The shadow becomes the substance: The documentary /3

By Paul Howard September 20, 2013

Read Part 1 | Part 2

The interview

One of the very important elements in a documentary, regardless of genre, is the quality of the interviewees and indeed the Presenter, that is if the documentary or series of documentaries is going to be ‘presenter led’. This is the equivalent to casting movie stars in a movie. The interviewees and/or presenter are the stars of the documentary and should be selected very carefully. These are the people, men and women collectively, who are going to give individual perspectives on the core subject matter of the documentary and help bring it to life. If a presenter is involved, the casting of the presenter is most important. In an age when attentions spans are very short and the number of TV channels competing for viewers attention having grown almost beyond comprehension, a good camera friendly presenter who can bring a subject to life through their enthusiasm, deep knowledge of the subject matter combined with an ability to communicate and decipher complex ideas and make them discernible to a TV audience in an exciting and interesting manner, can be worth their weight in gold and be a great addition to the documentary.

Interviewees on the other hand bring something quite different and need to be managed in a different way. Sometimes interviewees are very knowledgeable and impressive when first contacted as part of the process of research. But very often when it comes to appearing in front of a camera and talking about the subject, many just dry up and cant express themselves in front of the lens. One has to continually remind them that this is not ‘live TV’ and what they say will be edited down to make perfect sense. But even then some are unable to express themselves with any kind of clarity and their nerves get the better of them so-to-speak. Those that are nervous but who are able to articulate their thoughts reasonably well may require further editing to make what they say flow and be more understandable for the viewer. On may occasions those same interviewees on seeing the finished film very often come up to me afterwards and are amazed at how well they sounded – not allowing for the fact that we had to struggle to make sense out of what they said in the editing room in an effort to make them more readily accessible to the viewer.

More often than not however, with careful selection of interviewees, most are very good on camera and make a very good contribution. Their contribution is usually based on their ability to “cut to the chase” and answer the questions which have been put to them, based hopefully on good preparation and research prior to the interview taking place. Also its important to stress that if the questions are good, generally the quality of the answers will be good, especially if delivered by those with a good knowledge of the subject matter coupled with good articulation skills.

Its also very important and helpful if the interviewer commands the respect to the interviewee. In that case a good rapport develops which further enhances the process. If this happens the interviewee becomes relaxed and very often, even without prompting from the interviewer, will take the interview to some very interesting places and deliver some of what I refer to as “gold nuggets” in their answers. Usually when this happens the interviewer has to interject less and simply be there to react and be sensitive to the flow of the interview as it unfolds.

More next week…. Paul