Digital storytelling with video
Digital storytelling is a recent term that refers to the use of digital tools to help capture and disseminate people's 'true stories' in a compelling and emotionally engaging way. These stories are normally short (under 10 minutes), and are usually made available online. This IRISS how-to guide aims to help with the more technical aspects of capturing these stories, and filming interviews more generally.
Which camera you use to shoot your digital story will depend on the level of professionalism you’re aiming for, the subject(s) you intend to film, the environment you’ll be filming in and, ultimately, what technology is available to you. What follows is a brief shakedown of the options available to you (as of August 2011), and the pros and cons of each:
|Pro HDV camera||Optimum quality, zoom lens, all the settings and in/out options you could ever need. Coupled with a MixPre, gives the best sound.||Complex, bulky, requires proper training.||Too many to list. Read the setup doc and run a pre-check before trying to shoot anything.||£3000+|
|Consumer HD camcorder||Small and light, fairly easy to use, decent quality zoom lens. Records to either tape or SD, 3.5mm jack for external audio input.||Awkward manual focus, prone to buggy autofocus at very close distances. Temperamental auto exposure with no manual lock. Mediocre sound from the built-in mic.||LCD screens only show about 95% of the frame, so you’ll likely end up capturing more than you meant to.||From £200|
|Flip/Kodak HD cams||Tiny and super-simple to use. Respectable HD video quality with decent sound. Some also have 3.5mm jack for external mics.||No zoom on the lens,* mic works best when camera is positioned close to subject.||It takes two presses of the record button to start recording (the first click only places the camera into 'record mode').||From £80|
|HD-capable DSLR (stills camera)||Image quality can rival very best pro cameras. Interchangable lenses for max flexibility.||Sound quality poor at best. Use an external audio recorder instead.||Can be complex. Separate image and audio sources complicate editing.||From £400|
|Smartphone (comments refer to iPhone 4)||Small, light and ubiquitous. Video quality at least equal to the Kodak.||No zoom on the lens.* Tricky (but not impossible) to tripod mount. Needs to be positioned very close to subject for good sound.||Remember to orient the phone in landscape!||From free (with contract)|
* Don’t be tempted by digital zooms, all they do is crop the edges of the video out, losing information and reducing quality. Makes editing harder too.
In many respects, the audio you capture matters more than the pictures – people will generally put up with underwhelming image quality as long as the sound is clear and unbroken; once the sound starts to distrort or break up however, they'll switch off in seconds. There's a huge range of audio capture options available, but the most sophisticated of them will only integrate with a pro-level camera.
For general interviews a lavelier mic (also referred to as lapel or radio mics) works particularly well. Since they can be located very close to the mouth, these mics are good for capturing voices with minimal echo or room effects. Just watch out for the batteries, and check for radio interference or noise from rubbing fabric or jewellery.
With the Flip/Kodak cameras you'll most likely be recording using the inbuilt mics (with the iPhone that's your only option). These are surprisingly capable, but do work best positioned closer to the speaker.
Other than the camera and (possibly) some sound recording equipment, you’ll need a tripod (which model you use will likely be determined by your choice of camera). Also factor in all the cables you’re likely to need, a good supply of media (tapes, SD cards, whatever) and more spare batteries than you can shake a branch of Boots at.
Setup and composition
Set the right height
When setting up your camera, try to set your tripod so the camera is level with your subject’s eyeline. If you’re looking marginally upwards then that’s ok — it’ll add a little to the interviewee’s sense of stature. Shooting down at your subject diminishes them, makes them look child-like and is generally best avoided.
Compose your shot
Interviews are best shot using one of the following compositions:
- Medium shot (ms): From the waist to the head
- Medium close-up (mcu): From the centre of the chest to the head
- Close-up (cu): Only the head and face
It depends on your situation, but generally shooting for the web means using mainly close-ups: your video will most probably end up being viewed as a small clip embedded on a web page, surrounded by other content that’s competing for the viewer’s attention — staying tight on your subject helps focus attention on them, and away from the ads and links surrounding them. Try to avoid extreme close-ups though; they’re to be used sparingly if at all, and only in cases where you’re seeking to maximise impact — usually where the subject is displaying heightened emotion and you want to get that across to the viewer.
A note on wide shots (ws). These lack impact and tend to emphasize space over subject. The only times these will be appropriate is where you wish to set the scene, or emphasise the location where the filming is taking place.
Once you’ve decided on a composition, it’s time to frame your shot. Imagine a grid that divides your frame into equal thirds (see image above). Your goal is to position your subject so that their eyes fall on an intersection of those line, facing into the frame. Check the background behind your subject and make sure it’s suit able and relatively free of distractions (at a minimum try to ensure that they don’t have a plant growing out of the top of their head!) Try to keep the camera level and square, we’re not shooting Batman here after all.
Profiles tend not to be flattering, and it’s a bit freaky only being able to see one of the subject’s eyes. Aim for a three-quarter or near full-on shot in which both of the interviewee’s eyes are clearly visible.
Avoid placing your subject in front of a light source such as a window as this will silhouette them (and most likely confuse the camera’s autoexposure). Ideally the light should fall on their face in a clear and flattering way, but watch out for unflattering shadows, especially the raccoon-eye type that results from harsh overhead lighting and conceals the subject’s eyes.
Viewers tend to find interviewees who talk directly down the lense at them unsettling, and it’s not much fun for your subject to stare down a hunk of glass either. Set your camera up, then position yourself to one side of it and encourage your subject to look at you and not the technology. Maintaining eye contact with your subject will also help with the social aspect of the interview, and should result in a better discourse.
Additional shots to think about capturing
In addition to the interview itself, you might want to think about grabbing a few other shots:
Questions and noddies
In a two-camera set-up, it’s useful to point one camera at the interviewer to capture them directing questions at the subject, and their facial responses to the subject’s comments. In a single camera situation this can be achieved by filming the interview, then turning the camera to face the interviewer and having them read off the questions to camera (see Eyelines below to avoid a common gotcha). Try to capture some footage of them nodding in agreement, shaking their head and listening intently as well. It’ll give the editor more options when it comes to finishing the piece.
These are usually close-up shots recorded with a second camera (where one’s available). Cutaways isolate details about the interviewee, like hand movements, facial expressions and so on. Cutaways are also a useful way of explaining off-camera sounds to the viewer: if there’s a noisy fan in the room, and there’s no way to turn it off, get a shot of it. The editor can then drop it into the piece and the viewer is then less likely to be distracted by the sound.
Digital stories tend not to require too much B-Roll shooting but it's a useful technique to be aware of, especially if you're aiming for a higher quality of finished film. These are images that the editor will cut together over the interviewee’s voice that relate to the subject being discussed. For example, if the subject were talking about the potholed state of the roads, then you’d want to get some shots of roads, as well as close-ups that illustrate the holes in the surface.
When shooting questions or noddies for cutting into an interview, it’s important to be mindful of maintaining appropriate eyelines between the interviewer and interviewee. Basically we want these to cross. So if the subject is framed to the left of centre facing into the frame, then the interviewer should be positioned to the right, facing towards the centre.
Summary: The step-by-step process for filming an interview
- Pick a camera you’re comfortable using, and you’re sure will do everything you need it to.
- Use a tripod. Doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, just use one.
- Try to select a backdrop that makes the shot more informative, and check that it’s clear of distractions.
- Position the camera at or just below the eye level of the interviewee.
- Get the composition you want and make sure everything is levelled off. Remember the rule of thirds.
- Make sure both eyes are clearly in shot, and that the subject is lit more brightly than the background.
- Get the interviewee to look at the interviewer and not down the lens.
- Hit record, take a slow, deep breath, then ask the first question.
- Avoid questions that are likely to produce “Yes / No” answers.
- Pay close attention to the sound from the headphones. Listen out for distracting background noises.
- Make a note of any really bad backgrounded noises. Is it worth asking the questions over again? If they’re persistent, do you need to change location?
- Don’t talk over the end of the interviewee’s answer. Take a beat before you ask your next question. If necessary, ask the interviewee not to start talking until you’re done asking your question.
- Maintain eye contact with the interviewee at all times. Do what you can to keep them at ease.
- Respond to the interviewee’s remarks with a smile, nod or gesture rather than a “yes” or “uh-huh”. Any sounds you make will be picked-up by the microphone as well.
- Before stopping, ask the interviewee if there’s anything they’d like to add. They might have something to say you hadn’t thought of.
- If possible, capture a wild track — 20-30 seconds of room atmosphere in silence. It helps with the edit.
- Don’t let the interviewee stand up till you’ve removed any microphone or equipment from their person.
- Check if there are any questions you need to re-record, due to background noises, interruptions, etc.
- Are there any additional shots you need to capture? Questions, noddies or cutaways?
- Thank the interviewee for their time, put the room back the way you found it. Y’know, be a good citizen.
This Work, Digital storytelling with video, by IRISS is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 UK: Scotland license.