This is Part 4 in a 4 part series on Story Discovery. In Part 1 we talked about our Problem-Solving approach to story. In part 2 we discussed pre production research and identifying an audience. Part 3 covers themes, guiding principle and keywords. You should read those posts before this one.
As we’ve discussed in earlier chapters, interviews are incredibly valuable to defining your story, understanding the problem, creating a solution, and knowing what characters are available for inclusion.
There are two kinds of interviews we’ll focus on: Pre interviews and on camera interviews.
It’s not uncommon for stakeholders to be unaware, or unassuming of potential characters, and by talking to and interviewing people involved, you can find out about interesting use cases, applications and other characters who might be involved. For example, working with Peter Harsch Prosthetics we learned of the tremendous impact his patients had on him, and then seeked out a few patients for inclusion in our story.
This may sound surface level or obvious, but it’s the manner in which we found these characters that made our story so powerful which allowed for an impact on their business.
Knowing what to look for and how to conduct these interviews will yield better responses, characters and elements for a stronger story. Finding the answer to solving the problem is done through a series of questions and answers conducted like a conversation where trust and empathy are present.
Pre interviews happen long before the lights and camera are rolled out. They’re usually done in a casual environment that will spark conversation. This is part of User Research we mentioned in part 2, and the goal is to learn about a subject straight from the source or users or customers.
In order to go into these pre interviews without looking like fools, we’ll need to have completed other aspects of research. This is the only way we can get any kind of substantial information from our interviewees.
Displaying subject matter knowledge also shows a sign of respect to your interviewee. When she/he knows you’ve put time into learning about their space, you’ll earn respect back. Not to mention if the interviewee is extra passionate about the space it will be a much easier conversation to have.
For our project with Peter Harsch Prosthetics, we had to interview several patients and get their backstory. Being interviewed was a sensitive task for a few of them and through the interview, we learned that they sometimes feel uncomfortable in certain situations where they walk in and everyone begins to stare at them because they are missing a limb.. We need to know enough subject matter knowledge beforehand to drive the conversation appropriately and respect their space.
Knowing that one of our PHP interviewees was a fan of craft beer, I suggested we meet at a brewery next door to our office. Showing our interviewee, Daniel where we worked and what inspired us allowed him get to know us a little bit better. From walking next door to a brewery to have an engaging conversation in a casual and comfortable setting, we created a space for both of us to share and connect.
It’s important to remember that in these situations, we have to give to get and be mindful that taking time to introduce yourself, conversate and get to each other will go a long way. We share our experience or show empathy to develop a relationship, and once we have a rapport with someone, we get so much more out of these pre interviews.
Increasing Engagement in Interviews
Shifting the way questions are asked is a great way to create engaging interviews and to always search for the deeper meaning behind something that may not be immediately obvious. This is true for pre interviews and on camera interviews.
During pre interviews, this furthers the space you create which allows you and your subject to bond and build a connection. This allows for on camera interviews to have responses with significant depth and flow.
Providing context and setup helps bring the interviewee into the question and helps them respond with greater detail. Leading questions with familiarizing statements or acknowledgements bring the interviewee back to the foundation and allows for responses with a complete sentence.
Asking why after a statement or response does little to get beyond the surface, but asking why X made them feel a certain way or another way is essential to diving deeper and getting the answers we are looking for. We may even ask a seemingly similar question that may yield a completely different response such as why they think X affected them in such way which will in turn provide deeper and more personal answers.
Another question we love to ask: How did X make you feel, can you describe it in detail?
This leads to much more profound responses that are engaging and provide stronger material for stories to flow. Remember, we’re not trying to tell everything about a story but a specific part or perspective that truly connects with our audience. Staying focused increases engagement, and story is as much about what we include as about what we don’t. The power of editing.
On Camera Interviews
Being asked questions in front of lights and cameras is daunting. We understand that it’s incredibly easy to become self conscious and freeze up. This makes getting the answers and responses you want from your characters difficult.
At this point, you know the story pretty well, thanks to all of the research conducted, planning and discovery from earlier steps. In documentary productions, we know how we want our story to unfold, but don’t know the exact verbiage that we’re going to get from our characters. While this may be challenging, at this point we know what we want to hear and what we should hear.
This is why pre interviews are so critical to our success. We’ve taken notes on our subject and created a connection with them, we know how to make them converse and how they converse. Mannerisms, long-winded answers, short & incomplete answers- these are all challenges that we can work through, but oftentimes are heightened or exacerbated when the lights and camera are out.
It’s important to actually start the interview before hitting ‘record’ on the camera. We let the interview start naturally and get the conversation going like we would if cameras and lights weren’t present. As you get to your seat or production position, begin to engage and recreate with your subject the same you developed during pre interviews (you should be an expert at this by now).
I always tell my team to give me a signal once we’re rolling, that way I know what exactly is being captured on camera without a jarring interruption with the interviewee.
Try to avoid saying, “Okay, we’re rolling now so let’s get started.” This will instantly make the subject feel self conscious, unless they’ve been on camera plenty of times and are are used to it, but this is the exception.
During the interview, try not to look down at notes or questions. Remember, if this is a conversation that flows, and if you’ve done the proper research, you should be able to remember questions and guide the conversation naturally.
Looking down between questions will remove the space, flow and connection you’ve created with your subject and this will show in your final product.
STATE YOUR NAME, AGE, AND WHERE YOU’RE FROM
Guiding the conversation and getting real answers means we have to stay away from generic intros such as: “Can you please state your name, age, and where you’re from?”
Never say never, but these kind of intros set up the interview for canned responses, which is far from being a true storyteller. If we want to create an engaging conversation, we need to conduct interviews like engaging conversations- something you would do at a coffee shop or while having a beer with someone you know.
Interviews play a larger role in documentary projects but in scripted content for commercial or branded entertainment, they are also relevant, especially in the discovery phase.
These interviews are essentially the same as pre interviews for documentary pieces and are aimed at gathering info and user research.
While nothing compares to interpersonal conversations, video chatting via Skype or Google Hangouts work pretty well too. With potential characters located all over the world, this is a viable solution.
When working with Helping Haitian Angels we relied heavily on Skype during our discovery phase. We had to create a bond via video chat with Debbie and her team so that when we arrived in Haiti we could get started right away and feel like best friends (we still are:)
Now that we’re getting into the nuts and bolt of production, where we actually shoot and create, we’re talking about more tactical aspects of story but these decisions are made in the discovery phase. The look/feel/mood of should support our guiding principle and keywords that solve our problem.
Let’s look at the different lighting setups we used in two different projects.
These two stories have unique looks that have an effect on the storytelling experience and how we want the audience to feel when watching them. For our project with Helping Haitian Angels, we wanted the audience to feel empathetic for the orphaned children living in Haiti. We wanted the audience to get a feel for what life is like and pull at heart strings, encouraging them to take action- a donation or volunteer time in Haiti.
On Ricky Whitlock: L-1, T-12, we wanted the audience to feel the pain of a broken back and the intense, physical work Ricky was going through to get his professional surfing career back on to where it was before his injury. The sharp and high contrast ratio lighting in his interview helped bring the audience into the scene. We feel for Ricky, while at the same time we want to see him succeed, because we feel the work he’s doing.
Both of these interview styles support our solution to the problem. They are intentional, but subtle and support our purpose. They were direct findings from our discovery sessions and make made the films so much more effective.