Shooting Effective B-Roll for Documentaries: How to Shoot Coverage & MEM B-Roll and the Advantages by George Avgerakis“

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, February 2007. Shooting Effective B-Roll for Documentaries: How to Shoot Coverage & MEM B-Roll and the Advantages by George Avgerakis. Pages 18 – 20.

If you ever saw the movie, Jerry Maguire, you know the four most important words in the movie: “Show me the money.”

When you finish shooting your movie and hand over the raw footage to your client, eventually you will hear a similar phrase: “Show me the B-roll.” Its implication will be just as important to you as, “Show me the money,” was to Jerry Maguire’s client.

In documentary films, the A-roll is the most important footage: the interviews. So the B-roll is the footage that is not talking heads. In all other kinds of films, the B-roll is the footage that is not in the script.

Obviously, because it is not A-roll, B-roll footage takes second priority and is sometimes completely forgotten by a director. If the director is particularly unlucky, it is also forgotten by the director’s crew. This is not a good thing.
Good directors must acquire their precious A-roll, while producers are breathing humid digestive gasses down the napes of their necks, but a great director needs to also set aside enough resources to acquire B-roll so as not to see the editor throw up her hands in disgust and say, “Sorry, you’re screwed, mate.”

Getting screwed in the edit means you do not have adequate footage to create a smooth, logical flow of images. It can mean that you have an ugly jump cut, or that you don’t have a shot the client needs to write the final check. It often means you have to go out, hire back the crew and talent, rebuild a set or re-rent a location, maybe get props and costumes, and reshoot. Did I mention how much all this will cost?

Effective B-roll breaks down into two categories: “Coverage” and “Make Extra Money” (MEM).

Coverage B-roll is footage you think about after every shot. If you’re doing a simple “talking head” where a person faces the camera and makes a presentation, or when you are shooting a documentary interview, the B-roll is footage you get to allow you to cut out the talking head’s mistakes and BS.

For instance, you are in a close-up of Police Commissioner Gordon and he stops mid-sentence, clears his throat around a baseball-sized lugey, whips out his hanky and disposes of some hazardous waste before he continues telling you how he extracted a confession from a naked homeless man. A good director would be trying to keep the subject focused and might not notice if the cameraman was good enough to rack to a wide shot while the Commissioner paused. But this cameraman is a freshman who lied about his age and he stays in close up. Consequently, your editor is going to spit galvanized wingnuts if she doesn’t have something visual to paste over the ugly jump cut where she has to cut out the lugey.

If you had shot some B-roll, you would look like a waterboy in Death Valley, so what could you shoot before you wrap it up with the Comish? You start out by shooting “hand shots.”

To shoot hand shots, have the camera focus tight on the subject’s waist area. Do not show the lower jaw or lips. Politely explain to the subjects that you are going to shoot just their hands in order to add “dramatic emphasis” to their statements. If they don’t buy this line, you’ll have to explain the entire editing process – so try to sound convincing. Don’t bother recording sound for hand shots. While the camera runs, ask the subject to mimic your own hands. Then put your hands into various poses. Folded, tented, gesturing left and right, pointing, the Politician’s Point (like handing someone a dollar bill, but with nothing there), and the famous Countdown (one hand’s index finger counts against the other hand’s fingers one-by-one). All of these gestures can be used to get out of nasty jump cuts and, if used appropriately (like reducing 30 minutes of blah-blah into 30 seconds of five succinct points, using the Countdown), even improve the visual quality.

Never leave a talking head without hand shots.

A more intelligent form of B-roll requires that the director actually listen to the interview and take notes. This takes Gameboy Champion skill as you write without looking down. When the interview is over, you go back over your notes to look for things you can shoot to illustrate the interview. For instance, if the subject mentions his beloved dog that died last New Year, be sure you shoot the stuffed dog that he has displayed by the fireplace.

An even more intelligent use of B-roll footage was developed in the 1960s by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). It is so intelligent that it goes beyond “Coverage” B-roll and into “Make Extra Money” B-roll.

Back in the days of 16mm film documentaries (from the invention of 16mm sound-on-film in the 1950s until the advent of portable video recorders in the early 80s), the cost of every second of film, processing and workprinting (about 60 cents US per second in 1970s money!) meant that very little shooting could be done. The BBC, with even less money to spend than their rich cousins at PBS, perfected the “Pre-Shoot Interview Technique.”

Instead of taking the video crew and cameras out to shoot a documentary, the Beeb producer would go out alone with a sound recorder and lavaliere microphone. Instead of shooting film, the producer would do the interview with only sound! After the interviews are over, the tracks were cut down to eliminate the questions and wasted talk. Then the tapes were transcribed by a typist into pages and pages of text. This text was then pencil edited, cut and pasted (literally, with rubber glue!) into a story and submitted for approval.

Once the executives approved the story, the film crew was dispatched to shoot footage that illustrated the interview text! This footage could include re-interview head shots, but more often involved reenactments, examples, dramatizations and other footage that was more interesting to watch than a lip flapping. In other words, the entire film was MEM B-roll, because the shoot-to-final-edit ratio was whittled from something like 15:1 to 3:1.
You can use the BBC Pre-shoot Interview Technique as a means of giving nervous clients total control over a production that they would otherwise get very frustrated to control. In addition, you can easily pinpoint the exact amount of days you’ll need to shoot, because you can break down the interview script like you break down a feature film script.

Getting back to Coverage B-roll for a moment, we have to cover that most challenging of documentary setups – the multiple interview – where you shoot more than one person in a setup. Multiple interviews are a royal pain in the seat organs. You never know which subject is going to talk, or when, so the camera is constantly chasing (and missing) shots, while the director tries to get the subjects to re-say something the camera missed. There are, however, times when you can’t avoid shooting multiple interviews, and I personally love older couples where one person does all the talking and you keep the silent one in the shot for comic relief or dramatic emphasis (there’s even a pharmaceutical commercial running now, that uses this to great advantage).

The trick to getting Coverage B-roll on multiple interviews is to shoot lots of shots of the people who are listening to the talker. This requires real patience. After the shoot, give all the people the same line you would use to get hand shots. But instead of hand shots, you are going to shoot “listening shots.” This can be tricky. You have to pose and shoot each person as if they were listening to each of the other people. And for each of the listeners, you would shoot about several 10-second-long shots. These shots could include, nodding in agreement, indicating disagreement, smiling, laughing, looking to other people for consensus – basically, all the things a person does when they are paying attention to someone else talking. Again, remember to get these reactions from the listener while the listener is facing in the direction of each of the other people in the scene.

Finally, here’s a tip to shooting MEM B-roll that is like putting money in the bank. Whenever you are on location, look for opportunities to film “stock footage.” For instance, if you are in a factory setting, get shots of the workers at various jobs, punching a time clock, eating lunch. You may be able to use these shots for your current project, but the shots can and should be catalogued and saved for the future. That way, if a client comes in with a limited budget, and needs footage of workers in a factory, but doesn’t have the money to pay you to do a shoot, you can offer the stock footage at, say, $500 a shot (10-30 seconds). The client will be delighted, and you will have pocketed a free paycheck.
I was once hired to film a heart transplant at a prestigious teaching hospital. Although the Chief Surgeon predicted we’d get the required operation in less than 4 days, we actually waited 4 weeks! The client happily paid the extra time, so everyday we went into the operating rooms and shot whatever operations were scheduled. In 4 weeks we filmed over 50 unique procedures. Since our standard contract stipulates that our company owns the copyright to everything we shoot, that footage then became ours – forever.

I would say that 3-4 times a year I get called to sell some scenes from that shoot. The average purchase is $1,500, plus search time, dubbing and stock. Not bad for taking the time to shoot some effective B-roll while already gamefully employed.

George Avgerakis is VP Creative Director of Avekta Productions in Yonkers, New York, an e-media production company that produces video, CD-DVD, web content and print in English and foreign languages. George’s email is

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