Ah, B-Roll. Those beautiful but not-so-specific shots that help you establish a sense of time and place in addition to your specific establishing shots (the building your cast lives in, the restaurant the scene to follow takes place in). Cars, moving feet, dogs drinking from water bowls in front of trendy restaurants… all these seemingly meaningless individual shots are cumulatively far more important than you might think in establishing a look and feel for your show.
It’s essential that you impart the flavor of your location in b-roll. If you’re in Beverly Hills or Miami, viewers want to see flashy cars, local points of interest, and plenty of good-looking bodies milling about. If your show takes place on an oil rig in Texas, you’re definitely going to want to see rattlesnakes, local bars, and pickup trucks running down dusty roads.
When it comes to b-roll, remember: you can’t have too much of it. And just so you don’t read that in the ambiguous way SNL once warned that “You can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor,” what I mean is, no matter how much you get, it’s not enough. If you’re in the field, remember that a single hour long episode might burn through 50, 100 or more of your great b-roll setups. Don’t assume that a few shots caught on the fly will be enough. Docusoaps burn through more of it than most other kinds of reality shows, so if you’re shooting one of those, a few full days should be set aside to capture the b-roll goods.
Vary the times of day that you capture your b-roll, too. Sunrises, sunsets, moons rising and setting, a wide variety of day and night b-roll gives editors a fighting chance in the bays. How can they set up a scene that takes place on the town at night if you’re only shooting b-roll during the day? Switch it up!
Good Stuff, Goof-Ups and Gee-Why-Can’t-I-Use-Thats
It’s easy to make mistakes both shooting b-roll and selecting shots back in post.
A few suggestions to make your life easier:
In the field, you’ll want to do lots of artsy things, including fun camera moves. A nice tilt or pan can yield some fun effects, but remember to settle at both ends of your shot. There’s nothing worse than a cool shot that lands on its target and then immediately resets two seconds later, rendering the shot unusable… my general thought is that these types of shots should land for a good ten seconds. Your editors will appreciate it!
What they won’t appreciate is the use of a lot of in-camera effects or filters. There’s virtually nothing you can do in-camera that can’t be done using effects available in Avid or Final Cut Pro during the editing process, and you’re limiting the ways in which the material can be used. What if the editor wants to color-correct your material or saturate an image that you’ve already slapped a filter on? It may look jarring when combined with other, more straightforward material on either side of it in montage. Get the images clean and let your editors sweat their final use.
Getting B-roll of crowds and people poses unique issues. If you can’t get someone to sign a release or don’t have a wide-area release on a location, don’t shoot them. If you capture a subject who refuses to sign a release, make a note to accompany the tapes back to post stating that “Guy in red sweater with yellow bow tie refused to sign release.” This saves your team in post a lot of headache when the clearance folks start kicking back notes on the cut. No editor wants to have to replace thirty or forty shots worth of b-roll in a cut over unsigned releases.
Slightly abstracted B-roll is a good hedge against this kind of thing. If you want to shoot a crowd, for example, get a few good shots of just feet or midsections boogie-ing down to the beat in the club or pounding the sidewalks. I hate to use the example, but think about how obese people are shot for health-related news stories. No heads, just unidentifiable round bodies walking along, minding their own business. You can do the same thing with people of all shapes and ages in bikinis, burkas, blazers or blue jeans, saving your editors the heartache of losing shot after shot when clearance can’t locate individual signed releases.
Editors and story people: as you’re selecting shots from what the field team has sent home, try your best to pick items that would be clearable before going wild with easily identifiable people and places. Involve your clearance team as early as possible.
Here’s a list of b-roll content your clearance team is most likely to require you to blur out or replace. Field teams, take note, as your diligence in selecting shots and documenting info relating to those shots will yield more useful material in the end!
Whether you’re shooting in a restaurant, an office, or someone’s private home, keep an eye on what’s on the walls. If your subject, for example, owns a large painting that hangs over the sofa, that prominently-featured artwork must be cleared for use by the artist, artist’s estate or publisher. Ownership of the artwork is irrelevant… a buyer/collector can’t just sign away the image.
Even if you’re dealing with a mass-produced piece, you should be sure someone takes note of the artist and/or publisher in order to clear a work down the line. Failure to do so may force you to blur the image in post, which nearly always looks awful.
In the field, jot down the names of featured artists and descriptions of the works. A good clearance person back in post might be able to look up the artist and get their permission to show the work.
Any individual who’s immediately identifiable in a shot they’re walking through should be asked sign a release. If you’re reviewing footage and there’s no release for the guy at the table behind your cast who can’t keep himself from staring over at the camera every few minutes, you’ll probably wind up blurring his face in post.
Hull identification numbers (or HINs) are the sequences of numbers found on the sides of boats. Since they’re used the same way as a license plate, you should consider having them blurred in post. Also be on the lookout for identification numbers appearing on sails.
While one might assume that certain landmarks are public domain, a number of them are protected by copyright or trademark. A couple of good examples are the Beverly Hills logo shield and, believe it or not, the famous Hollywood sign.
Fully legible license plates on automobiles should always be blurred in post.
If your producers have done their jobs, you should never see a castmember in an obviously logoed shirt, cap, or jacket.
Logos are a grey area, as some brands are more protective of their use on-camera than others. One popular brand of mens’ shirts couldn’t care less if you see the critter embroidered on the front, while others take great exception to seeing their duds on television. Sometimes all it takes to conceal a logo is a well-placed bit of colored tape, other times you’ll have to blur them slightly in edit.
Sports team logos, unless cleared by prior arrangement, are absolutely no-go under any circumstances. Blur or avoid them.
Luxury car brands are also a big deal, so the next time you’d like to set up your wealthy character by showing off her car collection, think twice. You shouldn’t have a problem if you’ve got a room full of vehicles or b-roll of a sportscar rolling down the street with an unidentifiable driver as long as you remember to blur the license plates in post.
Phone numbers featured in advertising, store windows, billboards and so on may need to be blurred in post.
Good luck bringing home the good stuff. If your field team is wise to all of the above b-roll landmines, you might even get to use most of it!