Annotating Interviews on the Fly

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Yes, we here at B&H are giving some Explora love to ENG: Electronic News Gathering. The technical aspects of this topic have been covered passing well in Basic Tips and Tricks for Electronic News Gathering (ENG), so this piece pulls back and looks at a non-technical aspect of gathering intel—non-technical, yet still essential: Today, we look at annotating interviews on the fly.

Outside of B&H, I wear a variety of hats. Some belong to the post-production/engineering worlds, where I’ve recorded, edited, and mixed a variety of applicable media. Yet another of these hats belongs to Forbes.com (and, at times, FORBES Magazine), where I’ve covered music-business-related news. These different-facing hats—or if you’d like to picture it as one hat, this Deerstalker—have given me useful perspectives for annotating notes in journalistic, producorial, and engineering capacities. I hope to import some of what I’ve learned, below, because these techniques have literally saved my reporting, engineering, file storage, and ultimate file delivery; staying organized, especially in these disorganized and chaotic times, is essential.

Let’s start by defining annotation for our purposes, then moving on to address different techniques for different scenarios.

Merriam-Webster says that to annotate is to “make or furnish critical or explanatory notes or comment.” True, but this definition leaves out the urgency you’ll feel in the field, where to annotate is to scrawl down everything you can before it’s too late. You’re giving yourself a roadmap for perusing the media later, so you can implement it expeditiously—something particularly necessary when you’re under deadline.

For a journalist, annotating means keeping track of the interview in sequential order so that when it comes time to pull a quote, you know roughly where it happened in the conversation. For someone behind the camera—any kind of producorial assistant—it means assuming this role when the journalist is on camera, so that the material stays organized. For an engineer, it’s a bit more technical: proper labeling technique and familiarity with timecode is a must.

Keep in mind, the following tips aren’t useful for ENG alone; they’re also applicable for EFP, podcasts, webcasts, documentaries, reality TV production, or literally any medium somewhat tethered to facts or alternative facts.

Annotating an Off-Camera, In-Person Interview

If you’re interviewing someone in person but not on camera, keep a pad and paper in front of you, alongside a wrist-watch (or anything that displays time—if your recorder’s in view and has visible timecode, even better). Go about your interview as you would, and when you hear something you feel is important, note the time the quote was uttered.

It might seem disaffected or rude to take notes in person. This, however, can be used to your advantage, as the act of taking notes presents you in varieties of manner, the control over which is entirely up to you: you can impress your subject with your diligence (useful when trust is being built), or alternatively, you can use your note-taking to present yourself as disinterested—or even stupid. Believe it or not, the latter position comes in handy when trying to elicit “gotcha” information; when people with secrets think they’re talking to an idiot, they often blurt out their secrets—either because they think you’re stupid and won’t notice, or they get confounded with the idiocy in front of them and accidentally let something slip in over-explanation.

This does happen. For examples, I invite you to peruse any article I’ve written on Forbes.com where a source says something they probably shouldn’t have put on the record. Usually my go-to technique is blaming my note-taking and looking like a fool—and it often works.

Phone and Producorial Annotating

This is the easiest method, and it applies to conducting interviews over the phone and to editorial/producorial assistants listening in. Basically, you just take short-hand notes of everything that has been said on a minute by minute basis. It ends up being fairly typo-filled, but that is no matter:

1:04 – Doesn’t want to braek with compny becuz of branding opportunies

2:08 – usual marketing stuff

3:07 – Admits to skimming money USE THIS

This is often what my notes look like. I don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or anything like that. Essentially, this is just like taking notes on a lecture in high-school, only you put the time clearly before each scrawl and you never let more than two minutes elapse without a separate note. Then, when you assemble your piece (in print, audio, or visual media) you know where the quote is. Likewise, if your reporter is on camera, and you happen to be overseeing the editorial, you should either take these notes or assign someone the task and make sure they do it diligently.

Annotating in an On-Camera Interview

If you’re conducting an interview on camera, keeping notes in real time is nearly impossible—nearly, but not quite. You can keep at least four memories/times stored in your brain with a simple mnemonic technique and any clock (should there be no clock visible from your place in the shot; you can also use your own interior sense of time, if you trust in its reliability).

This technique is useful when you have no one on hand to keep notes—which is more and more likely in these days of self-starting projects and ever-shrinking budgets. Sure, the technique sounds a little weird, but it works.

When you hear something you know you want to use, look at whatever clock you can (or remind yourself you’re “X” minutes into the interview) and press your thumbnail into the pad of your index finger. Do this twice more in the following minute whilst reminding yourself you have a quote at “X” time. If another suitable quote comes along, move onto your index finger and repeat the process. You’ve got four fingers available on your hand for this process, and it’s virtually unnoticeable.

I admit, it seems spurious, but it works; with minimal practice, you’ll be able to keep mental track of essential quotes/times in the short term. Get the times onto paper, though, as soon as you can.

And Finally, for the Audio Recordist

Notice I did not say “Engineer” here. That’s because in the world of broadcast, the title of Engineer holds a different connotation. The Recordist (sometimes called the Mixer) does keep notes—largely having to do with audio problems occurring in the shot. This is more for EFP than ENG (Electronic Field Production versus Electronic News Gathering), but is still a necessary practice.

Basically, you label all audio—on paper, and in the mixer, if you can—in whichever terminology has been decided. It could be the filmic “Scene/Shot/Take style,” or simple sound numbers. Regardless, your archival role is to record, on paper, the timecode at which the take starts, as well as various other aspects of what happened in the shot. Examples of this include “Lav cloth noise at 1:53 in” or “airplane overhead at 12:15 in.” Notes can also pertain to the predilections of your higher-ups (“13:20—producer likes this take”); the important thing is to make sure you’ve got essential info to hand off the chain when you’re done. These notes are usually conducted on paper, but can be done with apps, as well.

So, these are my basic techniques. If you have any questions, please post them in the Comments section, below.

6 Comments

I love this article! It rings true with my experience, and has a few nuggets that I can use to improve my turnaround time!

Old news photog trick...  To flag a "use this" hit the color bars for a few seconds at the end of the answer. 

Is there an app which would allow you to record timestamps simply by tapping something? If it recorded multiple taps you could even hit it once for "okay," and perhaps three times for "must use."  

Hi Robert - 

You could make up your own codes for use with a portable audio recorder.  I ran across this app from the Apple iTunes store that might be of interest:

Welcome to Notability: powerful, yet wonderfully simple note-taking and PDF annotation.

Apple Editors' Choice on iPad, iPhone, and Mac! Apple's Mac App of The Year! Recognized by Apple as the Best Selling Paid Productivity app in 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013!

Students, teachers, and business professionals use Notability daily to take notes, sketch ideas, annotate PDFs, mark-up photos, record lectures, provide audio feedback and more. It is uniquely designed for each device to provide the best note taking experience at school, at home, and at work. And with iCloud, your notes are always up to date.

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IMPORT AND ANNOTATE PDFs
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AUDIO RECORDINGS: REVIEW AND GIVE FEEDBACK
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In 2015, I attended a practice round of THe Masters Golf Tournament. Augusta National does not allow cellphones during practice rounds; I chose a practice round since cameras are allowed. I saw some photographers "loaded for bear" with honking supertelephotos. I carried my Canon F-1N with FD 28mm and my Canon 5D III with a 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L II.

I noticed one sports photographer wearing a concert style mic and was speaking into it , probably for note taking. Is there a portable voice recorder that timestamps the various recordings? If so, I'm either going to buy it or rent it.

Hi Ralph - 

The black Sony ICD-UX533 Digital Flash Voice Recorder features 4GB of internal flash memory and can capture audio as mono PCM WAV or MP3 files. You can record up to 1,073 hours to the built-in memory, and expand recording capabilities via its microSD expansion slot. The unit has a backlit LCD display that enables ease at night or in darkened locations.

The ICD-UX533 has a built-in USB connector that allows you to sync with your Mac or PC without the need to look for an external cable. It is powered by a single include AAA rechargeable battery. Sony also includes a USB cable and a pair of stereo headphones.

Calendar Search

Search for recordings by date. When in use, a calendar displays, indicating the dates when recordings were made.

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