Skip to Main Content

Documentary: Home

Show me some examples!

Tech Resources

In the McCulloch Library you can check out tripods, bloggie cameras, snowball microphones (for voice overs, don't use your computer mics)

Book Resources

Want to see how people have covered your topic before? Check out some of these resources to see examples of successful interviews.


What makes a good documentary? In this guide you will find resources to help bring your stories to life. A good documentary relies on good footage. Your preparation for your interviews: having good questions organized ahead of time, conducting the interview in a quiet, well lit space, and make sure equipment is working properly will go a long way in helping you to have a successful project.

Sample Interview Questions

Interviewing Etiquette

From the "Preserving Community: Oral History Instruction Manual" from  Jon Hunner, Daniel Villa Pauline Staski, Jon Wall and the students at Panther Achievement Center

  • Establishing rapport with your interviewee is one of the most important ingredients for a good interview. Good rapport begins at the pre-interview and continues throughout the interviewing process. Be friendly, encouraging, and attentive as you listen to the interviewee. Maintain eye contact, use quiet signals like a smile or a nod to encourage the interviewee. These are better than verbal signals like "yes," "uh huh," or "You don't say" that could impede the interviewee's narrative flow. Remember, this is not your story and anything that you do to interject your own opinions and ideas can alter the course of the interview. Of course, you have to ask questions and engage in a dialogue with the interviewee, but the more you can remove yourself from the process, the more the interviewee can fully express themselves.
  • Pay attention to the interviewee's body language. Try to read defensive body language as a signal that the subject matter is something the interviewee is uncomfortable with. If possible, find out why. For yourself, adopt encouraging, friendly body language. Maintain eye-contact, do not stare off, look at your hands or your watch.
  • How should you react to a statement that you strongly disagree with? Don't react. Remember, this is an oral history of the interviewee's life, not yours. You need to hear the interviewee out fully. You can challenge answers that are misleading, but do not argue over points of view. The only time an argument is acceptable is after the interview is over and the tape recorder is turned off.
  • What if you suspect that the interviewee is lying? First, do not be too quick to assume this. If they are indeed giving faulty information, perhaps it is inadvertent due to memory loss. Do not directly challenge the truth of their account but ask specific questions to test the validity of it in the bigger scope of their life. While we were conducting the training session at PAC about asking questions, this question came up. The example was an interviewee who claimed to have harvested a whole chile field by himself. Some of the students first wanted to directly confront the subject as a liar. Others though suggested that the follow-up questions to this would be "Oh, who long did it take you to harvest the field?" and pursue the matter along those lines.
  • Pay attention to the fatigue level in both you and your interviewee, especially if you are talking with an older person. Ask if they are getting tired and if the answer is yes, end the interview and schedule another session in the future.
  • What is the best way to end an interview? Look for a wrap up question to end the session. Some possibilities might be to ask the interviewee to compare recent times with past events, draw conclusions about the major events they have lived through or ask them to look into the future. Finally, ask them if there is anything else they would like to talk about. And thank them for their time and effort in participating in the interview. If you are going to send them a copy of the tape, tell them so. You might also want to remind them how the tapes will be processed, where they will be deposited, and what role the interviewee will play in editing the tapes. These subjects will be discussed in the next section. As soon as you take the tape out of the machine, punch out the tabs on the back of the cassette so that the tape can not be recorded over. This is very important and will prevent the frustration of losing completed interviews.
  • If the interview was emotional, take some time after the tape recorder is turned off to talk with the interviewee and help them with what has upset them. Sometimes, interviews bring up buried memories that are painful. It is important to let the interviewee know how important the interview is and reassure them that they were helpful.
  • Most interviewees take the recording of their life experiences very seriously. It is an opportunity to set down their life for the historical record, to talk about successes and failures, moments of pride and disappointment. Most interviewees, especially if they are older, see this as a validation of their lives and an opportunity to set the record straight. So respect the interview and their reminiscences

Interview Tips

-Be Organized! Have your questions prepared before hand or use the promps in the document below.

-Know about your subject. Do your background research so you can ask intelligent questions and expand the conversation when necessary.

-Make sure your camera has a full battery!!

-PUT YOUR CAMERA ON A TRIPOD- Nobody wants to watch shaky, unprofessional video. Make it look good.

-Record the interview in a quiet space. Try to conduct the interview in a room where you won't be interupted by ringing phones, other conversation, alarm clocks, etc

-Be aware of the lighting. Record in a well lit space. Don't position your subject in front of a window with sun glaring behind them; they will be in a shadow. Your footage needs to be usable and you might only get one chance to conduct the interview. Make it count!

-Record the QUESTION and the ANSWER. Even if you edit out the question you still need to know what the subject was responding to.

-Keep your questions short. Avoid overly complicated questions and the let the subject tell their story

-Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple "Yes" or "No"

-Don't pretend to know more about your topic than you actually do. Your interview subject will tell. Be yourself. Ask them a question if you need more info.

- Do not stay "stuck" to the prepared question set. One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced interviewers (who themselves might be nervous) make is to just ask the questions on the sheet and not to listen to the answers. It is a common error to let the tape recorder listen while you are taking care of all the other things during the interview (like making sure the machine is still working, wondering what question to ask next, evaluating the interviewee for signs of fatigue). Do not let the tape recorder listen for you. You need to pay close attention to the answers so that you can ask intelligent follow-up questions. Follow-up questions to answers are sometimes where the most interesting answers come from. So practice with your interviewers in not only asking questions from the prepared question set but also forgetting the prepared questions and improvising new questions.

-Do not rush through the question sheet The interview is not a race. In fact, those who finish first lose since they have not asked follow-up questions and have not engaged in a free-ranging dialogue with their subject. Listen to the interviewer and pursue interesting avenues of experience with follow-up questions..