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Executive Decisions: The B-Roll List
By Russ Jolly - published July 2006

One of our regular corporate video gigs over the last couple of years has been a job editing b-roll segments for local and national morning talk shows. We work with a PR firm that books travel experts for appearances on these broadcasts and we edit video of travel destinations around the world to lend visual support to the on-air interviews. The footage for these segments is sent to us by advertising agencies and marketing reps for resort properties around the globe, and it has been a fascinating experience reviewing the camerawork of literally hundreds of different shooters. Quite frankly, the quality of the b-roll footage we've received has ranged from extraordinary to surprisingly poor.

Our job entails cutting a 60-90 second overview of each location, and we'll typically feature 4-6 destinations per show. Sometimes we receive raw footage to work with--often more than an hour of video including multiple takes of each set up--and sometimes we receive only a few minutes of footage that has already been edited as a brief marketing video. A few agencies have sent footage that was obviously shot by a large crew with professional on-camera talent, but the majority of the tapes we receive were evidently shot by a single cameraman, and we've had some fantastic footage come to us from these solo shooters.

As you might imagine, great footage cuts together easily and makes for strong b-roll segments. Conversely, poor footage is a challenge to cut no matter how large a quantity of video is supplied. Producing and editing these projects has made me much more conscientious about my own shooting. If you are hired as a freelancer to shoot b-roll, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind.

Once upon a time. Whether we receive 3 minutes of footage or 90 minutes of footage, every shot on the tape should tell part of a story. A freelance cameraperson hired to videotape a resort may not receive explicit instruction as to exactly how footage is going to be used, but it's safe to assume that the purpose of the story is to make the property look like an attractive destination. The best footage I receive helps tell a strong story because it provides thorough coverage that parallels the experience a guest would have when visiting the resort for the first time. Though the footage may have been shot out of sequence, care has been taken to acquire all the shots necessary to able to edit the story in a traditional linear format, i.e., beginning with exterior establishing shots, moving to interior establishing shots, and concluding with details and items of special interest.

Steady as she goes. A good tripod is worth its weight in gold. Even the best handheld shooters know when to opt for camera support. The easiest shots to work with in these property segments are the smooth, steady pans and pulls like you find on HGTV or Travel Channel shows. Footage from higher-priced shoots often employ a jib or steadicam, but single-camera shooters who use a solid tripod also make cutting these segments a breeze. Unfortunately, I've received a couple of tapes with handheld footage that was so shaky it was unusable. I'm glad it wasn't my job to go back to the resort and tell them why their property wasn't going to appear on the show!

Let it be. Suffice it to say, the camera doesn't always have to move. Often the best, most usable footage involves setting up a locked-down camera shot and allowing action within the frame to provide motion and visual interest. Examples include waves crashing onto the beach, kayakers paddling across the water, diners at a restaurant, or shoppers walking through an outdoor marketplace.

The road to nowhere. A random pan or tilt is meaningless. Know where a shot starts and where a shot ends, and move from Point A to Point B with purpose. Lengthy moving shots that roam indiscriminately across a variety of subjects do nothing to help focus a viewer's attention, and they never make the cut.

It's all in the details. Attention to detail can make or break a shot. I've seen exterior establishing shots that were almost perfect-except for the ugly trashcan sitting by the sidewalk. Or restaurant shots that would have worked if a single dirty plate hadn't been left on an unoccupied table. Look up from the viewfinder and take notice of the details within the composition. Reframe the shot or remove distracting elements before recording.

Manual labor. Turn off auto-focus and take manual control of the camera's lens. This should be a no brainer, but several times I have received footage where otherwise-beautiful shots are ruined because of "focus hunt" by an auto-focus lens, especially in low-light situations. Sometimes the hunting focus may be so slight as to not be seen in the camera's viewfinder while shooting, but the problem definitely shows up full-screen. Focus manually to alleviate this potential problem.

Ready for my close-up. Properties with intricate architectural detail or elaborate furnishings can be beautiful, but sometimes I receive footage of these types of locations where the shots are all close-ups with no wide or establishing shots to give context to what we're seeing. It's like filming at an art museum and shooting extreme close-ups of all the paintings in the room without including a wide shot of the room in which the paintings are hanging. To make the close-ups usable, a wide shot is needed to provide context for how the details fit within the environment.

Russ Jolly is owner of 214 Media: a Dallas Texas video production company.

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