Considerations for Filming Video

Video Settings

Shoot in 1080p24.

All of the footage needs to match in terms of its aspect ratio and frame rate. This project has been shooting in HD (1920 pixels by 1080 lines, aspect ration 16:9), progressive scan (not interlaced), at a frame rate of 24 (not 30). Many consumer video cameras will have a default setting of 30 for the frame rate, so you will need to go into the settings of the video camera and change the frame rate to 24, which looks more like film and less like home video. If you need to, try googling it by putting in the camera name and model and asking how to change the frame rates. You should see in 1080p24 as one of the choices in most cameras less than 5 years old.

If you can’t shoot in 1080p24, then take still photographs instead and audio record with a good audio recorder. Still photographs are always something we can use with good audio running underneath. If you’ve seen historical documentaries (such as those by Ken Burns) then you will see that a lot can be done with still photos when you don’t have moving video.

If you don’t have a camera and have a smartphone with a good camera (such as an I-phone), consider getting an app for your phone that will allow you to shoot 1080p24. Here is a helpful resource to see if you might be able to shoot video with your phone.

Camera Work

If you can shoot 1080p24 on your phone, please remember to shoot with your phone in landscape/horizontal (rather than vertical) orientation, otherwise all of your video will be unusable. ☺

Keep the camera as steady as possible. For interviews, I recommend using a tripod and a good lavalier microphone for the primary camera and using a secondary camera to capture cutaways. I’ve got lots more to say about cutaways later. Here, I just want to stress how important it is that your camera is as still as possible. If you are shooting the camera with your hands and not a tripod, then you must concentrate fully on not shaking or jostling the camera and using very smooth movements if you are panning or moving closer to someone.

Make sure your batteries are fully charged, your memory cards have space and that you have spares of both.

Composing Your Interview Frame

  • There are a couple of principles of composition that are helpful to know when filming:
  • The rule of thirds. Imagine that the screen is broken up horizontally by thirds and vertically by thirds and arrange the framing of your image along those thirds. This website will show you examples.
  • In order to ensure proper focus, zoom in as close up as the camera will go, focus manually and then zoom back out to the composition you prefer. If you are unfamiliar with cameras or photography, just use the automatic settings on the video camera and don’t worry about it. ☺
  • When framing the person you are interviewing, make sure there is headroom in the frame, meaning there is some (but not too much) space between the top of the person’s head and the top of the frame.
  • Daylight is optimal. If you can’t shoot outside, turn on as many lights as possible and move them around if you need to in order to provide more light. You might need to change the ISO to a higher number if shooting indoors or in low light.
  • The person shouldn’t be centered in the frame but should be either slightly on the right of the frame (and looking into the open space on the left) or on the left of the frame (and looking into the open space on the right). This website gives you a great example of how to frame an interview.
  • If possible, do not film the person against a wall. It is more pleasing if there is depth behind them. Move chairs around if you need to in order to get more depth.

Capturing Other Shots

Documentaries are not made of interviews alone.  Film other things, especially close-ups, action shots, and shots that establish location. We need cutaways and what is called B-roll to make the documentary interesting to watch and to help hide cuts in the interviews.

  • During the interview, if you can have more than one camera filming, have the second camera person focus on getting close ups of the interviewee’s face, hands, gestures, objects they touch or are wearing, body language, etc.
  • If you are in someone’s home or work and they will let you, get closeups of interesting objects in the house or workplace that tell you something about their personality or life.
  • Try to get wide shots of locations where you are filming, such as the person’s neighborhood or home or workplace.
  • If you can film the person in action, that is fantastic. For instance, if the interviewee will let you film them drawing or writing or working or otherwise doing some kind of activity, then try to film that.
  • When filming closeups or establishing shots, be sure to hold the camera still on what you are filming for at least 10 seconds.
  • In addition to close-ups and wide shots, there are many other visually interesting types of shots. This website gives you a list of the most common kinds of shots used in film.
  • The more variety we have, the more visually engaging the film will be.

Audio Considerations for Interviews

Audio is more important than video. Audiences will forgive lousy visuals if the audio is good. It is more important to get good audio of your interview and then use cameras to get cutaways if you have to.

Do the interview in a quiet place, where you will not be interrupted. Stop the interview if it gets too noisy and move somewhere else. Coffee shops are terrible places to do interviews; other sounds that cause a lot of trouble are barking dogs, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, train whistles, traffic, and sirens.

If you are filming the interview, make sure to use a lavalier mic with your camera. I recommend also audio recording on a separate device in addition to this, as a backup.

If you are using your phone to audiorecord, do NOT use the memo function on your phone. Download a good audio recording app. It’s even better if you can use a microphone with your phone, though I have heard pretty good sound quality on interviews recorded on cellphones as long as the location is quiet.

Turn on the audio recorder before you do anything else and don’t stop recording until you are walking away. Many interesting moments happen before you officially get started and after you’ve officially ended. ☺

If you can, give the interviewee the questions you plan to ask ahead of time. This gives them time to think about their answers. Also, before you start filming, ask the person ahead of time to repeat the questions ask or answer using part of the question stem. This helps with the editing.

Remember these tips for doing good interviews: Ask open ended questions, ask for stories, listen carefully, and follow up on what the interviewee shares by asking questions that probe more deeply into things they’ve shared.