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Cinematographer Mike Handler, an experienced director and producer that has worked with brands such as Puma, Gatorade, and Snap-On on a variety of product and brand videos, shares strategies for getting all the ingredients to create great video portraits.


As a researcher and storyteller, I am always looking for the secret ways to bring portrait interviews to life. I asked videographer Mike Handler to share what he considers the key elements to creating a beautiful video portrait that truly captures the subject’s mind, heart and soul. If you are curious about how to bring portrait interviews and qualitative research to life in a cinematic way, you might want to check out this article. Mike puts it this way:


"The key to a great video is a great interview. All the magic editing in the world will not help you if you don’t have a good narrative."

Great Interviews Come From Actual Experiences 

The key to a great video is a great interview. When developing a video portrait, I always start with an in-depth interview to have the subject tell her story in her own words. If you want to have a good story to tell, you need to work with someone that knows their stuff when it comes to interviewing. All the magic editing in the world will not help you if you don’t have a good narrative.


In my experience, an interviewer that can get people to share actual experiences, not just their opinions on a particular topic, is the best way to create a video that can convey both context and emotion.  An interviewer that makes people comfortable enough in two hours to open up and feel like they are talking to a close friend, is hard to find. People don’t realize what’s involved in conducting a great interview. Fewer people are really able to get at the essence.


Clean Audio is Critical and Easy to Get. Don’t Settle

Great interview audio is critical to succeed. I can’t emphasize that enough. To do that all you need a good microphone and a quiet location. You don’t have to settle for bad audio when there’s a better way to bring the story to life.


The desire to bring an audience to life by using the original voices drives people to use audio captured during an intimate chat at an intimate coffee shop or an ethnography observation. While their intentions are good, there is nothing more distracting than watching a good video with poor audio. It simply breaks my heart. It’s pretty easy to get a good recording and there’s no reason you shouldn't get what you need to create quality deliverables. 


I prefer an approach that feels a bit counter intuitive. Rather than interviewing the person while they are on camera, do it off camera. When the interview is conducted off camera and with as few people present as possible, people feel more comfortable, so you can get the most emotional and authentic sounding audio possible. When the audio is clear, you can focus on what is being said and how it is being said. Good audio helps create more empathy because it goes beyond the written word. When you can hear the nuances in  a voice that expresses emotion, you can truly connect. 

Mike Handler in jet fuel tank.jpeg

"Think about video as a way to capture what’s being said that can’t be seen. 

Shoot to tell a story, not to audit a location."

There’s No Reason Why It Should’t Be Beautiful 

Although I have seen remarkable work produced with an iPhone, that’s rarely the case when people are interviewing or conducting research and using their phone as the only tool to capture visuals. I believe it is simply default mode and something people are just used to because the goal is to capture data, not to craft a beautiful story. Most not expensive cameras offer a video option that can produce higher quality video that can make a difference in the final product. 


There are very simple techniques you can use to create beautiful images that convey emotion. You are not looking to capture factual information. Think about video as a way to capture what’s being said that can’t be seen. There’s no need to have your audio talk about how blue a wall is if you can just show it in the video. Think show versus say and look for images that are representative of the idea that’s being communicated. Shoot to tell a story, not to audit a location. Flat and literal images that simply show exactly what’s being said in the audio are redundant documentation, not storytelling. 


Shooting video requires a different mindset than taking photos. Use your video as an opportunity to bring dimension to the story. Think about the different parts of the story as scenes, and shoot multiple angles of the same action. Think about your story through a cinematographer's lenses, so you cover different details while someone is sharing a story. 


The Audio Is The Story. Radio Edit First, Video Second 

When it comes to editing, it makes life easier if you focus on the story arc first. This means the radio edit is typically done and blessed before visual sequences are layered over it to form a rough cut. Radio edit is the key to efficient video editing. Plus, when you know the story you're telling, you can focus on capturing the video you will actually need rather than shooting hours and hours of footage that will never be used.  It’s not just really efficient, but a great way to build a compelling video. 


Use The Story Arc To Tell Meaningful Stories 

How do you tell a story that people care about? Well, it has to be something that goes deeper than just “Hey, I use these pliers to make this jewelry.” It needs to communicate meaning. Meaning is created when you convey feeling and motivation as much as the journey someone when on.


Although experience based interviews will usually give you a natural progression of the story, it’s less about the generic elements of a story and more about reflecting on the story and extracting the significance. An easy template to follow is the classic parable structure “I went and did this, this is what happened, and this is what I learned. Think about video producing as a natural progression where you are trying to get down to the essence of what  you’ve heard in the story. The process is driven by the interview, so the interview needs to be designed to help create a story arc. Once you have your structure, you need to make sure to capture the key context you might need to make sense of the story, and then it’s all about trying to get as much  inner thought, reflexion and meaning as possible. You know, the stuff that you can’t see, the stuff that you can only get when you can have a heart to heart conversation with a close friend, or something you might read in someone's diary. 

Portrait photography by Doug Grant

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