Corporate vs. Documentary Interviews

Today I continue what seems to have evolved into a mini series on producing video interviews. Last week I wrote about tips on not “crossing the 180 on yourself.” Then yesterday I revisited some great interview tips from three veteran producers who were guests on the Digital Convergence Podcast. Today I want to recount one of my own pieces of advice given on the DCP.

On last week’s show, DCPs host, Carl Olson, asked me what is the key difference between conducting corporate interviews vs. documentaries. Here was my answer:

In a corporate video (more specifically, some kind of promotional or educational video), you have a specific message you’re trying to communicate. You have a clear objective. Therefore, assuming you don’t have an actual script written, the questions you ask are geared to capture soundbites that reflect your intended message.

When conducting interviews for a traditional documentary, the line of questioning is quite different. It’s more of a journey of discovery. You’re trying to determine what aspect of this person’s life and story are key to the topic of the  piece.

I used the popular analogy of Michelangelo carving a statue out of a block of marble. He starts with the block, then chips away at it until it becomes the statue. Likewise, when conducting interviews during a documentary, the interviewee is that block of marble, and you’re chipping away (using your questions as the chisel) to get down to the “statue,” which is your story. Naturally, you’ll continue to chip and sculpt in the editing room.

The Journey

If you would allow me to jump between metaphors, let me go back to the statement that a documentary interview is like a “journey.” When you’re on the “path” to find a person’s story, be prepared to go off in directions you may not have originally planned or expected.

As an example, I used the case of a woman I interviewed as part of my documentary series, Mixed in America. I was interviewing a woman who is half Caucasian and half Latina. Her mom is half Puerto Rican and half Mexican. I was expecting to hear about the strife and conflict between her white half and her brown half. I was surprised to learn that there was actually more strife on her dual brown half. Her Mexican grandfather was very abusive to her Puerto Rican grandmother. So this half white, half Hispanic woman I was interviewing had issues growing up relating to the Mexican side of her heritage because she recalls the stories her mom would share. That was a fascinating discovery that lead to a whole conversation I did not expect.

Traditional documentaries can be illuminating journeys, but you have to be alert to the things your subject is saying as well as how they’re feeling. Be flexible and nimble enough to change up your questions to go with the flow.

I have a few other tips I mention in that episode, but I guess you’ll just have to listen to it to hear them. 🙂

What tips can you offer about conducting corporate vs. documentary interviews?

2 thoughts on “Corporate vs. Documentary Interviews

  1. In both scenarios, it’s good to go in with some key talking points or key messages… but don’t feel glued to having to get through your list of questions. Star the ones that are “must-get-answered” questions and then leave room to discover as you mention, Ron. If the person your interviewing seems to come alive when talking about X, let them trail off… and then reel them in if they go too far. Some of our best sound bites have come from the person spit-balling rather than our questions that we’ve spent tons of time developing.

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