Directing

Your B-Roll is Your A-Roll

The term “B-roll” comes from the world of film where editors used to use an “A” and a “B” roll of identical footage, before the digital age changed everything. B-roll shots are similar to cutaways in that they help break up the static interview shots, but B-roll plays a more major role in telling a visual documentary story.

A long-time documentary filmmaker I know actually refuses to use the term B-roll, because she feels it diminishes the importance of these visuals—and she’s right. B-roll should not be a secondary or low priority. It really should be thought of as “A-roll,” because it is the action of your story, which serves to reveal character. Without it, you’ve just got a bunch of talking heads… booor-ing.

Safety Takes

Image by: Vancouver Film School

Even with an engaging storyteller speaking, the audience still needs to see visuals of the scene, settings, characters, and action of the story. An interview or voice-over itself is the narration or literal telling of the story. The B-roll is the showing of the story. Together they can complement each other by painting a more complete picture. That amazing guitarist could tell us what it was like to play Woodstock (the real one), but we’ve only got half the story until we cut in the B-roll shots that show the multitudes of free-spirited, mud-covered hippies swirling to the music as far as the camera lens can see. A soldier could tell us what it’s like to be in combat, but when we cut in a shot of explosions and a chaotic firefight, his story takes on real human meaning. Now we’ve got a much stronger sense of story than either an interview or B-roll footage alone could have given us.

If you only have a short time with your subject, you’re going to have to figure out how to best get some supporting images. Often, I’ll try to grab some B-roll, immediately before and after the interview, of the subject doing whatever they would naturally do in the environment. As with cutaway shots, any B-roll you shoot may be needed by your editor to make a problem segment work, to cover up a problem with another shot, or it may be just the right shot to make visual poetry.

Ideally, the B-roll relates directly to the topic at hand, but often you’ll have to settle for mundane activity that just shows your subject in action in their environment. The best-case scenario is to schedule some separate or additional time to follow your subject and shoot action shots. If you arrange this with them ahead of time, you’ll be able to determine the most appropriate and visual activities and events to capture for your project.

Think of ways to have subjects demonstrate the subject matter. If he’s a chef, show him cooking. If she’s a vet, show her treating an animal. Show us the A-roll… the action of your story.

THE DARK ART OF BEDROOM B-ROLL

Just like every industry doc filmmaking has it’s dirty little secrets and little-known practices. One of the black ops tricks we occasionally have to employ, especially when the clock is ticking, is something I like to call bedroom B-Roll.

There will inevitably come a time when you have some great content, but really could use an appropriate visual to (a) visualize the content, (b) cover up a mistake such as a camera bump or someone crossing into frame, (c) give you footage to cover up a jump cut that resulted from cutting two different sound bites from your subject together, or maybe you just need a few more shots to make a transitional montage work.

Whatever the cause, the bottom line is that you’re blurry-eyed in front of your computer for the sixth hour straight and you have to finish your project in the next 48 hours, but you really need a shot that doesn’t exist. Well, with your chief Down and Dirty weapon—a little imagination and creativity—it’s not too difficult to create some quick cut-aways or B-roll without ever leaving your bedroom.

The secret is to think of “generic” shots that don’t do much to reveal specific time, place, or people, but that serve as an appropriate visual reference for the content at hand. Extreme close ups, POV shots, and still life shots are some of the common tools of this dark doc practice. (Okay, it’s not really that dark or secret, I’m just being dramatic and using gratuitous alliteration.) With a little imagination and the right location you can often conjure up some appropriate B-roll without staging an entire production.

Excerpt from The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production by Anthony Q. Artis, © 2014. Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC. All rights reserved.

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