Four Tips for Better B-roll

B-roll of photographer René Tate helping a shy boy with the camera during Pictage's "Lens & Learn" event.

If you do any sort of documentary, educational or promotional video work, chances are you will need to use b-roll: video footage that plays usually during an audio voice over, e.g. an employee being interviewed for a corporate promotional film is talking about how fun it is to work there, then the video cuts to scenes of her at work while we still hear her talking.

As simple as it may seem, b-roll is something that should not be taken for granted. It can make the difference between a boring video filled with talking heads, or an engaging video that keeps the viewers’ attention an interest. Here are four tips for better b-roll.

  • Wait ’til after the interviews. If your video is comprised of interviews, try to get your b-roll after you’ve recorded all or most of the interviews. The reason is that inevitably the people interviewed will say certain things that may inspire the kind of b-roll you’ll want to shoot.
  • Coverage and Cut-aways. Coverage is the process of getting all the necessary shots and angles in a film. Master (or long) shots, medium shots, close-ups, low angle, high angle, etc. In scripted narrative films, it relates to making sure you get all the shots needed for any particular scene. For a documentary style video where b-roll is used, it can refer to getting enough b-roll to keep your video interesting. Or getting the important shots needed to properly “illustrate” what’s being said. If you’re doing a promotional film about a manufacturing process and there’s a lot of dialog about the machines used on the manufacturing floor, it would pretty much suck if you don’t have any b-roll of those machines. Cut-aways are shots of the interviewee’s environment that you can cut to while he or she it talking. This is a great technique to use if you need to hide jump cuts. Examples of cut-aways include awards on a shelf, family pictures on a desk, their hands as they talk, someone else in the room who’s listening and reacting to what the person is saying, etc.
  • Remember the 180 Degree Line Rule. If you read my blog post about “The Two 180s of Filmmaking,” you’ll remember that that 180 degree line rule. If you’re an event filmmaker shooting b-roll of a reception let’s say, and you want to get shots of two people talking, keep this rule in mind. Stay on the same side of that 180 degree line as you film the b-roll of the people.
  • Get b-roll of the interviewees. If at all possible, get b-roll of the people you’re interviewing. If it’s a corporate video, show them in their work environment. If it’s a testimonial for a product, show them using the product. If it’s an interview for a wedding film, show them interacting with the bride and groom. These are “characters” in the story. Show them.
When you’re getting b-roll, keep in mind you’re helping to tell a story. Don’t just “spray and pray.” In other words, don’t just randomly shoot stuff and hope you can use it. Be intentional. Think about the “story” you’re telling. Who are the players? What are the “props”? What is the setting?
Ten Minutes of B-roll
Below is a documentary short film we created on behalf of Pictage for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Las Vegas. This is the extended 10 minute version of the recap of their Lens & Learn event we shot last year. Except for a brief prologue where we see photographer Will Jacks, the entire film is b-roll. We never see the interviewees. However, even if you don’t know these photographers or recognize their voices, it’s shot and edited in a way (I hope) where you can tell that the person we see on screen is the person who’s talking. Also, pay particular attention in the opening sequence how I match the b-roll with the audio we hear. See if you can notice any of the other tips I mentioned.

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16 thoughts on “Four Tips for Better B-roll

  1. Can see that this was an important day for both photographer and child alike. Great to see.

  2. Love the creative, story-telling approach to the video. Your comment about shooting B-roll AFTER interviews was both insightful and helpful.

  3. Thanks for sharing Ron. Don’t forget to get sequence shots! A cook had ap process from beginning to end, make sure you get each step.

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