The Power of film Do it yourself: The Talking Head

27 September 2012

[Editor’s note: This article is also part of a series on Think Tanks and Video]

Producing an online film could be one of the best small investments you make as part of a wider communications strategy for a think tank or organisation.  In the first of a series of blogs on online videos, I am going to share what I hope are some useful pointers and tips for producing the quintessential ‘talking head’ video.

What is it?

Interviews are usually in ‘talking head’ format, meaning that the camera focuses only on the speaker while they are giving their view on an issue or explaining a topic. 

The talking head is undoubtedly the most popular online video format within our sector (and beyond!), likely because it is one of the easiest and cheapest types of video to produce from start to finish and this has its advantages. Here are four good reasons to use them:

  1. It can be a good way to tell a story, highlight your work, an issue, your project, your programme, your cause or your organisation.
  2. You can use it as an opportunity to get well-known names involved and onto your website and/or your film or social media channel. Or it can add another dimension to a blog.
  3. With the right resources, you can build a short film around several or multiple voices.
  4. It’s relatively low cost and not too time consuming (though the editing can take time to get right) and anyone who can use a camera and has some editing skills or support can produce one.

But, I should just add here as a cautionary note – that as with any online film that you produce – you need to ask yourself first why you want to produce a talking head video in the first place (your objective) and also think about who you want to see it (your audience). I’ve seen many organisations post a talking head video, find they get hardly any views and then they are left wondering why they bothered in the first place – they just felt they had to do it but not sure of the purpose. You may need to experiment, see what others are doing, and think about what and how your audience interacts with film. I am not going to focus much here on the strategic thinking behind the video (see this really useful blog from Adam Westbrook), but rather share some ‘how to’ pointers that might just help in shaping something that is simple to do and that can often be much more engaging than a written interview or paragraph.

Preparation:  Thinking it through beforehand

I cannot stress enough how even a little forward planning is crucial, otherwise you might miss your opportunity, forget a question or just produce a video with no real purpose.

  • What will it look like?: visualise the end product: what do you want your video to say, why do you want people to watch it and ultimately why should they care.
  • Who should you interview: you ideally need to choose someone that you know can speak well and clearly, but it’s often trial and error. Ask yourself beforehand if will they have something interesting to say?
  • Use all of the above to frame some key/guiding questions that you can ask the talking head(s). Adam Westbrook talks about focusing on “opinion, experience, anecdote.” In your interview try to extract this type of footage rather than focusing on facts, statistics or data.
  • Who will film it: at ODI a lot of our filming is done by members of the central communications team who are building their skills through practice and training. But your internal capacity options will vary and at ODI we also try to encourage researchers to do some of their own filming, particularly for field trips. You can consider attending short courses, but actually practice is the answer – try it out at home with a willing volunteer or in the office.

What camera/equipment to use?

  • For online ‘talking heads’, you really don’t need a big flashy expensive camera led by a professional crew. So I wouldn’t think twice about recommending a simple phone or digital camera with a video function. But you absolutely 100% can’t disregard quality  and you do need a camera that gives you both decent audible sound (or that you can attach an external mic to) and produces an image that is ‘viewable’ online without being too painful ( i.e. you can clearly see the face and the image is not too dark). Of course, if you are lucky and have the budget, you could invest in a more expensive camera for your team/organisation, particularly if you think you might go on to produce other types of films as well.
  • I would also suggest using a tripod (it makes such a difference to the image so it doesn’t look like you in the middle of a tremor!).  There are some very small, lightweight options that can work with camera phones, but if you don’t have one – then make sure you hold the camera as steady as possible, by perhaps supporting your arm on a table or a rest. Finally, you need a set of headphones, a memory card (or plenty of memory on the camera or phone) and a laptop or computer to transfer afterwards.

Where to film?

So the day of filming arrives, you grab your interviewee, you find a quick corner at a conference and then you get back to look at the footage and all you can hear are lots of people talking in the background (and maybe even some music)!  It’s really frustrating but there are a few things you can do to reduce the chances of this happening:

  • Quiet!: If possible, find somewhere that is contained and separate and above all quiet! –see if you can reserve a room earlier so that you can go prepare before and be ready to go almost as soon as the interviewee walks through the door.
  • Background: Rooms or areas with coloured backgrounds make for more interesting images than white walls – particularly in office locations (offices are sometimes the worst spaces for filming simply because the lighting is very harsh and unflattering!). But check the background is not controversial or dominant either. Also check there are no strange objects that could look like they are sticking out of the interviewee’s head (bottles and lamp shades spring to mind).
  • Lighting: Finally, for this type of filming, with no professional lighting kit, you need plenty of light for the interviewee, but not too much either – keep away from windows especially if the sun keeps coming and going. Or go outside, but be careful about choosing the location–anything from planes going overhead, wind or loud tropical birds in the background can interfere with sound and distract.

Framing the shot and setting up

  • When filming a talking head you want to go in relatively close to the person – not too close, but enough that the person is the main focus of the shot and so they have a little bit of space above their head.
  • Their eye line should be in line with the camera (so they aren’t looking up or down at the camera as in the video below).

Depending on the style of your video – ideally, you want to avoid interviewees looking directly at the camera (although video diaries, reports and campaign style videos are exceptions to this). This can be tricky if it’s just you filming and interviewing, but this is where the tripod comes in good use–so you should be next to the camera, ideally sitting or at similar level to the camera. And you will be to the right of the camera if the interviewee is on the left and to the left if the interviewee is on the right (see diagram below).  Ask the interviewee to look at you and not at the camera – you’re having a conversation (which can make them more relaxed).

During filming


  • Don’t be afraid to ask your interviewee to repeat something if unclear, to stop if there is a loud or distracting sound, or if you want to reframe the shot (if they are waving their hands around, for example).
  • Make sure that you get the interviewee to incorporate your questions into their answer as full sentences e.g. “Why do you like chocolate?” “I like chocolate because…..” rather than “I like it because…” or “I think that it’s a good treat.”


  • For talking heads, it really is fine to use a simple piece of editing software. At ODI we often use free options like Moviemaker or software that come with the camera– though they usually can’t do anything too complex, but it allows simple cutting and piecing together of shots and for you to add captions.
  • Keep these types of video as short as possible– viewer attention spans are usually short: 10 minutes is quite long for an online video, 3-5 minutes is ideal. You could also consider dividing them up into bite size chunks or separate films.
  • Use captions: They can be a great way to split up an interview, show the questions or key themes (particularly as you probably won’t have two cameras, or any ‘cutaways’ to help edit). Don’t forget to clearly name your talking head – even if it’s written on the webpage with the video – see the video as standalone.

Final product

  • The two main video platforms that we use at ODI are Youtube and Vimeo to share our videos, but there are many more out there. Enrique talks about some other options here.
  • Gail Wilson from ODI’s Digital Communications team gives these tips on sharing online videos:
  • Thumbnails: Youtube, for example, picks a thumbnail from within the video and the speaker may be mid-yawn or have their eyes closed. Therefore it is good to control the thumbnail so that it represents the interviewee well and grabs attention of viewers.
  • Meta-data:  when uploading the video it is important to include relevant tagging and meta-data to help Google search for and find the video.
  • Compress data for the web: so that it is quick to view and download, not too big but retains quality.”

Please do share any comments on this guide and any filming experiences or tips.