The importance of "B-roll" in video production. A hard lesson for me.

super A.D., Ben, grabs for all the "B-Roll" he can find!

The hardest thing of all in creating good video is not getting the color right or the footage sharp. Some would say the hardest part is always getting good sound. But for me the hardest part of the process is the edit. And the stumbling block for me is that I have a hard time understanding the vital importance (in the edit phase) of having lots of great "B-roll" to choose from. 

First of all, What the Hell is B-roll? Most of the video work I do involves shooting interviews. The interviews can be about new products, new processes or about something that the interviewee has done that is interesting. My somewhat linear mindset leads me to want to shoot the interview the same way I'd shoot a photographic portrait. My brain was programmed by years of still photography to compose a very nice frame, get my lighting as close to perfect as I can and to pay attention to the main event; the actual interview. 

But if you are creating video that's watchable you need to understand that having a person stare into (or near) the camera lens and talk can get pretty boring pretty quickly. Also, since we seem to be culturally evolving into a new species that learns almost exclusively by seeing, we need on screen images of the things our interviewee is talking about for the audience to better understand the content. Finally, we need scenes and associated imagery to cut away to in the event that we need to make an edit to the primary footage. After all, the way video works best is to get your audience into the story. Technical glitches are a quick way to pull them right back out of your story and move on to something else. 

In the video Ben and I are currently on for a healthcare client we have an interviewee who gave us a tremendous interview session. The technical problem is that she said great stuff but it was spread across different clips. We wanted to piece one very tight and coherent program out of these little gems of content but every time you make a cut from one clip to another there is a jarring difference in the overall continuity. The person's body might be in a different posture, hands in a different place, even the expression might be much different (if the light or sound is different; that's on you!). 

So, when we want to join different clips we need something else to cut away to to keep the audience from seeing the obvious visual hiccups. That's the primary role of B-roll. It is footage that gets inserted into your program either to show something that relates to what your narrator or interviewee is saying or to provide a way to disguise cuts between clips. The best situation is that B-roll will do both. 

Since my brain seems hard-wired to go straight for the obvious I end up running the "A" camera in most projects. I have a good, linear idea of the overall outline of the project and I'm off and running from point "A" to point "B". I'm busy following the map. But I am not incapable of learning. In solo projects I set up a second camera to run during interviews which gives me a different point of view to use in my edits and I try my best (with a meticulous shot list) to get as much footage that is relevant as I can. But if push comes to shove it's the direct interview that always takes precedence. 

Recently I was beaten over the head with just how useful and necessary good B-roll could be. My assistant director on our healthcare video project spent the shooting day with a Sony RX10iii camera in his hands. We set both the primary shooting camera and his camera to the same codec, the same white balance and fps to give us a fighting chance at mixing the footage in the edit. 

Everything I shot the A.D also shot, but from a different angle and different magnifications. He also shot details and close-ups and reverse angles. In all, he shot about twice as many clips as I did but, in my defense, my camera was running all the time on interviews...

When we got back to the studio my A.D. started editing the footage based on the outline we created. We had just done a Lynda.com refresher course to learn what was new in Final Cut Pro X 10.3 and were both excited to try using the "flow" transition tool to cut together the interview (which would serve as a primary narration track) from the jigsaw box full of clips we had at hand. The flow tool is a great transition tool where audio is involved. It seems to understand that we're piecing together two different clips of audio and automatically makes the transitions almost (audibly) invisible. 

As you may guess we had dozens and dozens of clips butted together and while the audio was more or less seamless the visual cuts were obvious. That's when my A.D. started diving into his treasure chest full of B-roll. Stuff I never thought about came out. A super close up of a stream of fresh, hot coffee filling up a coffee carafe in the kitchen. An ethereal shot of a bowl of lemons. Numerous shots of the products shot in an artsy way with a moving, handheld camera. Lots of angles of our main talent athletically piloting her wheel chair in a park, at a lake, at a restaurant, getting in and out of her car, having a meeting, etc., etc. 

He seemed to have the perfect cutaway shot for every contingency and I marveled as the project grew from a barebones documentation to a full blown, visual narrative. Video is so much richer with images that bolster the "main" footage.

Since my current A.D. is "on loan" from his college I'll be looking for a new assistant director/editor to work with in February. First on my list of question for them will be, "tell me your ideas about shooting B-roll..."

It's good to figure out where my blindspots are so I can work on them. From now until it becomes second nature I'll be carrying a "B-roll" shot list with me on every assignment. Yikes. So much harder than the camera work. At least for me.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this. I'm a long-time still shooter who has avoided video like the plague for years, but work requirements dictate that I get up to speed. I'm a dry sponge right now, trying to learn all I can.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

You are most welcome Mike. I think photographers like you and I can figure out the nuts and bolts but the "how's and why's" are different. That's where my learning curve has always been steepest. Thanks for checking in.

Fred said...

Yes! I ran in to this Thursday night when I shot video of my woodworking club meeting. I knew when I was shooting from in front of the speaker that I needed B-roll from the left side (because the speaker was right handed and was on the right side of the screen that he had power point images on) to splice to the footage that I was shooting and for all the reasons that you mentioned. I also realized that I should have shot video of the furniture pieces and jigs, etc. that he brought as props before the meeting started because afterwards there were too many people in the way as they waited to ask questions.
So the lessons learned are (and I'm sure there are more that I don't recognize yet): list the shots that I want ahead of time, shoot as much "background" stuff as I can before the meeting starts, see if I can get a second camera to mount on a tripod for B-roll and let it run, not to mention all that audio stuff that I know there is so much more to experiment with.
Now if only there were more black Friday sales this week so that I could get two 4K cameras to zoom in post editing to 1080p output.
Once upon a time all I dreamed about were F-2's, 35mm and 105mm lenses, and a sports car to transport them. Now I think about jibs, sliders, gimbals, and full size vans!!!

Richard said...

Kirk, Shooting B-roll is like shooting the decorations and flowers at a wedding. It is the little details that fill out the story. B-Roll can be establishing shots, location shots, transition shots between locations, time of day shots, or simply a pan on an exterior building or a company sign. It is often not hard, you just have to put it in your shot list or, better yet, in your script. You probably won't know what you will shoot until you are actually shooting. I was a video producer for 10 years. Just be aware that your client's might not be able to help you with this. Good luck! Love your blog!

Dave said...

I like all of your posts, but tips and experience like this is gold. Thanks for sharing Kirk.

Ken said...

We're about the same age and probably caught the photography bug around the same time. Even though I have done the odd video project from time to time, starting when digital video was on tape and not including a brief foray into Super 8mm film in the '70's, I have been more reluctant than you to delve more deeply into video - until recently. Even though when viewed as a whole the world of video seems far too complex and time consuming to get into, I am slowly but surely starting to see the world as it flows rather than as discrete split second moments. Therefore (and finally!), I get to the point and say I really enjoyed and learned from this post and look forward to seeing the finished product. I, for one, don't mind your video-centric posts.

Ron Nabity said...

B roll is essential for the exact reasons you gave. It adds visual interest to a talking head, and it is a great way to mask edits. And I always come away from a video project wishing I had shot more B roll, mostly for the first reason - adding visual interest.

For interviews, I always shoot with two cameras on the subject, one with a tighter framing than the other. All final sound is captured on one camera's XLR inputs, the other camera's soundtrack is used for synching with PluralEyes, but that soundtrack is not used in the final production. For the most part, these two video tracks give me enough to work with to cover edits; B roll adds the visual icing on the cake.

Clients always comment that I made them sound smart. It is still their words in the end, but they have no idea how many "Umm"s and tangents I've extracted.

Dave V said...

When showing technical details of a product or process the "Ken Burns" effect done with high quality stills can be great. There really is a lot "zooming" room for 1080 video when using stills from the newer high megapixel cameras. It is also much easier to put the ring light flash on the macro lens and take some stills than it is to do macro video.

Richard Swearinger said...

I always just pretend it's 1964 and I'm on assignment for Life magazine; that helps me remember to get all those insert shots and cutaways you're talking about. Here's another trick that always works: if you're really up against it, put a camera on your interview subject's hands, then you'll always have something to cut away to.