A crazy idea for pulling off powerful foreign language interviews

Okay, I need to preface this by saying I tend to go further than most in pursuit of the story. So what I’m going to share below is what we did in Japan to help tackle some legendary characters.

It’s pretty extreme. 

It worked so well that one of the characters actually thought I spoke Japanese.

Even if you don’t do foreign language interviews, today’s post walks you through exactly how we managed our interviews and has a bunch of tips for you.

So if you do interviews of any kind–this one is for you.

But, in saying that, it’s an elaborate setup that’s recommended for really significant interviews where you want the best possible experience.

The challenge with foreign language interviews is that you often have to pass the interviewing off to a translator. It’s no longer your interview, and you often get heavily reduced summaries of what’s being said.

It’s happened to me more than once that a translator quoted the interviewee as saying exactly what we needed only to find once fully translated back in the studio that the lines are way off and totally won’t work.

More than just knowing exactly what’s being said, we believe that it’s the experience that matters most. How the interviewee feels and the space you create for them is the largest determining factor of the energy and passion they are able to share with you.

But how the heck do you create a strong experience when for your interviewee when they speak another language and everything said needs to go through a translator, meaning one long time delay. 

Plus, the translator rarely offers a fraction of the encouragement and back and forth dialogue that we would naturally do as part of our interview process.

So in Japan, we got the opportunity to interview two massive characters at FUJIFILM for our Create Forever series with FUJIFILM. These aren’t people who have been interviewed and we wanted to get the same passion and energy as all of the other image-makers we’d interviewed.

Here’s a look at the final episode featuring two legendary FUJIFILM engineers.

All of the interviews for this series were done with the interviewee looking straight into the camera. This allows for a stronger connection with the audience (and research shows it increases Character Identification, which is a huge metric for the success of your story). 

But looking into a lens is awkward for almost anybody, so we use an iPad teleprompter with the iPad hooked up with FaceTime to a laptop. That means that the interviewer’s face (in this case mine), is sent to the iPad and the interviewee is looking at me, rather than the lens, just like we were doing the interview as a FaceTime call. And yes, this setup does let you dial in remotely to conduct an interview :)

It’s critical you add a flag between the interviewer and interviewee so they cannot make direct eye contact. If they can, it’s natural to turn and try to talk to the person directly versus through a device. And then your interviewee is awkwardly looking to the side.

So, add a flag and make things much, much smoother.

As the interviewer, if you can’t directly see the interviewee due to the flag, you’ll want a feed of the camera so you can react to and be aware of the interviewee’s energy.

We filmed this series mostly on the GFX 100 which has a mini HDMI port. That pairs perfectly with a 5” SmallHD Focus Bolt monitor–an on-camera monitor with a built-in transmitter. Place the 7” SmallHD directors monitor next to your laptop and you’ve got two-way video transmission. 

The GFX 100 with the Focus Bolt 5” on top running wirelessly to a director’s monitor.

The interviewee can see you while looking straight at the lens in a way that feels super comfortable. And you can see the camera feed and react to them as you normally would.

Now, one small hiccup. You want great Wifi for the FaceTime call, and depending on where you are, that may not be guaranteed. For that, I picked up a Solaris Skyroam–a mobile hotspot that does unlimited data in 100 countries and lasts over 12 hours on its own battery.

A BTS image of our interview with Ira Glass. You can see our setup to the back left of everybody talking.

Pop this sucker down, connect both devices, and it worked wonderfully at maintaining that connection between the iPad and laptop.

Okay, that’s the video side handled.

All it took was an iPad teleprompter, iPad, laptop, SmallHD Focus Bolt monitor plus matching directors monitor (and perhaps a device for helping with wifi). 

Now, what about the audio?

This is where it gets tricky. 

We did have a translator from FUJIFILM, somebody who knew the brand and technical language as a way of helping make the interviewees comfortable.

What I wanted to figure out was how to make sure I knew exactly what was being said, while also being able to reply to their comments far quicker to keep the conversational flow going.

So I posted an ad on Craigslist.

“Looking for somebody who is fluent in both English and Japanese who would love to help on a documentary project that explores the mission and people behind FUJIFILM.”

I thought that perhaps if we could source our own translator I could have the second one focused on translating the interviewee from Japanese to English in real-time.

Check out how we pulled it off–it’s pretty darn rad.

We ran a headphone splitter into our audio recorder and then attached a 15’ extension cable that ran into the room next door. This is where the second translator was stationed. He had his own pair of headphones that were now a live feed from the boom and he could very clearly hear everything the interviewee was saying.

To ensure I could get the translation in as near real-time as possible we simply placed a phone call between the rooms and place my phone on mute. So the interviewee would speak in Japanese, and a moment later I would hear the English translation in my headphones.

The moment they finished speaking I could immediately respond with a comment or follow up question.

It worked so beautifully that Minami-San was shocked. He sat there a little confused thinking that I spoke Japanese :)

Here is a hand-drawn plot of how the whole setup came together.

A plot of how we setup our FUJIFILM interviews.

Have you ever gone to great lengths to pull off an amazing interview? If so, share the story with us below.