The Art of Documentary B-roll

B-roll is the heart of the visual story for documentary film. It shares some characteristics with fiction cinematography and photo/video journalism.

Loosely defined, b-roll is all the footage that’s not part of formal and informal interviews or coverage of set events. Another way to think of it: b-roll is all the illustrative stuff the audience sees while people are talking or music is playing.

Unlike shooting for fiction, where scenes are meticulously planned from lighting to framing to action, shooting for documentary films has a lot in common with shooting for news. It is certainly possible to plan for certain types of scenes. Planning is always preferable to winging it. But much is discovered on the fly during a shoot. Being ready is the key.

The example video shows some documentary b-roll from the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico shot for the Witness at the Border documentary film currently in production. The story is about the distressing effects of the Migrant Protection Protocols on refugees and the local volunteers who are trying to mitigate those effects. One can plan for specific events or situations that you know will occur. For example, shooting sequences at the sidewalk school or of the weekly water delivery. But every moment spent in the camp presents multiple opportunities for which a cinematographer cannot plan. And these unplanned moments are often the most telling — a mother and son struggling to secure some wooden pallets for their camp site or a mother and daughter sharing a playful moment with a younger child.

The Art of B-roll from Carbon Trace Productions on Vimeo.

It is crucial for cinematographers shooting documentary b-roll to be fully aware of the theme, narrative arc, and artistic approach of the film they’re working on. You have to be ready to see an opportunity in exactly the same way a news photographer has to be ready to see the news. So understanding the story you’re telling is part of this seeing. The other part of this seeing is artistic approach, or style, as understood by fiction cinematographers. Good composition, effective use of available light, the ability to anticipate the actions and reactions of people all play a role in this.

In addition to being mentally ready to recognize opportunities and moments, a good documentary b-roll shooter has to be ready with their equipment. That means at the very least:

  • Absolutely understanding your camera and how it works so that its operation is second nature to you.
  • Bringing the right equipment for the (planned) situation.
  • Bringing secondary cameras just in case — especially ones that can handle special situations, e.g. low light.
  • Making sure everything is ready to go, e.g. batteries charged. Take nothing for granted.
  • Be ready to work with whatever you have. If a great shot presents itself, and all you have is a smartphone, then shoot with the smartphone.

B-roll tips to make your next shoot better:

Find the emotional heart of every sequence. This means, beyond good 2-dimensional composition, b-roll shooters should be paying attention to the “decisive moment” in the movement or interaction of:

  • Eyes
  • Facial expressions
  • Hands
  • Posture (especially of the head, shoulders, and back)

Check these resources for more on the decisive moment:

The above resources were written for still photographers, but the concept also applies to documentary cinematography. The ability to anticipate and capture the decisive moment is an essential difference between those who make their living in documentary filmmaking and those who don’t.

Let the camera roll. Whatever attracted you about the scene you are shooting might get better. Don’t miss it by stopping. Let scenes play out fully before stopping. That’s obviously a judgement call. But figure that scenes lasting fewer than 10 seconds are going to be hard to deal with in editing. An editor would rather search through a 5-minute clip and find 7 seconds of gold than groan over a missed opportunity on a 6-second clip.

Don’t wait for the shot to look good in the viewfinder before hitting the record button. Hit the record button first, then make it look pretty.

Move your body. If the subject isn’t moving, maybe you should be moving. Again, a judgement call. The point is: don’t be afraid to be a human jib.

Don’t worry about momentary glitches such as stray camera movements or losing focus. Keep shooting.

Carbon Trace can provide significant guidance in developing, funding, producing, and distributing a documentary film. For high school students wishing to learn more about documentary filmmaking, Missouri State University offers degrees in digital filmmaking, media production, journalism, and other associated areas.

To take part in the documentary education provided through the Carbon Trace Team we encourage you to apply for a filmmaking internship, submit a documentary idea, or apply to become a volunteer using the forms below.

Join Carbon Trace as a student volunteer

Apply for an internship

Submit a documentary idea

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