Video & Filmmaking

Tips From Filmmakers On How to Shoot Better B-roll

March 13, 2015

By Greg Scoblete


B-roll may sound like the video equivalent of the boondocks, but it’s a perfect avenue for showing off your creative chops, says director Jonathan Chapman.

The term “B-roll” may carry a faintly derogatory air, like the “B-team” some of us were relegated to in high school sports. But that’s merely the rhetorical baggage of the film era. In fact, B-roll can be the visual engine driving your video narrative forward, or as filmmaker Grant Slater says, B-roll is what “keeps people from being bored” by talking heads. 

Since B-roll usually constitutes the most visually interesting and creative elements of any video project, it can be a challenge for camera operators and directors to decide just what to shoot, how to shoot it and how much footage they’ll ultimately need for a given project. But it’s also an opportunity to show off your creative chops, impress directors and make your mark on a project. We spoke with several filmmakers to learn their B-roll tips. (To view some of their video clips, see “B-Roll in Action: A Look at the Videos.”)

Prepping the B-roll Battlefield

Approaches to B-roll are as varied as the films and video projects one can tackle. Some directors prefer to record B-roll themselves, while others will entrust the duty to second (or third camera) operators. 

For those shooting their own B-roll—like Slavik Boyechko and his partner Travis Gilmour—keeping a running shot list in their heads, if not formally on paper, ensures visual variety.

“The one question we ask whenever we’re doing a shoot is, ‘What’s a second or third location we can shoot, even if it’s just down the street,’” to mix things up, Boyechko says.

While you can’t anticipate everything on set, Slater says there are a few tactics he relies on when approaching B-roll duty. “I think a lot about matched action and sequences, where I’m shooting the same action from different angles to compress time or make something that would [otherwise] be boring take less time and be exciting,” Slater says. In concrete terms, it means “you’re creating a progressive series of wide, medium and tight shots that move a story forward,” he adds.

Sometimes moving subjects are hard to come by, and having a shot list or rough storyboard is all the more imperative. For Whale Warehouse, a short documentary Slater made in collaboration with Mae Ryan, exploring the massive collection of skeletal remains privately housed by natural history museums, “Nothing moves, everything is dead and we had to figure out how to make it more exciting,” Slater recalls. “So we talked with a guy who runs the warehouse and got the facts we needed on day one. We came back later with a shot list based on the [interview] and went and recorded those clips very methodically.”

For photographer/directors like Josh Rothstein—who will often shoot B-roll as a second camera—preparation isn’t the only skill to master. “Understanding your positioning on set is key, and that will inform your ability to get what you need,” Rothstein says. As someone who has been on both first and second units, Rothstein says that B-roll shooters need to read the “dynamics on set” to know when it’s permissible to move in on a subject and when to hang back.

For an assignment for Puma with the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, Rothstein’s approach, much like an effective portrait photographer, was to get his subject as comfortable as possible. Your proximity to the subject is huge because “it will inform the quality of your footage,” he says. It’s a challenge, he adds, because you have to accommodate the sensibilities of both the subject and the director, while still being assertive enough to get your shot.

How much is enough?

There’s no golden ratio of how much B-roll you should generate for a given duration of A-roll footage, but there is a general consensus: You need more than you think. 

“You have to shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot—non-stop,” Rothstein says.

“We always feel like we never have enough,” Boyechko seconds. 

For a collection of 60–90-second spots for United Healthcare, director Jonathan Chapman and his team would often record as much as 30 minutes of footage, giving editors plenty to work with. For the seven-and-a-half minute Whale Warehouse, Slater amassed a project folder stuffed with 800GB worth of video clips.

For the Web videos that Boyechko is producing, the clips themselves have to be between three and five seconds; he says that people’s attention spans have eroded to the point that anything longer than that loses the viewer’s interest. But thinking in terms of hundreds of seconds-long clips can be confusing, so instead Boyechko approaches B-roll filming as a series of clips-within-clips. His approach is akin to a vacuum, liberally sucking up as much visual material in a scene, and then relying on selecting favorites to create sub-clips from the longer video in Apple’s Final Cut Pro X.

“We don’t stop recording in between [scene] changes,” Boyechko says. “We’ll do a 10-minute recording, and that will contain about 50 clips. If I have a five-minute video [to produce] I’ll generate about 400 short clips to work with,” he says. He later culls those down to between 50–70 clips, each just seconds long, representing the best of what he’s shot, which represents the library of B-roll for a particular video. Boyechko has honed his shoot-to-edit approach to a fine science, and is currently traveling to local PBS affiliates around the U.S. to train their producers on making Web shorts.

Directors who have edited their own work tend to develop an intuitive sense of how much and what types of video clips they need to collect, Slater says, so it pays to edit your own work or at least familiarize yourself with the process. 

Camera Choices

Many B-roll shoots are “bring your own” as far as cameras and lenses are concerned. But on larger projects, Chapman likes to ensure consistent camera platforms are used across the project for ease of editing. The gear used on B-roll, he adds, should be more “agile and free-flowing” so the B-roll operator can more easily capture unique and offbeat angles. 

For Boyechko, being nimble means relying on a monopod, not a tripod, while shooting B-roll. He also uses B-roll filming to switch up focal lengths. If he’s shooting alone, he’ll mostly rely on the 24–105mm f/4L lens on his Canon EOS C100 and keep it “super close” to the subject as the tight shots are easier to edit. For variety, Boyechko also leans on an 11–16mm f/2.8 Tokina, a 70–200mm telephoto and a slider. 

Remembering how the human visual sense evolved helps Slater compose his B-roll. “People’s eyes are built to take in the savannah and broad fields: We don’t want a slow zoom on the lion, but a quick cut to the thing we care about,” he says. In terms of gear, that means using dollies when possible instead of panning and zooming because dolly shots mimic “how your eyes physically move through space,” Slater says.

Whatever your technique, B-roll is the arena for your creativity. Putting shooters in a B-roll position “is the best way to see how good they are,” Rothstein says.

Related Article
B-Roll in Action: A Look at the Videos