Ten Secrets to Cutting a Powerful Interview

Interviews. They’re used in every human interest, discovery, or documentary edit. Interviews convey a personal connection to the subject matter, and put a face to the emotion and tension of the story.

Interviews are not just reserved for newscasts; interviews form the backbone of life-change stories, of creators and their products, of fundraising campaigns, and company passion stories. But as powerful as these stories can be, their impact can be lost when ineffectively cut together.

I’ve spent the last 7 years cutting dozens of interviews into short-form videos. Sometimes I had every piece and element I needed to cut together a video with a punch. Other times, I was handed just the interview footage and told, “go make something amazing.” I learned to get creative in those instances. Today, I’m sharing with you my ten secrets to cut together a powerful interview video, even when you don’t have all the pieces.

The Ten Secrets:

1). Get to Know Your Subject.

Chances are, you weren’t there when the interview was shot. While someone may prepare a transcript, you can’t fully understand the emotion of the interview subject until you hear them talk. Sometimes what seems like a great soundbite on paper ends up being awkward when cut out of context. This is because each and every person has their own cadence, the particular way they talk and share emotions as they speak. Take some time and listen to the subject speak. Get to know the feeling of their cadence, and let it guide your cuts. You’ll find it easier to to break up long paragraphs and sentences when you cut with the subject’s cadence, rather than against it.

2). Problem, Solution, Result.

At its most basic, the flow of storytelling is simple. Act One: there is a problem. Act Two: the hero discovers a solution. Act Three: results of what happened since the hero acted on the solution. Every video can be broken down into this simple formula: problem, solution, result. Make each “act” within your video clear. Your audience will naturally want to follow the story because they want to know what happened. Using simple storytelling will guide your audience through to the conclusion, whether the results of it impact only the subject, or thousands of people.

3). Music is the Soul.

When filmmaker Ken Burns discusses the music used in his films, he considers the script the skeleton, the visuals the flesh, and the music the soul. The music indicates to your audience what they should be feeling as they listen to the subject. Yes, you have the power to make people laugh or cry. Use this to you advantage! If the subject is talking about the problem, make it feel like it’s hopeless. And when the solution is revealed, make it feel as if a thousand angels brought it from heaven. Maybe angels from heaven are a bit too much. Regardless, use music appropriate to the emotion of the clip, the cadence of the speaker, and the cutting style of the interview. Then you will carry your audience’s emotions with you through the story.

4). Don’t be afraid of the Franken-bite.

Sometimes, a key phrase in the interview will have incorrect grammar, or the subject will use the wrong pronoun. Or even more frustrating, you’ll find your interview is missing key sentences identifying information or moving the story along. You, the editor, have the power to re-arrange the grammar, and to construct the necessary sentences from other clips and words in the interview. This takes careful listening and timing, as the vocal patterns must match the rest of the edit, but when accomplished, the needed phrase is there and the audience can’t tell the difference.

Note: this editing tool should not be used for news reporting, where code of ethics prevent making the subject say something they didn’t.

5). Clean up the audio.

“We all, um, try, to like say, well, you know, say things as ah, simply as possible, but, um, sometimes our words, like, get in the way.”

If that sentence above a pain to read, remember: it’s also a pain to hear. As an editor, it is our job to make sure the subjects of our videos are presented at their best. We don’t use ums and ahs while speaking in public. Likewise, we must take care to clean up the ums and ahs of our interview subjects. This also means cutting out extraneous words and tightening up awkward pauses. This does two things for the finished video: first, it’s easier to understand the subject; and second, the subject is more concise. While it is sometimes not possible to cut out every extraneous word, do your best to craft the words of the subject into polished speech. There is no excuse for not polishing your subject’s speech, especially if it’s covered by b-roll.

6). Working with Jump Cuts

When cutting together soundbites, and even cutting out extraneous words, jump cuts will result. Depending on the way the footage was shot, or the cutting style for the interview, this might be okay, but frequently it doesn’t work at all. A great solution is to cover those jump cuts with appropriate b-roll. This can be directly related to the subject, or even abstract, augmenting the emotional space. Layer over enough b-roll to cover all the jump cuts, and suddenly the awkward visuals to your transition cuts or reconstructed sentence are no longer visible.

7). Working Without B-roll.

Wait, your interview footage doesn’t include b-roll? facepalm After you curse at the heavens, scrub through the footage and look for sections where the subject is not talking. Perhaps he or she is thinking through a question. Maybe they’re listening to the interviewer. Maybe they just screwed up an answer and started laughing at themselves. These little snippets frequently exist at the head and tail ends of video clips. Grab the moment, delete the audio, and layer it over the section you’re trying to fill. You can get creative with these moments too, using slo-mo to give yourself time to cover a section, or to slowly watch a smile spread while the talking subject underneath the b-roll transitions from a sad moment to a happy one.

8). Digitally Reframe the Shot

Another option for fixing jump cuts is to scale and reframe the video of the next cut, making it look like another camera was shooting. You can use this to highlight a single part of the subject’s face, or a hand movement they make. Bear in mind though, this scaling and reframing can be difficult for the audience to follow if not done properly, especially if used in a quick-cut style. Pay close attention to eye-trace, ie, where the eye is focusing from one cut to the next. Keep the focus point in the same place to create an easier transition for the eye.

While I’m on the subject of scaling, here’s an important note: do not flip the video of the subject horizontally (ie, mirroring). I know as an editor you’re looking for a different angle to use and you don’t have it. But here’s why: flipping the video triggers a psychological response in the audience. When we see the other side of someone’s face, it implies we’re seeing the other side of their personality. Their “dark side.” Our brains know it’s the same person, but something is wrong. Flipping the video of a subject can completely undermine the truthfulness of what they’re saying, simply because of the subtle unease in the audience’s mind.

9). Use Creative Effects.

So you’ve scaled and reframed your footage, but now the footage is now fuzzy or pixelated. If it fits the editorial style of your video, try using a visual effect on the footage in addition to reframing. Try making it black and white. Give it digital banding or distortion, or try a vignette. Too much effect can distract, but done correctly, this can be a very effective way of hiding the pixelation caused by digital reframing. This technique is also very useful to highlight a single word or phrase because you’ve made it visually stand out from the rest.

10). Invent B-Roll Out of Thin Air

Wait, is this even possible? Remember, you’re an editor, and you can work MAGIC with your editing skills. Do you have access to an image library? Select stills that match the subject matter, put them over the interview and animate them with a little motion to illustrate what the subject is talking about. The same can be said for digital backgrounds and plates you may have access to. You can take this idea of making b-roll one step further by creating simple motion graphics, highlighting the words spoke by the subject. This can be a great way to give the sentence greater impact because the audience reads the words in addition to hearing them. You can also use this technique to add in simple facts about the topic the subject is talking about. Remember, you don’t want to words on the screen to compete with the talking subject. You want to compliment. Also, if you’re going to add in extra things “not in the script” or not in the original pile of footage you were given, be sure to clear their additions with the producer.

These are ten of my secrets to cutting a powerful interview, and I use them in almost every piece I put together. How about you? What are some ways that you’ve creatively cut an interview together? Got a great technique to share? I’d love to hear it!