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Without shots that show what subjects are talking about, it can be hard to keep the interest of your viewers. That's where B-roll comes in. These shots can help you ensure that your audience will be able to both understand your documentary and be captivated by its content.
It's often surprising how much of a difference good B-roll can make to a documentary. It helps you keep a good pace, cover mistakes, and dive even deeper into your story. To help you shoot good B-roll, we'll go over some tips on how to direct and capture people and how to make sure you cover live events in a way that makes your documentary interesting and informative.
More often than not, your B-roll will involve capturing people doing everyday tasks. Even so, in order to make sure you get the kinds of shots that will tell your story, you'll want to spend some time putting together a goal list. This way you won't waste any time capturing events that won't further the story of your film.
Much like film, you'll often need to help your subjects overcome camera shyness by having them do familiar tasks or by recounting conversations they've had earlier. In certain cases, when changing locations, you can even step in to remind them what they were feeling before the move. Similarly to interviews, you'll want to remind your subjects not to look at the camera or to worry about any mistakes. The footage can always be cleaned up later. At the same time, it is always best to try and stay out of the affairs of your subject as much as possible. It's hard for subjects to look natural when their lines have been given to them. To avoid this kind of behavior, make sure you shoot in familiar environments, try not to talk with the subjects, make small movements, and get some distance between you and the subject when possible.
In order to capture the actions of your subject adequately, you'll want to consider having multiple cameras at your shoot. Especially if you have more than one subject, this can help you to get angles that can show the emotions of your subject much more clearly. If your two subjects will be talking you'll want to really consider whether or not to shoot over the shoulder of each subject or just frame both independently. By shooting over the shoulder of your subject, the viewer will have a much better sense of the distance between your subjects. On the other hand, shooting each person independently helps the viewer focus on that one person and can be less distracting to both subjects.
The best way to make an editor happy while shooting your documentary is to remember to capture cutaways, and reaction shots. These shots help you to fill in mistakes and keep a faster pace in your documentary. f you're shooting with one camera, you'll have to ask your subjects to prolong their conversation while you capture shots of each subject when they're not talking. These shots are especially helpful when one subject talks for a long period of time.
The last thing to consider when shooting subjects is what your angle and setting conveys. Shooting your subject in a dark or busy environment makes them feel dark or busy themselves. At the same time, shooting your subject from a high angle can make them feel small while shooting from a low angle makes them feel much bigger than they really are. As a result, your angle and environment need to be carefully considered for every shot you do.
Last, but not least, you'll want to make sure you have the right equipment to do the job. When shooting people, mobility and quick set ups are important. So having a lightweight telescoping tripod and a camcorder with a zoom lens are good ideas. In certain cases, even a small slider dolly on a tripod can also be used. These dollies can quickly make your shots look more professional. Also, since you'll more than likely be filming subjects by yourself in order to be less intrusive, you won't need any audio or lighting gear since they'll end up taking too much space.
The other common subject to get B-roll of is a live event. The more you know about a live event, the more control you'll have over your audio and your image. This is why getting an agenda early on and scouting the location before it begins is always worth your time. By doing this you'll know exactly what equipment you'll need and have time to come up with a plan for covering the event.
The person who should be your best friend at any live event shoot is the sound operator. The sound operator will be your gateway to getting the best possible sound using a direct feed from the sound board. Often, the best outputs to draw from a sound board are an auxilliary out, tape out, or headphone out. The trick is finding out which output the sound operator is willing to give up. In case there aren't any free outputs, it's a good idea to have an audio splitter that can split either an XLR, ¼ inch, or RCA feed into two equal channels. Adapters like these can be lifesavers on a shoot. Once you've gotten your live feed, you'll want to plug it into either an external recording device or into a wireless transmitter like the kinds found in wireless lavalier systems. This way you can hook up the receiver to your camera audio input and monitor the audio for levels that may get too hot. However, even if you're monitoring the audio feed, you'll still need to speak with the sound operator ahead of time to make sure they know how much volume to give to your camera and to test the audio levels before you begin recording.
One type of shot you'll want to cover early on is an establishing shot. Establishing shots are usually wide shots of the venue where the action is about to take place. This helps the audience to understand where they are and are great ways to segue in or out of a scene. Similar to capturing individuals, it's a good idea to have a goal list and multiple cameras at live events. The bigger the event, the more important this becomes.
B-roll is an important part of any documentary. With the tips we've shown, you'll be able to capture the kind of B-roll shots that will make your documentary great.