How to shoot b-roll

By far the most used documentary format combines narration or commentary of some kind with interviews and b-roll cutaways or fill shots.

The a-roll shots are the master shots. These are shots of the person or people telling the story (or components of the story) either direct to camera or in an informal or formal interview situation or as a part voice-over.

The b-roll shots are the cut-away or fill shots that is the secondary footage to enhance and complement the spoken part of the narrative. B-roll shots are generally video only (no audio). B-roll shots can be shot gradually and not in sequence. However be sure to pay attention to continuity, light, time of day, etc.

These cutaway or fill shots are generally made up of the following:

  1. locational footage — should establish the location and introduce aspects of the story. These shot sequences should help tell your story by establishing a location. They are shots that grab the attention of the viewer. Examples include wide or establishing shots of streets, buildings or landscapes, close-ups of signs, approach (moving) shots, entry shots (people entering or exiting door, train, car), groups of people at a demonstration, interaction shots, interior shots and other general locational shots.
  2. character footage — should help provide tone, emotion and mood. These are shots of the main character or characters in the film. They should be shot in the context of the story, and complement voice-over narrative or interviews. In these shot sequences try and use as many close-up, reaction or emotion shots as possible. A smile or a frown, people hugging, solitary shots, a close up of a hand holding something, 2 people holding hands. POV shots can help, like what someone is holding or looking at.
  3. process footage — these are shots of the film-maker or narrator taking an active role in the film and are shots of how he or she is interacting aspects of the film. Shots may include nods and reactions to interviews, comments to camera about what’s going on or about to happen.
  4. earlier time — archive footage may be obtained from online data-banks, libraries and other government organizations or agencies. It may include old photos or music.

Individual shot sequences from the above categories can be effectively combined or cut together. The most important thing is to get as much cutaway coverage (footage) to effectively tell your story.