncertainty, while sometimes it’s the quietest colleague who takes to it instantly and finds talking clearly and engagingly a total cinch. If you don’t know who is comfortable on camera, then generally it pays off to chose people who are willing to give it a go.

In terms of the number of speakers you need, if you’re aiming for a 2-3 minute video then 3 contributors is probably the magic number. A two and a half minute video, once you’ve deducted some time for the video front and end cards, is about 130 seconds of interview content. When you allow for 3 spoken words per second – a surprisingly accurate rule of thumb – each of the three interviewees has 130 words in which to make their points. As each speaker is likely to appear in the edited video twice, that boils down to two soundbites of just 65 words – so it pays to feature people who can deliver their thoughts concisely and with some gusto.  

What are the different formats and interview filming styles?

The key formats for interviews – and we’re talking here about formal interviews where you only see the interviewee and not the person asking them questions – are off-camera and to-camera

An off-camera interview is what you typically see in a documentary film: the subject is addressing somebody that the viewer does not see that is sitting next to the camera. 

With an off-camera interview it’s typical to use two cameras to film. The cameras record two different shot sizes, typically a Medium Close-Up or MCU shot (breast bone to inch above head) and a Close-Up or CU shot (which includes the chin and cuts the top of the head in the frame). The CU shot tends to be at a greater angle to the subject that the MCU (ie more side-ish). Having two cameras shots in different sizes and at different angles enables the editor to switch between the two perspectives and to truncate the content in the edit while making it feel like a continuous piece. 

When speaking to-camera the format tends to be less of an interview and more of a spoken address, often with an autocue (also known as a teleprompter). These deliveries are sometimes called Pieces to Camera or PTCs – think a TV documentary presenter addressing the audience directly or a presidential address from the Oval Office. 

If you don’t booked an autocue (an operator with kit costs about £650 plus travel for a 10 hour day), then we’d advise against trying to use cue cards or a tablet prompter app. The way an autocue works is that it sits directly over the camera lens and so the speaker’s eye line remains straight down the barrel. Anything else is going to draw the eye line away from the lens, which is noticeable and distracting. 

One other advantage with an autocue is that if your business services require careful compliance and need to be run by a legal department (in Financial Services, for example), having a pre-approved script is advisable. On the flip side, it does mean someone is going to have to write it! 

Recently what typically would have been an off-camera interview is frequently being shot as a to-camera interview – to give the content a powerful and direct connection to the audience. However, corporate interviewees, unlike trained presenters, can be phased by answering a director’s questions while not looking in their direction and speaking to the lens. It’s also a challenge to answer a question fluently while you are aware of your own reflection in the camera lens that you’re addressing. To help with this set-up a new piece of equipment has been developed. It reflects the face of the interviewer over the lens, so that the interviewee feels like they are looking directly at them and responding to them, and in doing so it also covers the lens and any reflections that might be a distraction to the interviewee. 

Here are a few examples of this sort of product:

We’re often asked if there’s anything different we can do with interviews. In truth, there’s a limit to the number of ways you can shoot an interview with the given that you want to clearly see the speaker’s face. However, there are a few ways to mix it up a little.

Instead of using a static second camera, this can be mounted on a track with a dolly or a long slider system. This gives you a second shot with smooth movement that brings production values and energy to the video. However, there will be parts of the shot that cannot be used (when the camera gets to the end of the track or slider and needs to change direction) which limits your options for editing between your two shots. Also, if you have just one operator they will not be able to monitor the static camera whilst also tracking or sliding the b camera. A tracking or sliding shot can also be used as a third shot, perhaps even showing Behind the Scenes (BTS) by including a part of the set or background in the frame. In terms of framing, a tracking shot would typically not be a Close Up (CU) as filming movement on a long lens tends to be less forgiving of any bumps in the movement. 

Shooting an interview against a chroma key screen (which is a particular shade of green or blue) enables you to separate your interviewee from the chroma key and drop in your own background in the edit. If this suits your type of project (for example you want to give the impression of a news studio behind your speaker) then it can be very effective. However, there tends to be a cost implication (about £300) for bringing in a background support system, the chroma key screen itself and the lighting needed to produce a good result. If done badly green screen filming leaves the editor with poor keying options with the result that a halo of green appears around the speaker’s body and in particular their hair. Never a good look. 

Interview filming location

There are plenty of interview filming locations in London that can be hired out by a production company for conducting interviews. Many studios are set up for chroma key filming with a lighting rig already in place for the background. Some studios have an industrial look & feel and corners that can double as an office. On the whole only small, plain studios are totally soundproof, and any other location is likely to be vulnerable to the most disruptive sounds – helicopters, angle-grinders, leaf-blowers and sirens. Of course, it makes sense to chose a location that is likely to be quiet – away from lifts, kitchens and off any flightpaths – but noise pollution is inevitable and so a few retakes are nearly always necessary for sound.  

Given the convenience for the speakers and the cost of hiring a space, it’s probable you’ll be filming interviews in your office. In an office the largest conference room is typically the best bet for interview filming, and it’s likely to have blinds. The production team will want to have control over the light that enters the room, as fluctuations in light levels and direct sunlight coming into the room can be problematic. Where the blinds aren’t effective we often black out the windows. Heavy duty bin bags and gaffer tape aren’t the most glamorous tools in the filmmakers arsenal, but they provide a quick and effective solution. So, while we’re often told ‘we’ve got the best view in London out of our office window’, it’s rare that we would voluntarily feature a window or the view through it in the back of our shot. 

This said, if the view is a part of the story and needs to be seen there are some ways around this. If it’s a consistently overcast day and it’s a short interview there’s less chance of fluctuating light levels creating an issue. If it is a sunny day then one way to control the brightness is to use Neutral Density gel rolls, which can be cut to the shape of the window.However, this is a fiddly process and normally only undertaken on a set that gets regular use. Alternatively, it’s possible to balance the natural light coming in from outside by throwing more artificial light on the subject from the inside. The issue with this is that directing massive amounts of light onto your subject can be startling for them and they’re likely to end up squinting. 

While filming against exterior windows is typically a no-no, the interview will certainly look better with an interesting background. What a director and Director of Photography (DOP) will seek out is depth. The greater the depth behind the subject the more interesting the shot will appear. Of course, the challenge in an office is that spaces with depth tend to be the open-plan areas where people are working or in corridors or common parts where there’s a lot of staff traffic. If it’s just one interview, then it might be worth getting in early to use the interesting space before anyone arrives. However, given it takes up to 90 minutes to get the interview equipment into a building and set up before any filming takes place, that’s going to be a call time of about 0600, and even then there will be cleaners and early-birds to work around. 

If in the end we’re back to filming in the conference room and there’s no interesting angle (a glass wall for example) to give an pleasing shape to the shots (it’s worth bearing in mind we are in fact dealing with two backgrounds – one for each camera), then perhaps it’s best to forgo depth and interesting shapes and look for a way to make the shot look clean and uniform. The best bet for this is a portable background support system with a paper roll. Typically this is 2.72 metres wide and comes in a variety of colours (see backgrounds). The roll fits in a Ford Galaxy but not in all passenger lifts, so someone might have to walk it up the stairs! Besides the roll and support system this approach requires some extra lighting, so using a background has some cost implications (about £250).  

What to wear and what not to wear for an interview

Digital cameras used to have a strobing issue with really detailed repetitive patterns such as herringbone. This is less the case today, but for most interviews it’s still best not to wear anything too highly patterned or striped. Simple bold colours work best, but avoid a lot of black and white. It’s advisable to steer clear of obvious branding also. 

If you are using a coloured background roll then colour-blocking your outfit – ie picking a colour that complements but stands out against the background – is a smart move. Our clients at Stylus have taken this to another level with nine different backgrounds and colour-blocked outfits in their Look Ahead videos

If you are filming against a chroma key background (a blue or green that can be replaced in post production with an image or video layer) – then avoid the colour of the background in your clothing. 

The other thing to bear in mind with your outfit is that you might need to wear a lapel mic clipped to your clothing. If you’re wearing a polo neck or something very flimsy it could be hard to attach it. Having an outer layer always helps. If in doubt, bring a few clothing options. 

What does an on camera interview involve? 

The interview is likely to be lit with 2-3 lights. There will be one or two cameras and the sound might be captured using a lapel radio mic (attached to your clothing) or a microphone on a boom pole on a stand which is positioned just outside of the frame. Depending on your skin type, the temperature and the lighting set-up it may be necessary to apply some make-up. Typically this is a matt powder in your skin tone that removes any shine.

The director can show you the shot sizes for each camera, so you get an idea of how much of your body appears in the frame. It’s worth considering at what height your hand gestures can be seen in the wider frame. 

Then it all comes down to the interview itself. This is likely to have been scheduled for 45 to 60 minutes – to allow for some chat, positioning the microphone, adjusting the frames and a few runs at each question and answer. 

Typically there’s been some preparation ahead of a formal interview, and the speaker will have at least some sense of the questions they will be asked. For a video that edits to 2-3 minutes there’s likely to be 4 or 5 questions. 

Naturally most people, given some advance notice of their questions, will be tempted to script out their responses in long hand. We would strongly urge them not to do this. The goal of an interview is to come across as authentic and engaging. Scripting answers encourages learning the material by rote, which is tough to do, and leans towards language not used in conversation. The end result is often wooden, over-rehearsed and jargony. Instead we suggest you really do no more than think of 3 bullet points per response that are the key words for your answer and that will help plot the response you want to give. Once you get relaxed in front of the camera – and any director and camera team will aim to put you at ease and guide you through the process – you’ll find that with a few key beats to each answer you join up the dots quite naturally, and probably differently which each take. 

In most interview scenarios you will be asked the questions by a director. It’s worth remembering that their voice won’t be featured in the edited video, so you’ll need to include a sense of their question in your answer and use a complete sentence. 

Be conscious of not lapsing into ums, ahs and using loose language such as it’s like. Also remember to avoid saying ‘as I said before.’ By the time the editor has had their way, you may never have said this at all, or you might say it later.  

In terms of the sound, there should be no need to change your speaking level dramatically. It helps to project a little, but that’s all there is to it. The sound will be monitored by the dedicated sound person or the camera operator. If your hair touches the lapel mic or or you knock it, they will flag this up and that section will be reshot. The other note concerning sound is that the crew may record a ‘wild track’ of the room. This is a recording of the location’s ambient sound (typically the hum of air conditioning and fridges that could not be switched off). The editor can use this wild track to subtract the ambient noises from the actual interview. 

With an off-camera interview it’s important to keep your eye line to the interviewer and to avoid the temptation to flick your eyes towards the lens. With a to-camera interview, it’s the opposite: lock onto the lens and don’t be distracted by the director or crew.

For interviewees who find themselves in the unenviable situation where they freeze and forget how to speak in full sentences – it happens more often than you might imagine – there is a tried and tested way of getting through each answer. The main issue is that this sort of brain freeze is the video equivalent to ‘writer’s block’, whereby the creative and critical faculties are engaged simultaneously. No sooner do you think to say something than you imagine how it will sound to the audience. The result is gridlock. So the first thing to do is to relax and to put the audience out of mind. Then, with the guidance of the director, you can build an answer with three sentences. If you plot this out – like a short story or anecdote – and find a place to land at the end so that it feels like an emphatic final point, you can find your way to deliver a clear and concise answer after a few runs at it. This situation is not uncommon and so it’s why we strongly recommend having a director on site. It’s also much easier for the director from an external production company, rather than someone from the company’s own marketing team, to say to a CEO, CFO or Chairman that it would be best to have another go at that last answer. 

Whatever the interview format, do make sure to say something genuinely meaningful and insightful – you’re an expert and your audience can spot truisms a mile away. So, avoid business anacronyms and jargon – the web is awash with people talking incessantly about ecosystems, granularity and solutions – and tell your audience something they don’t know in language they do understand.

One final consideration with giving an interview concerns the tone and the energy to bring to it. The tone should always be authoritative but friendly. No crazy smiling is required, but it needs to feel positive and warm. In terms of energy, the exercise of giving an interview isn’t quite like chatting to a friend. It’s more like telling an anecdote to a group of people, which requires a sense of performance and timing. And it’s not just what you say. From JFK to Tony Blair, politicians are coached to use their hands, and for good reason. Using your hands brings physicality and energy into your responses, which comes across as dynamic and authoritative to your audience. 

A final thought concerns the end of each answer. After delivering a faultless response it’s natural to immediately judge yourself, and that look tends to register on camera. So we always encourage speakers to end strong, and to continue to push the performance energy through to the end of the sentence and beyond for a few seconds. This gives the editor the option of a few beats on the end of each take before they cut to the next shot. 

What happens after the interview? 

Once the interview is done, it’s time for the edit. Your production company will take the interview material away, load it into the editing software and, using the different camera angles, assemble the best sections of the interview so that it feels like a continuous conversation. The interview itself will often be supplemented by graphics, stock imagery and any b-roll that was captured. Title and end cards are added and a music track is often laid under the voice tracks.

Typically a production company will show the client two versions of the video – a rough cut and a fine cut – to comment on and request amendments.

Top tips for recording an on-camera interview

There you have it – everything you need to know about on camera interviews.

So, fInally, here’s a list of our top tips for sailing through recorded interviews with flying colours: 

  • Don’t over prepare – list 3 bullet points per answer
  • Think about what you are going to wear and bring some back-up options
  • Say something genuinely meaningful 
  • Avoid jargon 
  • Keep your eyeline (to camera or off camera, depending on the set-up)
  • Don’t say um and ah. Slow down if it helps you to line up your thoughts without hesitation
  • Bring energy to you answers and use your hands 
  • Keep performing beyond your last words until you hear ‘cut’

That’s a wrap.