Reality Pro Tip: B-Roll (B-Careful!)


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!

Art

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.

Extras/Background

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.

HINs

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.

Landmarks

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.

License Plates

Fully legible license plates on automobiles should always be blurred in post.

Logos

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

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!

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10 thoughts on “Reality Pro Tip: B-Roll (B-Careful!)

Add yours

    1. Scott:

      The trouble with license plates and HINs is that they compromise privacy by showing someone’s mode of transport (translation: the owners) in a certain place at a certain time. It only takes one lawsuit to get the whole industry’s panties in a bunch, so I’m sure someone, somewhere, got sued over it at some point.

    1. Scott, this is what Wikipedia has concerning “Information Privacy”–

      “Privacy concerns exist wherever personally identifiable information is collected and stored – in digital form or otherwise. Improper or non-existent disclosure control can be the root cause for privacy issues.”

      A business might want the free advertising, but could just as easily file a lawsuit for the nuisance it causes them when the phone rings off the hook simply out of curiosity.

    2. Some networks don’t like to give businesses free advertising. And you’d have to ask the owner of 867-5309 about getting phone calls for “Jenny” from people who’ve simply come across the number in media over the years.

  1. Good question. Any logo, brand, or business will have to give clearance, a show cannot profit off the use of their copyrighted images. I would also have to wonder if the business conflicts with or detracts from any of my advertisers. If Geico is a common advertiser for my show about cars, I wouldn’t want to inadvertently have a Safeco billboard in a shot, let alone with a phone number. Hopefully a field producer or even a cameraman has the foresight not to do a critical interview with my subject or contestant in front of such a sign.

    To me, it’s about being observant when you shoot so you don’t get caught up in matters like this and can move ahead in post. I watched an RTV episode the other night where the subject was in his parent’s living room, full of original artwork, all blurred — quite distracting. Alternatives would have been removing the paintings, gaining clearance from the artists, or shooting the dinner in a restaurant that wasn’t full or artwork (which wouldn’t have worked for the theme, but it’s a thought for another shoot).

  2. I was wondering if B-roll and other shots are sometimes sub-contracted to local crews or affiliates, i.e.– an L.A.-based competition series needs to profile a contestant from Cleveland as they get ready at home and fly in.

    I could fly over with the crew, field produce, get all the shots….or, I’m thinking I could sub a reliable Cleveland crew, as long as I can dictate camera specs, provide a shooting script, and maybe have the footage in less than 36 hrs.

    Budget-wise, I have to weigh cost on both options.Time-wise, this may save me a lot of time and trouble, especially if we just realized this is missing in the stringout (doh!). There’s a risk in the delegation, but it’s not rocket-science, and I can proof clips as they come in if that’s dictated in the contract.

    Is this common and / or practical?

    1. It can be done, though most major cites have stock aerials available through places like Getty Images. The cost of licensing their stock would probably be less than hiring fresh shooters. Also, an airplane’s an airplane’s an airplane if you’re looking up from the ground or watching one take off, so you might be able to shoot some of your own material representing the travel portion of the montage. I’ve seen shows that sub one city for another easily in their airport takeoffs/landings, taking care to avoid identifiable buildings and, say, palm or pine trees in the background.

      Of course, if you want to hire a local crew to shoot original aerials of specific locations, that’s cheaper than paying travel for your own team and gear. You may even be able to sell or consign the footage later to a stock house, though I’m not sure of that process.

      Finally, some major cities (like Las Vegas) have their own stock aerials that you can get and use for free if you contact their tourism bureau.

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