The invisible key to better documentary film interviews

I know the key to better documentary interviews. A silver-bullet technique that has enabled me to make award-winning films like The Coffinmaker and The Metalsmith (both Vimeo staff picks). In the photo above, Scott Berkun is using the technique to interview Martina Welke of Zealyst for We Make Seattle. It’s not difficult. In fact, it involves doing less than what you’re currently doing.

Huh, you ask? How can doing less make my films better? I’m going to share this technique with you in a minute. But first, some background.

When I began making documentary films five years ago, I was coming from the world of still photography. In that world, it’s possible to be a one-man band and do a great job. Not easy, mind you, but totally plausible. Film is a different animal.

Consider for a moment how many balls you must to keep in the air to pull off the simplest of shoots, the interview:

  1. Camera (focus, batteries, monitoring subject movement within frame).
  2. Lighting (changing ambient light, placement of lights).
  3. Sound (levels, distance to subject, mic axis).
  4. Location (noise level, permissions).
  5. Subject (makeup, direction,)
  6. Interview (preparation, full attention, questions, redirect).

And that’s just the production bit. If that all goes well, you get a bunch of footage and audio that you must store on a hard drive, then go to work on. That involves importing into your editing suite, watching it, listening to it, cutting the interview, carefully placing b-roll on top of that to hide your cut points, adding music, color correcting, audio mixing… Whew, it’s a lot to manage.

But let’s stay focused on the production piece. Now, consider that these variables don’t just have to be aligned for a split second, as with a photograph – with film everything has to STAY perfect for the duration of the shoot. If the sun comes out halfway through, you have to change exposure. If the subject gets excited and leans forward, you need to adjust focus. And, all the while you need to maintain human contact with the subject, so they feel you are present in the conversation with them.

It’s too much for one person to manage. Really, it is. Two people can swing it. But one? Forget about it.

Since I couldn’t do it all, I considered what I could NOT do, and still get the job done. Can you guess what that was? For a guy most comfortable with a camera, it was a tough one to swallow. I skipped the eyes and went for the ears.

If you had to watch 30 minutes of someone talking without sound, how long would you watch? Now, if you had to listen to 30 minutes of audio without video, how does that change things? A lot. But wait, you say, we’re making a film, not a radio program! Yes, but if you’re making a film, doesn’t that mean you want to show action? And does a person sitting in a chair really qualify as action?

The key to getting better documentary film interviews is: don’t bring a camera. You heard me right. Leave the camera at home. That way, you won’t be tempted to use it. Instead, you’ll free yourself to think about the story. You’ll connect better with the subject without your eyes constantly wandering away from theirs to check focus.

But what if you have plenty of crew? You should probably still skip it! Here’s why: because most people are intimidated by cameras. They are distracted by thinking about how they look, their makeup, wardrobe, etc. Consider this: How often do you FaceTime someone when you want to call them? I think I’ve used it twice in the three years I’ve had an iPhone. It’s invasive. I’m more comfortable talking as opposed to acting. Same is true in your average documentary interview situation. Take away the camera, and you take away the self-consciousness. Take away the self-consciousness, and you get straight to the good stuff. The scary, emotional stuff.

There’s another benefit to doing interviews without camera: it forces you to shoot better b-roll. In fact, it forces you to think differently about b-roll altogether. No longer is it filler to get you through – it becomes everything! So you have to think of action that can carry the story. And your film just got better.

There’s another benefit: you won’t be able to make the mistake of including too much talking head time, because you don’t have any!

It’s a big commitment. But try it once. You may be surprised with the results.

11 thoughts on “The invisible key to better documentary film interviews

  1. Bob Krist

    Dan: I’ve felt this too, and my best interviews are audio-only. But I had one mentor critique the output as a “radio interview with B-roll”. But I think if it’s a good interview, I’d rather watch B-roll than a talking head any day., so what’s wrong with that.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Pat Ford

    Hey Dan…
    A very thoughtful post.
    However, could you imagine Morris’s Fog of War without McNamara squirming before the Interrotron. It would lose most of its effect. But your point is well taken in that a mediocre talking head would be better done with just audio and b-roll.

    Thanks for the post…pcf

  3. John V

    I’m glad you posted this Dan. Many of the mini docs that I like the most treat B-Roll as A-Roll. All that action that is usually considered side footage to cover up the interview should really be the focus. To Pat Ford’s point, this technique is just one tool in a box of many. Of course journalism docs will still need face-to-face interviews, because they deal with controversial issues and ask difficult questions. Docs about emotional subjects – like the loss of a loved one – will still cry out for that eye contact and facial exposure. But it’s a mistake to rely to heavily on those talking heads.

    1. Dan McComb

      Hi John,
      I’m an Errol Morris fan. But am I the only filmmaker who feels like I would be essentially plagiarizing him if I were to shoot interviews that way? It’s a such a simple technique but it sure has his stamp on it! And yes, I actually make a sizable chunk of my income shooting talking head interviews for clients. So I hope they don’t go away any time soon.

  4. Michael Garber


    It’s interesting that you write this because generally the first thing you do when cutting together a doc is what’s called the radio cut. Just stringing out the bones of the interview. B-Roll comes next. That’s when I get creative with the edit. Figuring out what to counterpose or align the interview with.

    This is something I might try in the future as a style. Thanks for the post!

  5. Dan McComb

    Hi Michael,
    Yeah it’s totally standard, but what’s NOT standard is leaving the camera out, right? And that in my experience is where the magic is happening – by committing to audio first. Let me know how it works for you if you give it a try.

  6. Pingback: A grand improvement on the one-light portrait | Dan McComb

  7. Joseph Zemenski

    I don’t understand why everyone keeps switching to the side view of the person’s head during every interview these days. I can’t imagine who thought this was a good technique because it definitely is not so. It is very distracting and off-putting. Every switch to this view has the same effect as being rudely interrupted by a third party; my attention is completely taken away from what the speaker is attempting to convey.
    However, I definitely understand throwing in video footage or photos to avoid having a “boring” view of the speaker’s face 100% of the time, but this side-of-the-head method is just awful.
    I know this hadn’t always been done but every interview includes this bad technique. It is so bad that in a longer interview, the repeated annoying and distracting “interruptions” are so bad that I have to stop watching before I get angry. I’m sorry, but this method is just very stupid – that’s the best way to describe it.
    The is the worst thing that the interviewer or camera operator can do during any interview.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.