Updated: Oct 8, 2020
In part one of a two part series about recording high quality sound for a documentary interview, William discusses Positioning and Setup.
Recording high quality sound for a documentary interview can seem like a daunting task for any sound recordist. Your audio sources need to gather information spoken by your contributor clearly, so that the important narrative of the documentary is heard. In this article, I will go through some of the key things I have learnt from working as a sound recordist on a variety of different small to medium budget documentary interview shoots, and the techniques that are key to producing high quality audio for these projects.
The first thing I do when setting up to capture audio for an interview is to identify a location from where I can monitor and mix the different audio sources I am recording. I can normally do this during a ‘location recce’ prior to the shoot, but where this hasn’t been possible it's easy enough to do it as soon as I arrive on set and the director has settled on a location for the interview. Depending on the nature of the interview and location, it can sometimes be necessary to get in close with the subject. Other times it can be important to distance myself from the interview and let the subject and interviewer talk freely with less distractions in their eyesight. Whichever the case, it is important to work this out beforehand with the director to use my time on set as efficiently as possible.
“It is your job to record the highest quality audio to aid in the storytelling of the film”
Good preparation before starting a documentary interview shoot is key. The goal is to allow your subject to have a free flowing conversation on camera and it is your job to record the highest quality audio to aid in the storytelling of the film. Where a ‘location recce’ is possible you should note down anything that could be a potential problem and work with the director to overcome them.
My standard setup for recording audio during an interview is to use a boom stand with my main microphone (see below) in as close as possible to the subject's mouth positioned just out of the top of the frame. I also use a radio lapel microphone (see below) either visibly attached to the subject or hidden under clothing. I’ll go into more detail below about considerations when using lapel microphones when I cover ‘the subject’ in part two, but it's important to note that positioning will require careful planning in order to produce the highest quality sound. I also attach a smaller microphone such as the Rode Videomic Pro that can record audio directly into the camera (where possible) to act as a backup and also to provide clear audio for a guide track.
Using a boom stand allows you to set up your main microphone in the optimal position and then leave it alone. In my experience it is not uncommon for these types of documentary sit down interviews to last well over an hour, and holding a boom for extended periods of time can be really taxing on your arms, so a boom stand is an important piece of kit.
“positioning your main microphone using a boom stand is a great way of freeing yourself up to monitor audio”
Unlike shooting scenes with movement, the subject's mouth shouldn't move too much during a sit down interview, so positioning your main microphone using a boom stand is a great way of freeing yourself up to monitor audio and take care of other technical aspects of recording sound.
Lapel Mic & Radio Kit
Recording from at least two sources is important as it provides more options in the edit, as well as providing insurance in case one of the recordings is damaged or distorted. For this reason I use a lapel microphone attached to the subject as well as the main microphone attached to the boom stand.
“It is important to remember to scan for new available frequencies...to reduce the risk of experiencing interference”
Having a radio kit means that you won't be restricted to where you can position yourself to monitor the audio. It’s important to remember to scan for new available frequencies on your radio kit before starting the shoot where possible. This is to reduce the risk of experiencing interference, which depending on your filming location can be highly likely. It’s important to rescan for new frequencies if you change location midway through a shoot.
Talk to the director beforehand to find out if they mind the lapel mic being visible. Having the lapel mic in a visible position will make your life a lot easier as you can simply position it neatly clipped to the subject’s clothing. If the director prefers the lapel mic to be hidden, you might have to get creative with how you position it. I’ll talk in more detail about positioning a lapel microphone in part two, but a piece of kit that’ll be really useful when hiding the microphone is a Mic Belt. This is an elasticated belt that you can store the radio transmitter in and then place around your subjects waist and under clothing.
In this article I have covered just a handful of the most useful techniques that you can use to make sure you record high quality audio for a documentary interview. In part two I will go into more detail about the specific microphones and mixers I recommend using, as well as some useful tips for dealing with your subject and which locations to choose.
Use a boom stand to position your main microphone
Talk to the director and find out if you can display the lapel
Use a radio kit if you can and scan for frequencies on location
Use a smaller backup mic attached to the camera
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