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Conducting Documentary Interviews


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#1 Macks Fiiod

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Posted 27 October 2016 - 06:01 PM

I recently shot a mini mockumentary without any narration, titles, anything. Simply the interviewee's words carrying the short. Which is what I see in a lot of other documentaries, not so much a narrator saying the story, but having the story told through multiple eyewitnesses.

 

For my short I had some questions prepared and told the actor to "answer every question as a statement" to avoid dry yes/nos. Is this the standard way of doing it? I'd assume you don't flip on the camera and expect them to talk for 40 minutes off of one question.

 

What are some methods you find working for conducting documentary interviews?

 

As always, thanks.


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#2 Clint Hulsey

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Posted 28 October 2016 - 08:58 AM

I think it really depends on what kind of pacing and mood/effect you want, as well as how visible, you the interviewee, want to be. More charged documentaries like political documentaries often seem to have (I'm thinking like Moore or Josh Fox docs) the filmmaker more visible or interacting with the subject in the interviews, while more laid back ones, like director interviews etc, might flash the question over a black screen for a few seconds if the context is needed. For multiple interview docs that are cut together, usually similar questions are asked of all of them and just editing it together pretty much tells the viewer what the question generally was. I guess the same idea would work for a single interview, ask multiple questions and get answers, then cut the answers down and in a logical way to show transitions. The only thing you would have to worry about is that you have to either use some dissolves or have some jump cuts if you are doing a sitting down interview (which is why so many docs use walking shots or use multiple interviews that they can cut back and forth from). But yeah, unless they are just a prolific rambler, and you would want that rambling, you are going to need multiple questions.


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#3 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 28 October 2016 - 04:07 PM

The key to documentary interviews is actually a pretty strict formula.

Interviewee's are generally given the broad topics in advance, so they can ahead of time, understand the formulation of the responses. The questions themselves are generally secret.

When prepping an interviewee, it's always wise to say every response needs to be in the form of a statement and sometimes, it's easier to have them put the question into the answer. There are no one word answers. The interviewer needs to stop the interview and remind the interviewee if this happens, so the right sound bite is recorded. Sometimes it's tough to do this, but it's an important element in my opinion.

Technically, you need one camera operator and one interviewer. You should shoot interviews with two cameras, one from off axis and one from pretty close to axis. The one close to axis will have a zoom lens and the cinematographer will have a few set focal lengths they will use, depending on the reaction of the interviewee. The side camera will generally be stationary, and some sort of a creative shot. If an operator could be found, the side shot will also have a zoom and some sort of dolly, so it's constantly moving. I've tried small sliders, but they're impossible to use with zoom lenses and get smooth moves/zooms.

Single camera interviews need lots of cutaways, that's one of the big problems with one camera setups. You can theoretically zoom up in post so you can cut between different parts of the interview, but it never looks right. Also, interviewers can't run the camera because unless your using an eye direct, the eye line will look strange. It's far better for the interviewer to be sitting a little off axis.

Now... sometimes it's easier to bring in an interviewer, rather then YOU do that job. Prep them in advance and have them be the one in conversation whilst YOU the filmmaker, run the A camera. That's another way to go and I've used that on two feature-length documentaries I've been working on. I'll grab someone with some experience (I have lots of friends who've done this stuff) and let them do the dirty work, whilst I run the camera. Even though it's MY show... it's far easier for ME to know when the right time for that push-in is, rather then telling a cinematographer when to push in, during the interview or "trusting" they have enough experience to know when the right time is.
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#4 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 01:44 AM

The second camera off to the side is pretty old now.. and seldom done..maybe still in the US ?..and certainly not a prerequisite for shooting interviews, in my opinion its also a very jarring cut.. and if you need that to "cut away"to .. you have far bigger problems.. same for the interview on a dolly.. total waste of time..when you see it edited you cant see the move and run the risk of awkward framing on the magic sound bite..and back ache for the DP ! this fortunately has also bitten the dust.. both were trendy for about 5 years but long since gone.. as good directors of some stature , also refused to hauling  5D,s/sliders and a bag of lenses around the world .. and would rather . .. direct.. 


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#5 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 02:45 AM

The second camera off to the side is pretty old now.. and seldom done..maybe still in the US


So I guess tungsten lighting is too Passé as well? So what, old traditional ways of doing things are COMPLETELY WRONG?

I own two cameras and I generally use two cameras, unless it's my own stuff where I don't care as much. Most of the time, an interviewee's on-screen time is a quick cut-in, rather then a prolonged shot. So those creative zooms/moves on either the A or B camera, are used as a point to cut back to the interviewee for a brief moment, in between other coverage. Talking heads with static shots are uninteresting and boring to any audience.

in my opinion its also a very jarring cut.. and if you need that to "cut away"to ..


Well, if you're a horrible editor and bad filmmaker, incapable of cutting to anything else but the interview together, then yes it would be a bad cut. Luckily for me, the people I work with, understand the necessity for excellent cinematographers who understand documentary. We prep for hours before each interview, going over the questions, the theoretical responses and what the coverage should be.

you have far bigger problems.. same for the interview on a dolly.. total waste of time..when you see it edited you cant see the move and run the risk of awkward framing on the magic sound bite..and back ache for the DP ! this fortunately has also bitten the dust.. both were trendy for about 5 years but long since gone.. as good directors of some stature , also refused to hauling  5D,s/sliders and a bag of lenses around the world .. and would rather . .. direct.


Good directors know exactly what the interviewee is going to say, so they know how to direct their camera operators to achieve the appropriate shot based on the responses. I've lugged every piece of equipment imaginable to achieve really killer cinematic interviews. I've had upwards of 3 Dragon or Alexa's with zoom lenses and two moving cameras for ONE interview! We've used techno cranes to get up and close to an interviewee's face, without zooming/changing the field of view. There are so many awesome/cool tricks you can do to make your documentary look amazing. The plain static shot is boring and really shows lack of creativity in the filmmaker.
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#6 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 03:34 AM

"So I guess tungsten lighting is too Passé as well? So what, old traditional ways of doing things are COMPLETELY WRONG?"

 

eh.. since when was 2 camera interviews traditional.. maybe you have only been shooting for the last 5 years..? or try ow budget productions that cant afford to shoot any B roll, other material pertaining to the subject matter

 

"Talking heads with static shots are uninteresting and boring to any audience."

 

Depends what they are saying.. not what I would expect to hear from a  "film maker"

 

"Well, if you're a horrible editor and bad filmmaker, incapable of cutting to anything else but the interview together, then yes it would be a bad cut. Luckily for me, the people I work with, understand the necessity for excellent"

 

??  incapable of cutting to anything else but the interview..  cut away to other material you have shot,historical footage,etc.. its lazy editing to jump  cut to some 5D side angle shot in the same room .. thats the easy way.. and very over done..

 

"Good directors know exactly what the interviewee is going to say,"

 

A good director doesn't know what interviewee will say... doesn't go in with pre conceived idea,s.. they are open to taking the interview where it leads .. this is very often the case for the best interviews.. see where they go and be open to where that will lead.. 

 

 

You used a techno crane on an interview to get into the subjects face.. how did the interviewee feel about that.. Im sure you sure their reaction in the close up !  a plain and static shot can be very effective .. and has been used on many doc,s.. sorry but again you give out such a load of bollocks to someone asking about conducting interviews..  if you dont know ..better to just say nothing..  i.e. .. Super 16 pressure plates.. and your short lecture on manufacturing in China..  its a disservice to people wanting information  on this forum..


Edited by Robin R Probyn, 05 November 2016 - 03:48 AM.

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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 10:22 AM

I was watching a recent Nat.Geo "documentary" on the restoration of the Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise model for the Smithsonian, looks like it was produced by the people who made Mythbusters (same narrator I think.)  

 

God, it was annoying and thin, stretched out with endless cutaways to competing storylines, all thin and jazzed up with cuts, multiple angles, cutesy effects, etc.  Whatever happened to just giving me the information I want?  I wanted a serious documentary about the restoration work, not something made to entertain bored middle-schoolers with ADD.

 

At one point, they talk to a restorer about the paint job on the model -- "What was the color of the original Enterprise model?"  And they talk briefly about doing some core samples and people's expectations regarding the color.  THEY NEVER GOT BACK TO ANSWERING THE QUESTION.  I only know from some online articles published what happened.  

 

I'd rather see an old-fashioned conventionally shot and edited documentary any day, as long as it was information-filled.  Content is everything in a documentary.  


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#8 Macks Fiiod

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 01:01 PM

God, it was annoying and thin, stretched out with endless cutaways to competing storylines, all thin and jazzed up with cuts, multiple angles, cutesy effects, etc.  Whatever happened to just giving me the information I want?  I wanted a serious documentary about the restoration work, not something made to entertain bored middle-schoolers with ADD.

To get a picture; did it to the "straight to E TV" thing where it will hype up the same big drop of information before every cut to commercial?


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#9 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 02:12 PM

eh.. since when was 2 camera interviews traditional.. maybe you have only been shooting for the last 5 years..? or try ow budget productions that cant afford to shoot any B roll, other material pertaining to the subject matter


Back when I started doing this in 1992, we use to run 3 cameras for interviews. One camera on the interviewee, one camera on the talent and one camera as a two shot. This way, we could cut together a interview, without b-roll. Over the years, the style changed and today, we rarely show the interviewee on camera. We want that quick cut to the interviewee, to be "creative", not static. So we shoot a more static shot as "backup" and shoot the 2nd camera as a more creative angle.

Depends what they are saying.. not what I would expect to hear from a  "film maker"


Todays audiences have the attention span of around 3 seconds. If you're on the same shot for more then 3 seconds, you are going to loose them. Since most of my product winds up on the internet, it's critically important to be throwing crap at the audience non-stop. This is just how we work today in the modern world. Just watch anything on History, TLC or Discovery. Quick cuts, multi-camera interviews, move the show along.

incapable of cutting to anything else but the interview..  cut away to other material you have shot,historical footage,etc.. its lazy editing to jump  cut to some 5D side angle shot in the same room .. thats the easy way.. and very over done..


You misinterpreted what I said above. My point is we no longer show the interviewee much at all. Almost the entirety of the show is b-roll, with quick cuts to the interviewee, mostly from the "creative" angle, rather then the heads on angle.
 

A good director doesn't know what interviewee will say... doesn't go in with pre conceived idea,s.. they are open to taking the interview where it leads .. this is very often the case for the best interviews.. see where they go and be open to where that will lead..


First off, are you a director? Second, documentaries are scripted today. We spend years researching, interviewing people on the phone or skype. We gather the data and build a breakdown of what we want to go where in the story, before making one interview on camera. When we finally sit down with the interviewee's, we know what we need them to say for us. So we will coax them with cleverly written questions, designed to give us the right response, based on the previous conversations we've had. Yes, we'll always get MORE then we need, we always get unexpected answers. It's rare we do interviews off the cuff, especially if they are new to the story and we don't have much data on them. However, on this last doc, we got a bunch of random interviews, but they will be one-liners, quick cutaways.

This is how modern documentaries work and it's how you can make doc's more cinematic and marketable to a greater audience. Right now the documentary industry is in big trouble financially. People like myself spend years producing a product that doesn't make any money. So you need to separate yourself from the typical talking heads doc and into a different more creative world, in order to get recognition.
 

You used a techno crane on an interview to get into the subjects face.. how did the interviewee feel about that..


After we finished the formal interview, we went back and re-asked/prompted them to give us sound bites with the crane. We shot down over the interviewee's bald head because it was important to the story. We shot beautiful close-up's of his shoulder which was covered in tattoos. We had him give us critical responses with beautiful push-in's without zooming. The stuff looks amazing and we even used an eye direct for almost the entire film, which made it even more intense. It's a very advanced way of cinematic documentary filmmaking. It doesn't feel like a doc, it feels like a narrative.

a plain and static shot can be very effective ..


Yep it sure can, for long push-in's and/or brief cut-in moments. We absolutely shoot the more static shots as well, but we don't use them much. In my eyes, if you use the same shot over and over again, you're just showing how weak your budget is. The simplest way to make your modest budget show look more expensive, is to have more angles, to have more cut away's, to spice up the look and have faster pacing.

sorry but again you give out such a load of bollocks


I think you're just confused, and it's ok to be confused.

I'm not going to respond to your accusations. You're very welcome to post your ideas, but you have zero right to call my posts a disservice.
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#10 Gregg MacPherson

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 06:12 PM

Gregg commenting on Tyler's post #9

 

Tyler,  i started reading and I just can't bear it....so formulaic,  to a template,  so denying of creativity.  A "documentary" or an interview for such can be anything.  it can be a piece of art.  I fondly remember Vincent Ward's little film,  In Spring One Plants alone.  He lived in a shack for a couple of years with his subjects,  so he knew his material and was poised to offer more original forms,  picked the two best DoPs in NZ before they were super famous,  and had them (individually I heard) occassionally lurk,  being very observant with the camera.  The synced "interview" as such does not dominate at all.  The visuals are free to express the recorded words....or take us somewhere else...

 

Shooting interviews on film,  one can gather as much sound as one wants,  and just shoot picture when you feel the sweet thing happening.  Any fool who can't sync that up (a series of shots happening somewhere within an identified start and end point on a sound roll,  with a couple of notes from the operator) should retire. 

 

So did digital make it more difficult....?

 

Now here's the kick...That amazing little film is one of the reasons that the two DoPs became famous (here).  So let's bow our heads to originality,  risk taking,  the avoidance of formula....etc.. to art if you will.

 

Or are you just talking about crass commercial product,  which is forced to exist within harsh boundaries,  forced to employ the unoriginal,  the formulaic et....And if so,  why not just own up to that, you will be respected for that.....

 

And then just leave the creative,  risk taking people in peace... 


Edited by Gregg MacPherson, 05 November 2016 - 06:23 PM.

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#11 Gregg MacPherson

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 06:46 PM

Gregg thinking after reading David'd post #7

I have a similar reaction to the pseudo documentaries that we often see. The most jaring one for me recently was "Wierd or What" series, fronted by William Shatner. Yes, a Star treck connection there...he narrated the show. There were a lot of high impact effects, cuts...instantly alienating. So it's hitting your nerous system hard, but having little effect on ones deeper sense of experience. You sort of put up a defensive internal wall to protect yourself from these ugly little shocks.

Some may remember, from our research or study years the very early documentaries. I was going to try find the titles but no time....poetic words and images about the great depression and floods in the States. Insightfull looks into the lives of (pre war?) factory workers and other simple folk in the UK. Fantastic work, and done so long ago.

So are we going backwards? Are most of the modern digital film makers and their tech cadre less sensitive, less creative, less socially aware, less responsible and ambitious.
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#12 Justin Hayward

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 06:49 PM

I've directed and DP'd a handful of short docs and we almost always use two cameras on interviews, a wide and a tight.  That way you can cut out any "ums" or throat clearing or anything little things like that without missing a beat.  You can also piece together two lines that were said two hours apart.  Stuff like that.  I shot one of the ESPN 30 for 30's about five years ago and we actually used a jib for one of the cameras on the interviews, which looked okay, but I usually think a nice, dynamic, locked off, composition feels more engaging.

 

I directed a charming (even if I do say so myself :) little 5 minute doc for Illinois tourism about a veterans war museum where we used the two camera, wide and tight, method, but added a little camera movement on the tripods.  But I can't remember why.  I guess it felt right for whatever reason. Go figure.  Anyway, you can check it out here...

 

http://www.enjoyilli...details/6045305


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#13 Macks Fiiod

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 07:27 PM

I shot one of the ESPN 30 for 30's about five years ago

Which one?


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#14 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 07:29 PM

Back when I started doing this in 1992, we use to run 3 cameras for interviews. One camera on the interviewee, one camera on the talent and one camera as a two shot. This way, we could cut together a interview, without b-roll. Over the years, the style changed and today, we rarely show the interviewee on camera. We want that quick cut to the interviewee, to be "creative", not static. So we shoot a more static shot as "backup" and shoot the 2nd camera as a more creative angle.


Todays audiences have the attention span of around 3 seconds. If you're on the same shot for more then 3 seconds, you are going to loose them. Since most of my product winds up on the internet, it's critically important to be throwing crap at the audience non-stop. This is just how we work today in the modern world. Just watch anything on History, TLC or Discovery. Quick cuts, multi-camera interviews, move the show along.


You misinterpreted what I said above. My point is we no longer show the interviewee much at all. Almost the entirety of the show is b-roll, with quick cuts to the interviewee, mostly from the "creative" angle, rather then the heads on angle.
 

First off, are you a director? Second, documentaries are scripted today. We spend years researching, interviewing people on the phone or skype. We gather the data and build a breakdown of what we want to go where in the story, before making one interview on camera. When we finally sit down with the interviewee's, we know what we need them to say for us. So we will coax them with cleverly written questions, designed to give us the right response, based on the previous conversations we've had. Yes, we'll always get MORE then we need, we always get unexpected answers. It's rare we do interviews off the cuff, especially if they are new to the story and we don't have much data on them. However, on this last doc, we got a bunch of random interviews, but they will be one-liners, quick cutaways.

This is how modern documentaries work and it's how you can make doc's more cinematic and marketable to a greater audience. Right now the documentary industry is in big trouble financially. People like myself spend years producing a product that doesn't make any money. So you need to separate yourself from the typical talking heads doc and into a different more creative world, in order to get recognition.
 

After we finished the formal interview, we went back and re-asked/prompted them to give us sound bites with the crane. We shot down over the interviewee's bald head because it was important to the story. We shot beautiful close-up's of his shoulder which was covered in tattoos. We had him give us critical responses with beautiful push-in's without zooming. The stuff looks amazing and we even used an eye direct for almost the entire film, which made it even more intense. It's a very advanced way of cinematic documentary filmmaking. It doesn't feel like a doc, it feels like a narrative.


Yep it sure can, for long push-in's and/or brief cut-in moments. We absolutely shoot the more static shots as well, but we don't use them much. In my eyes, if you use the same shot over and over again, you're just showing how weak your budget is. The simplest way to make your modest budget show look more expensive, is to have more angles, to have more cut away's, to spice up the look and have faster pacing.


I think you're just confused, and it's ok to be confused.

I'm not going to respond to your accusations. You're very welcome to post your ideas, but you have zero right to call my posts a disservice.

 

"The key to documentary interviews is actually a pretty strict formula."

 

The above is bad advise .. on all fronts.. couched typically in your usual "expert" tone.. how is a quick cut to an interviewee "creative" or "cinematic".. you throw these terms around without any under lying understanding of what they mean.. you are advocating 3 second cuts.. ? because the audience are idiots essentially.. can you name credits for any long form doc,s you personally have directed or shot for Nat geo/History channel/Discovery.. I have shot literally hundreds of them.. on the one hand you are saying you have to stand out from the crowd with your doc.. then you say you have to shoot it the same as everyone else to get noticed.. 

 

Like yourself ..Im not a director.. but I have shot for many very ,very good ones.. including Ken Loach .. who would be appalled at your totally misleading advise to younger film makers seeking advise.. Look at Scorsese doc,s.. plenty of boring static shots.. you are advocating the "how not to shoot/make doc,s..".. you do need to called out for crap advise .. same as I have been in the past.. 


Edited by Robin R Probyn, 05 November 2016 - 07:31 PM.

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#15 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 07:40 PM

I've directed and DP'd a handful of short docs and we almost always use two cameras on interviews, a wide and a tight.  That way you can cut out any "ums" or throat clearing or anything little things like that without missing a beat.  You can also piece together two lines that were said two hours apart.  Stuff like that.  I shot one of the ESPN 30 for 30's about five years ago and we actually used a jib for one of the cameras on the interviews, which looked okay, but I usually think a nice, dynamic, locked off, composition feels more engaging.

 

I directed a charming (even if I do say so myself :) little 5 minute doc for Illinois tourism about a veterans war museum where we used the two camera, wide and tight, method, but added a little camera movement on the tripods.  But I can't remember why.  I guess it felt right for whatever reason. Go figure.  Anyway, you can check it out here...

 

http://www.enjoyilli...details/6045305

 

Im not saying 2 camera,s is bad.. or should never be used.. you dont need it to get rid of umm,s or burps though.. :)  I was referring to Tylers comments   "You should shoot interviews with two cameras, one from off axis and one from pretty close to axis." stating as a technical fact that you need 2 camera,s and even where they have to be ! ..


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#16 Justin Hayward

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 07:55 PM

 

Im not saying 2 camera,s is bad.. or should never be used.. you dont need it to get rid of umm,s or burps though.. :)  I was referring to Tylers comments   "You should shoot interviews with two cameras, one from off axis and one from pretty close to axis." stating as a technical fact that you need 2 camera,s and even where they have to be ! ..

 

I know.  I'm just commenting overall.  

 

To the original question I do ask people to repeat the question in their answer if possible.  "What's your favorite color?"  "My favorite color is blue."  Although I've had a stubborn dude tell me he wasn't going to do that, so I had to incorporate my questions with subtitles.


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#17 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 07:57 PM

"I've had upwards of 3 Dragon or Alexa's with zoom lenses and two moving cameras for ONE interview! We've used techno cranes to get up and close to an interviewee's face, without zooming/changing the field of view. There are so many awesome/cool tricks you can do to make your documentary look amazing. The plain static shot is boring and really shows lack of creativity in the filmmaker."

 

By definition doc,s are content driven.. why you would ever need 5 camera,s on an interview ?.. must have been a bloody boring interview .. were as say a Michael Moore doc looks like his cousin shot it an EX1.. but are very engaging and get massive audiences .. because .. drum roll.. the subject matter is interesting and doesn't need any gimmicks.. 


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#18 Justin Hayward

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 08:00 PM

I really dig the style of interviews in this...

 


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#19 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 08:04 PM

 

I know.  I'm just commenting overall.  

 

To the original question I do ask people to repeat the question in their answer if possible.  "What's your favorite color?"  "My favorite color is blue."  Although I've had a stubborn dude tell me he wasn't going to do that, so I had to incorporate my questions with subtitles.

 

I use the same example.. ! and yes some people just don't seem to get it..  in those cases we usually just ask them to repeat the question before they answer .. can often help.. depends on the doc.. but if an interview is going somewhere else on its path .. off mic questions ,interjections can also work.. spectacularly in SHOAH...


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#20 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 05 November 2016 - 08:08 PM

I really dig the style of interviews in this...

 

 

Yes! Ive seen this doc.. very moving .. and very nicely done in all ways.. I also like a quick to black transition as a cutting technique for interviews.. 


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