A professional-grade HD television studio, 2017.

I spent two hours with a mobile video genius and learned 26 useful things

Christian Payne is a photographer who teaches organisations like the BBC, the UN and Al Jazeera how to do in-the-field reporting using mobile phones. He also orders pizza to his train seat.

Last week I was lucky enough to spend some time picking Christian’s brain about using phones to make professional-looking video. At Fluxx, we use video all the time; for recording interviews and sharing how we work.

Everything Christian said was interesting, but here are some highlights…

This story is now part of the Fluxx book Whatever happens, we don’t want people to write to the Daily Mail. You can download a copy here.
  1. Keep the camera and your eyes slightly higher than the speaker. Filming from above is more flattering (fewer double chins) and they’ll look more alert and engaged if they’re looking slightly upwards.
On the left, the original footage: Nic’s eyes show crisp pinpoints of reflected light. On the right, after editing and saving at lower resolution, his eyes (and everything else) are subtly fuzzier.

2. Study your subject’s eyeballs before filming and after editing. They should be perfectly in focus, so you can see tiny sharp spots of reflected light. If they’re soft (because the focus is elsewhere, or the iPhone lens is dirty, or you saved the file at low resolution) it makes it harder to connect with the speaker.

3. Set the scene: At the start of your video, try to tell the viewer three things:

  • Who is talking?
  • Where are they?
  • Why are they here?

It doesn’t take much to do this: just a shot of the outside of the building or the room they’re in, perhaps a caption.

Left: It looks weird when people look out of the frame on the short side. Right: Much less weird when they look out the long side.

4. Framing the speaker: The classic interview technique has the interviewee on one side of the frame, looking across the screen towards the interviewer on the other side of the camera. So the camera is between you and the speaker. (A couple of good articles about this here and here)

Setting up the classic ‘long side’ interview shot (sketches by Stefano)

5. Get as close as you can with the microphone. Recording sound is a battle with the laws of physics. As a general rule, if the microphone is closer to the source, it’s more likely to pick up a clear recording and less likely to pick up background noise or the acoustics of the room. That said, sticking a microphone under someone’s nose can make them less relaxed, so it’s a trade-off.

6. While filming, maintain eye contact and really react to what the interviewee is saying. You need to stay silent, so express yourself through facial expressions.

7. When filming several people for one film, try to be consistent. The viewer needs to understand that these people are alike, and part of the same story. Set up a style —how large the speaker is in the frame, the camera height in relationship to the eyeline, their placement in the frame — then stick to it while changing the location and placing them on the left and right of the frame. If several people are filming, send round a couple of stills from the first session so everyone knows what to aim for. This video is a great case study in the different ways to frame people, even though there are no people in it.

8. That said, being too consistent is weird: Cutting between different people sitting in the same position against the same background from the same angle looks freaky (it’s the trick Danny Boyle uses here in Shallow Grave).

9. Clip-on lavalier microphones are almost always a good choice for recording interviews. Christian uses Smartlav+ microphones (here he is testing one). They plug directly into an iPhone (use an official Apple headphone socket adaptor if you have an iPhone 7), with various extension cords and accessories for connecting multiple microphones.

Left: Vertical lines aren’t straight, so Daniel’s environment looks a bit wonky. Right: Vertical lines are generally pretty straight, so I look more comfortable. Also, Daniel is being filmed from below, while I’m being filmed from very slightly above my eyeline.

10. Try to keep vertical lines vertical. It’s not always possible, but makes a shot feel more comfortable.

11. iPhones normally record in mono, but stereo recordings are particularly important for blind people. A clearly recorded stereo conversation can transmit a mass of information about the environment the speakers are in and their location. You need an external microphone to record in stereo on an iPhone; the Shure MV88 is an expensive but good option.

12. If you’re at a conference in a hotel, ask the front desk if you can borrow a room to film an interview. You’d be surprised how often they say yes.

Left: default iMovie titles. Right: a different font, different alignment and a finger-over-lens animated background

13. The centered, white-on-black, Gill Sans Bold titles that iMovie uses by default are fine, but it takes seconds to tweak the default text styling in iMovie, and immediately makes a clip seem more distinctive and professional. To get more serious, Vont is a slick free iPhone/iPad app for putting text over video.

Two instant ambient backgrounds; finger and laptop screen

14. Put your finger over the camera lens and film a few seconds of fuzzy red to make a more interesting background for titles than the default black. Try filming the sky through a shirt, the sun through a leaf, or a blurry closeup of a TV or laptop screen.

15. Just before filming, clean your camera lens, then tap and hold the focal point on your iPhone screen to lock the exposure and focus.

17. For many people the word ‘interview’ means a stressful job application process or a politician being interrogated on TV. “Could we talk… do you mind if I video this?” might work better.

A £1 foam pop shield on an iPhone looks ridiculous, but makes an incredible difference to the sound for close-up voice recording.

16. The built-in microphones on iPhones are remarkably good. You can use a normal microphone pop shield (like these ones, 5 for £5) on the bottom of an iPhone to get a better sound. For sound recording, use the built-in Voice Recorder or Voice Record Pro 7 is a fancy full-featured audio recording app for iPhone. (It’s free, with an ad-free version at £3.99)

18. People who are reluctant to be filmed are sometimes willing to be recorded. A still photo and some audio can be a good way to tell a story. Sometimes, after an audio interview goes well, the subject is more willing to be filmed; it’s then possible to cut parts of the audio recording into the final video.

19. The ‘where should I film?’ checklist: When looking for a good spot, your mental checklist might involve trying to get as many of these as possible…

  • Soft diffused light
  • Soft furnishings for better acoustics and less echo in the room
  • A static background. Lots of people milling about = fine; stray individuals walking in and out of the shot = distracting.
  • Enough space so the subject isn’t squashed against a wall — which looks bad and can sound bad.
  • Something to prop yourself or your camera on.
  • Busy, bustling environments can work well, so long as the subject is wearing a lavalier microphone and you can hear them clearly.

20. Start an interview with the interviewee saying who they are, what they do and where they are. Play that back to check camera and sound are working. The footage can often be useful during editing.

21. Take a break. If the interviewee gets flustered, stop the interview, turn off the camera and let them talk through what they’re trying to say. (You might only pretend to turn off the camera.)

22. At some point, record 20 seconds or more of room noise. This is useful for editing behind title slides or for noise reduction.

23. Getting background footage will make the video easier to edit; anything that’s relevant to the interview but where you can’t see the interviewee’s lips moving, so you can cut away from their face and edit the audio into shape.

24. Once you’re shooting from different angles, you’ll need to understand the 180 Degree Rule, a piece of psycho-cinemagraphic magic that lets the brain understand where people are sitting in a room while only showing their faces.

25. Lighting is a whole new world to learn. This video is a great introduction to the theory of doing ‘three point’ lighting with a window, a sheet of tinfoil and a floor lamp. Even these £7 clip on ring lights for selfies can be useful for closeups.

26. All of these rules can be broken for effect. If you stick to them, your filming style should become invisible, allowing the viewer to concentrate on what’s being said. Put another way, this is a list of clichés. If you break those rules, rejecting the clichés, the viewer will (subconsciously) notice your decision. That can be very effective.

Learn more about Christian at Documentally.com.

Previously: 52 things I learned in 2016, We’ve been running business experiments since 2011, this is what we’ve learned.

Tom Whitwell is Senior Consultant at Fluxx, a company that uses experiments to understand customers, helping clients to build better products. We work with organisations such as Atkins, National Grid, the Parliamentary Digital Service and William Hill.