Video Interviews: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Unless you’re a member of the most isolated tribe on Earth, you probably know that we’ve all become potential reporters, capable of shooting video of unfolding events with our phones and instantly sharing it with the world through the Internet. New technologies have given the average person the means and the inspiration to chronicle and share their observations with a global audience. Citizen journalists have documented street demonstrations, natural catastrophes, political uprisings, wars, police shootings, and terrorist attacks. No longer bystanders, people are getting involved by capturing video that becomes key evidence in investigations, that informs search and rescue operations, and that provides spontaneous, person-on-the-street viewpoints. The massive contribution of these amateurs can be seen at CNN iReports where more than 100,000 people posted their stories in 2012.

An increasing number of science professionals are also interested in reporting on their experiences conducting field research as well as at conferences and other scientific gatherings. Some people tweet about talks they heard or about a workshop they attended at a meeting. Conference attendees can become reporters through blogging and vlogging, which is blogging through the medium of video. Vloggers capture footage of various conference activities, such as poster sessions, provide commentary about some aspect of the conference, or interview other attendees about their research. Despite some reservations about premature dissemination of unpublished research through live tweeting and blogging, many conference organizers welcome these new reporting methods because they raise the visibility of the conference and generate excitement in attendees. Small conferences in particular can benefit from these activities.

In this post, I would like to focus on one of the most difficult tasks for the scientist videographer. And that is: interviewing other people. Conducting interviews on camera is always difficult, but trying to interview someone at a conference is particularly challenging because of all the noise and distractions. I recently attended a small conference (~300 people) and conducted a series of video interviews with the conference organizers, sponsors, and attendees. My overall goal was to produce a short video that explained what the conference was about, why the topic of the conference was important, and who some of the attendees were. I wanted to see if I could accomplish this by myself using a simple recording setup: my iPhone (6) and an inexpensive lapel microphone. The end result was a bit longer than I intended, but it pleased the conference organizers who posted it on the conference website. Check it out (direct link) and then I’ll talk about some of the pros and cons below.

The following are some tips that I gleaned from the experience:

  1. First, decide on the objective and length of the video and stick to it. This tip may seem obvious, but often videographers reporting on an event such as a conference will not have a clear objective in mind. The result is a meandering video that fails to send a clear message. In my video, I had been asked by the conference organizers to shoot a video that basically explained the purpose of the meeting and that featured some of the organizers, sponsors, and attendees. In other words, I was somewhat restricted in the “story” I could tell. I also needed to keep the video brief. My target length was under five minutes, which I overshot. However, the organizers liked everything I included, so the final length turned out to be fine. I shot a lot of extra footage (answers to some spontaneous questions) that I would have loved to include but couldn’t without making the video drag on too long. If I had set out to do a video about mangrove researchers and what challenges they face, I would have used that extra footage. However, I was committed in this case to making a video about this particular conference. If you find yourself struggling for a topic, consider asking a single question of a particular segment of conference-goers such as, “Is this your first scientific conference? If so, what are you finding most surprising or interesting about the experience?” or “What one piece of advice would you give to students and early-career scientists about giving their first oral presentation?”
  2. Select interview subjects carefully. When it comes to interviewing, you will likely have to deal with a variety of people: some who shine on camera and others who ramble or have distracting mannerisms. Also, most people become a little nervous and stiff when on camera.
    1. One way to deal with this problem is to carefully select your interview subjects—if possible. I tried to select people to interview who seemed to be articulate and able to answer my questions without too much rambling. In some cases, I knew the person and was confident they would perform well on camera. In other cases, I watched people deliver their conference talk and, based on their delivery, decided whether they would be good interview subjects. In a few cases, I spoke with people beforehand to get an impression of how they would be on camera. In my case, I had a secondary objective in selecting subjects. I wanted to use people who would be good interview subjects but I also wanted be challenged by interviewing people who had no prior experience on camera. I wanted to see if I could still get useable footage from people who were extremely nervous or had other on-camera issues. I found that I could get decent footage from everyone I interviewed if I just kept filming and asking questions until I got something good.
    2. Sometimes, the scientist videographer is restricted with respect to choice of interviewee. If you are making a video of a small workshop, for example, you are limited by the people who are in attendance. They all may have varying levels of difficulty speaking on camera and so you must work with what you have. The best way to deal with this is to try to put the interview subjects at ease by asking them easy questions first, ones that they should have no trouble answering quickly and concisely. Also, you can begin by just having a conversation with them and then turn on the camera after they have relaxed.
    3. At an international conference, you may need to interview people whose native language is not English or who have strong accents. One solution is to prepare and upload a word-for-word transcript along with the video, which can be used for closed captioning. Viewers who have difficulty understanding an interview subject can turn on closed captioning and read the transcript.
    4. In general, if you are covering a large gathering like a conference, it’s a good idea to interview as many different types of people as possible. For this particular video, I wanted to have a good cross-section of people: conference organizers, sponsors, and attendees; established scientists, early career scientists, and students; male and female; people from different countries, not just the U.S.; and people working in different subfields.
  3. Ensure quality audio. Dealing with ambient noise at a conference is probably the biggest challenge for the scientist videographer. On the one hand, you want your interview subject to be clearly heard without distracting noises. On the other, shooting the interview in a crowd of people helps convey the reality and excitement of the conference. I tried a couple of approaches: interviewing people in a noisy poster session as well as outside the venue (either outdoors or in a quiet foyer). I found it easier to interview people in the quieter settings. They had less trouble hearing my questions, and there were fewer distractions for both me and my subject. But these quieter interviews did not have the same energy as the ones captured in the thick of things. In this case, the lapel microphone did a great job of recording the subject’s voice, which is heard clearly above the background noise.
  4. Choose an appropriate backdrop. In general, you want to avoid interviewing people against a blank wall or in front of a window or bright lamp. Also, you want to avoid a situation in which people can walk behind your subject—because the viewer’s attention can be distracted by what is happening in the background. In my interviews, I tried out a variety of backdrops, including conference or institutional posters and blank walls. As you can see in my video, the footage shot in front of a poster or other colorful background worked best. Getting the right combination of backdrop and good audio can be challenging, however.
  5. Avoid the “talking heads” syndrome. The best way to bore a viewer is to show a series of interviews in which the frame never deviates from the head and shoulders of the subjects. Even though the subject may be talking about something really interesting, the viewer’s eyes tell them nothing is happening. Instead, use cutaways to show what the interview subject is talking about. By frequently changing the view, you will add interest to your video. In my video, I used footage and images of mangroves and the conference from my personal library to augment the video interviews.
  6. Prepare interview questions beforehand. Think carefully about what questions you want to ask and have them on hand during the interview. As you saw, I started with a question about what the conference was all about. Next, I asked why the viewer should care about the conference topic: mangroves. I posed that question to someone I knew had extensive experience in many different countries and got a great answer. I next asked why this particular conference was important. That question elicited information from organizers and sponsors about the level of global interest in mangrove science. I then asked attendees to describe their particular topic of research that they were presenting at the conference. Here, I wanted to show how varied the research topics were as well as how varied the researchers themselves were. For example, I interviewed one of the plenary speakers, people who gave regular talks, and students presenting posters. Their answers provided a broad picture of research topics being reported at the meeting and also showed people at various stages in their career. Finally, I asked all of my interview subjects how they first became interested in mangroves, which prompted a variety of interesting, personal responses that told the viewer something about what motivated these scientists to study mangroves. Don’t restrict yourself to prepared questions, though. If you think of an off-the-cuff question during the interview, ask it. Such spontaneous queries often elicit the most interesting answers.
  7. Use camera equipment that is easy to carry, set up, and use. Filming at a conference is really difficult, especially if you also wish to attend the sessions. Using a setup that can be carried in a purse or backpack really simplifies the process. As I said above, I used my iPhone and an inexpensive lapel microphone to conduct the interviews. Having been interviewed by news reporters using only their cell phones to record, I knew that this was an approach used by professionals. This approach made it really easy for me to attend the sessions and then quickly set up during the breaks for the interviews. Basically, all I had to do was plug the mic into my phone and clip it to the subject’s shirt…and I was ready to film. In some instances, I attached my phone to a selfie stick, which helped me stabilize it and also position it to frame my subject correctly.
  8. Review footage (both video and audio) immediately. It’s good practice to do a brief check of your equipment before starting each interview. I usually do this by myself–I simply clip the mic to my shirt and turn the camera on myself. If I’m going to interview in a noisy poster session, for example, I’ll record a brief clip of my voice to make sure it’s audible above the background noise. When you finish an interview, it’s a good idea to review your footage to ensure there are no technical problems. I always take a quick look and listen while I’m still with the interview subject. In one case, I discovered that I had somehow tapped the record button twice, so that I failed to record anything at all. I was able to quickly redo the interview.
  9. Use movie-editing software to edit the interview footage. In interviews, you will capture a lot of footage that is unusable. Editing is essential to remove or minimize bloopers, shaky clips, loud noises, and other problematic footage. Subjects who are nervous tend to ramble and may also string together sentences without a break between, making it difficult to cut and splice footage. Sometimes, it’s necessary during the interview to ask the subject to pause a few seconds between sentences. These pauses will let you more easily extract short statements without cutting off the speaker mid-word. Once you have removed unusable parts, you then need to cut further. Resist the temptation to include everything you filmed. Also, avoid long sequences of one person talking. Edit the footage so that the scene changes frequently. I partially accomplished this by asking a question (in a text title) and then showing a series of clips of different subjects answering each question. I’ve already mentioned the use of cutaways to augment an interview—these cutaways will really help the viewer stay engaged and interested in what the interview subject is saying.


Mangrove Scientists Gone Wild

What happens when mangrove researchers from around the world get together for a writing workshop in the Florida Keys? For one thing, they learn how to make a video about their research.

I recently attended the Mangrove and Macrobenthos Meeting (MMM4) in St. Augustine, followed by a workshop in the Keys to plan a series of papers about mangroves. At the workshop, I gave a brief tutorial on how to make a video to share science and then challenged the attendees to make a video about mangroves or some other topic of interest.

I began my tutorial with a tongue-in-cheek movie trailer—featuring some of the workshop attendees. I had been filming our drive from St. Augustine to the Keys and our field excursions with my iPhone. I used the footage to create a movie trailer in iMovie for iOS. The idea was to start off my tutorial with a fun example and to show how easy it is to film, edit, and publish a video about an event or other activity using a smartphone.

If you are a newbie videographer, you can use one of the iMovie trailer templates to produce a brief video about an event such as a conference or a workshop. It took me about an hour to create the trailer with the template (most of the time was spent screening the footage and deciding which to use). It’s a great way to advertise an event or to share activities with people who were not able to attend: