Interviews might be a backbone of traditional journalism, but do they have a place in 360 stories?
Right now, the conventional wisdom seems to be no. Most 360 producers avoid onscreen interviews. But I disagree. I think interviews have a big role to play in 360 journalism.
My thinking reflects the work we’ve been doing at Euronews over the last year. Interviews are still very much a part of our approach to this new medium. Heck, in the run-up to the French election, we produced a series on French voters that relies solely on interviews. (The videos have been released across all our platforms, and they will soon be available as a VR-only interactive experience developed in collaboration with Deutsche Welle and tech startup Vragments. This has been made possible with the help of Google News Lab.)
In this post, I will share my thinking on how to make 360 interviews work. I will illustrate with good and bad examples from our productions.
Interviews: A horrible idea?
First, let me try to be more explicit in my claim that 360 producers avoid interviews. In the April 2017 Reuters Institute report VR for News: The New Reality?, Zillah Watson, who leads virtual reality experimentation at the BBC, writes:
“One of my mantras for VR within the BBC has been ‘If you can shoot it better in 169, don’t bother with 360.’ CNN’s Jason Farkas is critical of some uses of 360, such as straight interviews, for this reason.”
This reasoning is reflected in much of the 360 output of major news organizations. Interviews are avoided or presented through voiceovers. RT did let us see the preparations for their interview of Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte, but they covered the entire actual interview with other footage. The Verge felt that an insane amount of postproduction work was necessary in order to make their interview palatable to the audience.
But Euronews’ forays into interview-based 360 have convinced me that interviews can play as big a role in 360 stories as they do in other forms of journalism.
If they are done right.
Doing 360 degree interviews
The aforementioned Jason Farkas, vice president of premium content video for CNN, recommends “the witness test”:
“The witness test is if this story could be better told by someone understanding the environment?”
The New York Times asks basically the same question, and so do we at Euronews. But I see no reason why this test should disqualify interviews.
The question should not be whether we do interviews in 360, but why we do them. Just as with any other 360 footage, we must be able to argue that watching it in 360 adds another element to our understanding of the topic.
In our election series, the purpose was not just to give a voice to members of the French electorate who are rarely heard, but also to show their lives. And what better way to do that than to transport the viewer into their living rooms?
How do you get the optimal interview setup?
Okay, say you buy my argument that interviews can and do work if we do them for the right reasons. And say you’ve got a great interviewee ready to say interesting things in fascinating surroundings.
Now, the practical challenges emerge. Interviews in 360 have their own very specific challenges. The main one is arguably: What does the reporter do with him- or herself?
The way I see it, there are three options.
If the interview subjects are used to cameras, simply mic them up, tell them to look straight into the camera, and get out of the shot.
Plus: Focusing attention on the subject creates great intimacy between the viewer and the interviewee.
Minus: Depending on the interview situation, disappearing can be anything between cumbersome and impossible. In addition, if you don’t have a wireless mic set, the reporter cannot necessarily hear what the interviewee is saying.
Hide behind the camera
As above. But instead of disappearing, the reporter places himself directly opposite the interviewee, behind the camera. The reporter will be seen if the viewer looks all around, but the tendency is to look where the action is. As long as the journalist isn’t talking, his presence is relatively nonintrusive.
Plus: Great intimacy between the viewer and the interviewee. The journalist knows exactly what’s been recorded.
Minus: The reporter is present in the shot. Using any questions he might have asked would distract and irritate the viewer, who suddenly has to turn all the way around to find out who’s talking.
Be in the same shot
This is what most of our reporters opt for. It’s easy and familiar, and the journalist’s question can remain part of the story. But this tactic is not without its own problems.
If it’s done impromptu without any real reflection, this happens:
I’ve placed myself and my interview subject a bit more than one meter away from the camera (a bit too far away probably, but that’s another discussion). In this triangular setup, the interviewee has no reason to look toward the camera, so she doesn’t — and the viewer never gets a proper glimpse of her or sees her eyes.
I tell our journalists to work with angles. A great successful example comes courtesy of Olivier Péguy, who produced Euronews’ series on the French electorate.
The table places the interviewee in a space between the journalist and the camera. Whenever the interviewee is not focusing on the journalist’s face, he looks more toward the camera. This way, the viewer gets to see the eyes of the interviewee while feeling like a participant in a natural conversation.
Getting the great interview position is in my opinion a subtle art form, and I think everybody still has lessons to learn. We won’t learn them before we start actually employing interviews, though.
Have I missed any great examples of 360 interviews? Or am I simply completely off the mark? I’d love to get a discussion on the subject started, so feel more than welcome to reach out.