Capturing Natural Responses on Camera

I first picked up a video camera at 14 years old. Thirty-four years later, I have the same drive to make great TV and video and still get a bit anxious as I arrive at each new shoot. Every video project has a brief, but I believe the end viewers of a film don’t recall much of what was said and shown, but they will remember how a film made them ‘feel’. In interview setups (which almost every film we do has), that feeling comes from natural human emotions and responses.

I’ve got lots of tried and tested tricks up my sleeve to help the filming day- getting the cameras’ rolling’ as quickly as you can not only saves time, but it helps us get far more natural content.
As much as I don’t want to rush a filming subject, people are far more natural when they tell you something for the first time. If I start making small talk before filming, all of the wonderful and spontaneous things are missed and never sound as good when repeated.
Usually, if I’m filming with a colleague, I leave them to make small talk, and as I set up the camera kit, I soak up everything spoken about as it all becomes valuable content for on camera. My colleagues know I do this, so they will chat about things we will cover on camera.
Filming when I’m alone is more challenging, as I need people to save the good stuff for the camera. So I will usually do all of the talking whilst setting kit up.

We always have filming notes and shooting guides for each shoot, but I’m always looking out for things to help me get those natural responses, such things as pictures on the wall, a wallpaper photo on the phone screen, a trophy on a desk, these can all help spark a conversation.

Another essential element is to be set up and ready for filming before my interview subject sits in front of me. I shouldn’t be messing with lights, changing things in the background, or fiddling with the camera whilst my subject waits, possibly feeling uncomfortable. They should come in, sit down, and feel they are having as normal a conversation as possible.

I often ask a random and seemingly pointless question like ‘have you always lived here? Or, do you live far from here? As they respond, I am checking my audio levels. I don’t ask them to count to ten or anything because that instantly starts the conversation off unnaturally.

Even for a seasoned video professional like me, things do not always go to plan. Read a little about two nightmare interview situations I have found myself in.

I was tasked with filming a well-known American singer for a TV show on one occasion. She had booked the entire top floor of a hotel next to the venue she was performing at, quite close to Euston Station. I was only there to interview her about appearing on a 1990s TV show hosted by a judge for a talent show I was working on at the time.

The artist, however, had her own agenda and only wanted to talk about her new album, which was not relevant to the story. The artist also insisted we film the interview in the foyer of her suite with large windows showing the London backdrop; this was right next to the lift doors. Lift doors that kept pinging. Eventually, the famous singer snapped, ‘Whose stupid idea was it to do the interview here?’ My colleague and I just looked at each other. The worst part was I got to the central part of the interview. ‘What was it like being on the judge’s TV show in 1993?’- she replied, ‘Who the hell is he?’ Needless to say, after editing, the interview didn’t end up looking quite the way we had planned.

On another occasion, I had the misfortune of trying to film a sensitive interview where the interviewees showed zero emotion. The aim of the piece was, in part, to portray the interviewees as caring people with the aim of viewers warming to them. I interviewed the brother and sister about what their recently deceased Dad taught them about life, hoping for a sense of emotion and reflection. Their answer? ‘Dad taught us that death is death. We don’t let animals suffer, so why do we do it to elderly humans’. It was delivered in a very matter-of-fact way and made me feel quite awkward! Again, this meant that the final edit had to be refocused to make the pair seem warmer than they actually were.

Challenges when filming.

The biggest issue when filming an interview is noise interruption or annoying background sounds. The latter is often not noticed until halfway through filming, and it can become an issue as you then have the dilemma of going back and reshooting the interview and losing your spontaneity. Things to look and listen for before you sit the interview subject down are:

Background music- radio or the venue music system. It’s challenging to edit footage if music is in the background as you edit the music too. If it’s a commercial track, you may have copyright issues once a video is online.

Telephones- A ringing phone can put a halt to filming, so if possible, switch it off or get someone to take the phone out of the room. If it rings, your interview subject will likely take the call. The call can affect them and change their frame of mind; this is a challenge, especially if you have done a great job of relaxing them into the interview.

People- I often try and get an interview done early on a shoot, so I get the natural chat rather than asking them to repeat things they said to me whilst chatting. If it’s a business with customers coming in, I try and get the interview done before they open, as they will always have to stop for customers. Interview subjects can become very self-conscious if nearby people are watching and listening to them.

Annoying Noises- Fridges, photocopiers, coffee machines, air conditioning, bells on shop doors, traffic, workers outside drilling, bin lorries, the list is endless. You need to listen to what may become a real distraction.

Squeaky Chairs- Most interviews are done with the interviewee sitting down. Try sitting in the chair you plan to use for your subject and have a wiggle around in it. If it makes any noise, then you need an alternative. People can get nervous at first and do something like tapping their legs, and often, particularly men, tap hard with one foot on the floor for emphasis when they make a big point during an interview.

Fiddling Subjects- Sometimes, people feel more comfortable when being interviewed holding something. But pens, in particular, being clicked are a problem, and paper rustling in their hands can also be an issue.

Background Images- Take a long good look through the viewfinder before your interview subject arrives. What is on the back wall? Is there any clutter you should move? Are the camera or lights reflecting in anything? These things can start to annoy you a few minutes into an interview.

I see operating the camera like playing an instrument- it should be efficiently done, and I should not be drawing attention to myself by fiddling buttons or looking through the viewfinder.

Eye contact probably is my best tool to keep the subject looking at me. I tend to make lots of slightly exaggerated facial expressions as they talk, as I can’t interrupt their answers. So, for example nodding in response to their answers, raising eyebrows if they say something unusual or surprising, or frowning if I don’t understand something.

If someone says something before I was ready for them, such as altering my shot size, or they started talking before I finished asking a question, I ask a quick ‘say again’ to keep the chat’s rhythm going.

Every response I get in an interview is being processed in my head, ensuring it can work for the editor who will cut the discussion up. Sometimes I need to get people to repeat something if they race and miss out words in the middle of a sentence.

The final film is often a real surprise to the people featured, particularly if they are the business owner and have never had a film made before. The video is often the first time someone from outside the business has ‘looked in’ and captured what a company or service does in a natural style.

The Final Question

If I’m filming someone who isn’t used to being on camera, I always finish my interview with the most positive, uplifting, feel-good question I can. I believe most people don’t remember how the overall interview went but will recall the last bit.

If someone asked them straight after a filmed interview, ‘how did it go?’, they will feel better about it overall if they end on a positive.

My ‘go to’ final questions…

What do you love about your job?
How proud are you of what you have achieved?
What is the best part of doing what you do?
Did you ever think you would have achieved what you have?

All of the above techniques can still apply to you if you happen to be filming a colleague for a video, even shooting something on your phone. Natural responses capture the very essence of what draws people to people.


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