The Four "S"s of B-roll
Making a film is like manufacturing a jigsaw puzzle in reverse.
Instead of starting with an image printed on cardboard and cutting it into pieces, you have to make each puzzle piece so that they all fit together in a complete picture at the end. This process of filming individual shots to make a complete film is the great challenge and joy of video production.
For anyone starting in video production, the most common piece of advice is: Shoot like an editor. In other words, think about that completed picture (the finished film) as you are constructing (filming) each puzzle piece.
It’s good advice, but for someone inexperienced, what exactly does it mean to shoot like an editor?
First, a story:
Image: Tungd31/Wikimedia Commons
This is a Sony Betacam video player, and it was the bane of my existence for many years.
My first job in video production was as an assistant at a small company that made documentary-style videos. In a documentary, you typically film an interview with someone, and then supplement that footage with related scenery or action, known as “B-roll.”
Most of my day was spent using this machine, shuttling through hours of videotapes and finding the best bits of b-roll to give to the editors. Logging b-roll is grueling and seemingly endless, but I eventually noticed something: some b-roll was easier to log than others, and some b-roll produced better videos than others.
Over those many hours of analyzing footage, I distilled my insights into what I call the Four “S”s of B-roll: four essential (S-ential?) elements that you can keep in mind while filming documentary footage.
The first S is the most basic element of any film: a shot.
To understand a shot, we have to talk about time.
We perceive time unfolding endlessly before us. There is no start or stop to any particular moment, each melting fluidly into the next.
In much the same way, a video camera films continuously. You can easily move from subject to subject fluidly, much like you are looking around the room and experiencing what is happening.
Of course, a film is rarely just one single shot. Videos are made of dozens or hundreds of shots cut together. Video editors ultimately need to decide when a given moment starts and when it stops.
Understanding how to get a shot means shooting like an editor. In other words, a shot has a beginning, middle, and end. While the camera is rolling, ask yourself:
1. "Is there a way for an editor to start this shot in a way that makes sense?"
2. "Is there something happening in the middle that is interesting?"
3. "Is there a place for the editor to cut to something else?"
Then, stop recording and move on to the next shot. How you find your next shot comes from the next S.
Shots combine to make a sequence. Many people in film history have written about the different types of shots and how they work together to create a sequence, but I find one question makes the process simple:
"If I were the viewer, what would I want to see next?"
Let’s say we are filming a university classroom. I might start with a wide shot of the whole room, and then go in close to the professor. I then want to see her perspective, so I go over her shoulder to show the whole class. Then I go to a close-up of a particular student. Then I turn around to show that student’s perspective, and so on. This process gives the editor lots of great options.
Sequences can also have beginnings, middles, and ends. Each shot in a well-constructed sequence begins with creating curiosity in the viewer, satisfying that curiosity shot by shot.
But how do you decide what to shoot in the first place?
Shots and sequences add up to illustrate a scene, meaning what is going on in a particular place and time. Here, you have two things to think about:
1. "What is going on here, and am I capturing it?”
Imagine a scene of a piano lesson. It is more than just someone playing piano with an instructor present. There is an interaction between the student and professor. They might be writing on the sheet music. There is an intensity to the student's practice that comes through in their face. Make sure you pay attention to all facets of a scene.
2. "Are my shots going to keep the viewer interested?"
The keyword here is variety:
Variety of shots: wide, medium, close-up
Variety of subjects: e.g., the piano student’s face, their hands, the professor, the sheet music, etc.
Variety of interest: high shots, low shots, back of the room, over the shoulder
The way you edit a scene also has a beginning, middle, and end. Certain shots and sequences establish a scene at the beginning, others provide detail in the middle, and others wrap up a scene at the end, aiming for strong emotional impact.
These three Ss are important pillars of the b-roll process, but the fourth S is just as critical to a compelling film. And I have been hinting at it throughout, talking about beginnings, middles, and ends.
Like the Force in Star Wars, story surrounds and binds the other three S’s. Always keep in mind the story you are trying to tell.
If you want your subject to be perceived as a hero, how can you film them heroically?
If you want something to look fun, how can you film it in a fun way?
How will these shots, sequences, and scenes fit together with the other elements of the film to tell a complete story?
Congratulations! You now know the essence of filming b-roll, sparing you many boring hours of logging. Use Shot, Sequence, Scene, and Story to help you build a beautiful project.