Now that you know how to prepare for the interview and create an outline, the next step is equipment and room setup.
There is no other way to put this. You really need a video camera. You might be able to get away with a cell phone camera (I was forced to do this once, as described below), but I really don't recommend it.
I have an old Sony handheld. We bought it just before our daughter was born, and we used it often when our kids were little. Over the years, as cell phones improved, we used the video camera less and less. My camera therefore had little wear and tear and is in great condition today. It's an HD camera with 12 megapixels. It gets the job done when the room is well lit. This is the next piece I'll upgrade as the project grows, but it's sufficient for now.
If you have the means, I highly recommend using an actual video camera. It has better picture, audio and zooming capabilities. If you don't own a video camera, you could borrow one, or better yet, you can rent a nice one from a camera store.
I won't get involved in advising on the best kind of camera because I simply don't know.My advice is you get what you pay for. I once ordered a $100 camera from Amazon, believing it would work well because of the high megapixel count. I compared the new $100 camera to my old one, and the $100 camera produced badly pixellated video. I compared the quality side by side, and it wasn't even close. You're almost better off using a cell phone than a cheap plastic $100 video camera. I returned that piece of junk and got a refund.
When I went to my grandfather's house to interview him, it didn't occur to me to charge the one backup battery I had in the bag. I wasn't looking at this project as a business yet, and was so focused on the substance of the interview that I didn't think about battery life.
My battery died, and the camera shut down, about an hour through the interview. I swapped it out with the uncharged backup battery from my bag, but it was also dead. I didn't think to charge a backup. I did have the foresight to bring the charging dock, so I plugged in a battery and we took a lunch break. When we returned I was horrified to see the battery had not charged at all. I tried plugging the power cord directly from the wall to the camera, but that didn't work either. The electrical outlet may have been faulty.
I stifled the panic reflex that was setting in. I drove an hour and a half to be there and couldn't just reschedule. Thinking on my feet, I pulled out my cell phone, leaned forward and propped it up on the Ottoman in front of me, and hit record. The screen resolution changed and the video was shaky because I held it in my hand, so the video quality was terrible. I kept telling myself the important thing was recording my grandfather's story, and that's what I did.
Please learn from my failure. Ensure you have a fully charged battery, backups and a means of charging on the spot. Even better, plug the camera directly into the wall if you have the means. I have since invested in multiple backup batteries because I could not have the debacle at my grandfather's house occur with a paying client. I interviewed a client last weekend, and had four charged batteries ready to go. In order to avoid the hassle of a battery swap when someone is in mid-sentence, or at an emotional climax, I recommend you habitually check the battery life gauge on your camera's display. If you're down to a couple minutes of battery life, take a break and swap it out.
At my last interview I avoided the battery drama altogether and plugged my camera directly into the wall. Zero battery stress that way.
2. Cell Phone
If you absolutely must use a cell phone, it's better than not doing the interview at all. Make sure your battery is fully charged, but it's ideal if you could have the phone plugged in during the recording. Video recording will quickly drain your battery and heat the phone. It will also consume significant memory, so make sure you delete unnecessary files to make room.
Use a tripod or selfie stick to stabilize the camera. I don't recommend you trust your unsteady hand like I had to.
Have the screen face you, so the interviewee only sees the back of your phone and the lens. It's better if the interviewee is not looking at themselves in the screen and becoming self conscious. Having the screen facing you enables you to keep the interview subject in frame at all times.
I want to emphasize this again - use a cell phone only as a last resort. It is not ideal.
A tripod is such a necessity that I again advise you not to proceed without one. Ready for another failure story?
At my grandfather's house, before I considered this a business, I had to get creative because I did not yet own a tripod. In fact, I recall walking into his home and thinking, "damn, I don't even own a tripod." I moved the Ottoman to the center of the room, but it was only knee high. I built a stack of books about a foot high, then carefully balanced the camera on top. It worked, but any touching of the stack caused it to wobble. This wasn't even close to being high enough. I also couldn't angle the camera up, so it was about even with his waist, and he had to lean forward and look down at the camera. At times if felt like the camera was looking up into his nostrils. I recall thinking, "a year from now I'm going to cringe at my amateurism." I'm cringing as I write this, but I give you better value by being transparent. Learn from my failure so you can do it right.
Soon before I launched this website I went to Fry's Electronics and picked up a tripod. They had about 10 to choose from, ranging in price from about $20 to well over $100. The expensive models are designed for heavy cameras and/or outdoor use, and are more hardcore than I need. I'm going to be interviewing people in their living rooms with a small camera. I went for a mid-level $40 tripod.
It does everything I need. The height goes up to my chin, it is easily adjustable, has a leveler, carrying case and is lightweight. I set it up and played with the many adjustments and got comfortable with it.
Over time I came to the painful realization that my canera's built-in audio was awful. The mic faces up, away from where the camera is pointing, and it picks up the internal sounds of the camera itself. When you watch videos recorded with the built-in mic, you can hear a dull hum in the background. The camera is recording its own noise. I have to crank up my computer's volume to hear the audio on my earlier recordings.
I found a specialty camera store off Miramar Road in San Diego, and entered with my camera in hand. I explained my project to the owner, Jeff, and my need to improve the audio. He directed me to this Sennheiser shotgun mic. I used to think these mics would catch every ambient sound in the room, but they do the opposite. Jeff explained that it picks up sound in a conical direction wherever the mic is pointed. I was interested.
The input jack was compatible with my camera (glad I brought it with me), so it looked like we were in business. We hit trouble when I asked how to mount the mic on top of my camera. We moved a top panel and revealed a "cold shoe" mounting bracket, but it was not close to compatible with this mic. I asked if he had any kind of adapter, but they had nothing in stock. I was feeling mildly desperate because I had an interview booked the next day. I half-jokingly asked if I had to use duct tape to secure it, and Jeff got a twinkle in his eye. Jeff returned a moment later holding a roll of gaffer's tape. It's the functional equivalent of duct tape, but it's black, easier to rip and leaves no residue. The tape blended in nicely with my camera, and it held the mic in place. It looks jerry rigged up close, but it works.
Jeff said I could return the mic if it didn't work out, so I bought the device and tested it out at home. My wife helped me record a before and after video. We shot a video of me talking with the mic unplugged, then plugged it in. I nervously uploaded the file to my computer and turned up the speakers. The difference in sound quality was not even close and it sounded a thousand times better with the mic.
If you are only going to interview one person, you probably will not invest in a mic. I totally get it. My first couple interviews I did not have one either. If an after-market mic is not feasible for you, I recommend filming in a quiet location where you can keep ambient noise to a minimum. If you can hear ambient noise while recording, chances are your stock mic can hear it too. When I interviewed my dad at his home, before I bought the mic, I my camera picked up footsteps upstairs. I once recorded a client testimonial for a friend's business. We set up in the back yard because the scenery was great, but the built-in mic picked up a barking dog next door. In summary, if you can hear something, your built-in mic will too. It will likely hear other things you cannot hear, such as the camera itself.
Lighting is another critical piece of the puzzle. We've done product shoots outside during the day, and inside near an open window, and lighting was not a problem. Natural light looks great on our product still shots. When I interviewed my grandfather lighting was the only element that was not a problem. When I interviewed my dad he sat next to an open window and natural light was plentiful.
One night I shot a campy video, called The Catumentary, right after the sun went down. I owned no lighting and no mic. We turned on every light in the room where we shot, but the lighting is awful in the video. Video looks pixellated in bad lighting.
Over Thanksgiving I picked the brain of my brother-in-law, a cameraman in the film industry, about lighting. He taught me some fundamentals, helping me realize lighting is an essential part of the process. He directed me to a specialty camera store in Kearny Mesa. I visited the store the next day and learned more about lighting from an employee. He showed me their "interview kit," a three-stand set that was way over the top and beyond my means. I asked for something a little simpler, and he directed me to the two stand kit shown below. Cost $150. Sold. I broke in the equipment at home, and shot a before/after video similar to the mic experiment above. Again, the quality of the video does not even compare with regular room lighting. If you can get your hands on a professional lighting kit, I highly recommend it.
E. Room Setup
One element you may be unable control is the room setup. If you are visiting the interview subject in their own home, you could find yourself in difficult or tight spaces. I can't speak to hypothetical room scenarios, but you may need to employ some creativity and ingenuity.
Here is how I like to set up a room. I want the subject sitting comfortably in their favorite spot. I sit directly in front of them, a few feet away. I set up the camera tripod 2-3 feet to my right, so the camera is looking at the subject from a slight angle. The subject looks at me during the interview, not the camera. I set up the tripod to about shoulder height.
My lighting kit has two umbrella lights on tripods. I put one light to the side about 45 degrees from the subject, slightly to the right of my camera. I put the other light behind me, slightly to the left. The backlight helps fill in the subject's face.
Below is a setup I recently employed at a client's home.
About the Blog
Here I write about the evolution of this project, the act of preserving life stories and personal development. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.