As a viewer, I pay too much attention to B-roll.
One reason is that B-roll is often intercut with interviews, and it changes the dynamics of movement within the frame. Even if the people talking are animated in their speech or if the camera roves around the speaking participant, interview shots still are more static than other shots. Intercutting between a talking head and an action shot puts this contrast into sharp relief.
Another reason is that sometimes B-roll just leaves me asking why the shot is there and how it contributes to the overall film. I look for thematic, emotional, or even rational connections between the people speaking and the B-roll intercut with their interviews. If the cutaway offers no clear connection, it just seems odd to me.
Some directors know how to pull off fascinating interviews without much, if any, B-roll. As much as he uses cutaways to create in-film conversations with his interviewees, Errol Morris also knows when to allow a person to keep talking without much, if any, interruption. In Gates of Heaven, Florence Rasmussen seemingly rambles about her life and her son before talking about her deceased pets and the relocated pet cemetery. Three shots — two newspaper headlines and one shot of street signs in this clip — accompany her, and only one headline appears during her rambling.
But figuring out how to visualize stories along with filmed interviews is a key part of putting together an online documentary video, as we have been talking about in my online documentary production course this semester. “A Marriage to Remember” offers a poetic, if poignant, example for thinking about B-roll. This Op-Doc by Banker White and Anna Fitch shows the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. White’s mother, Pam, was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 61, and this short shows in part her decline and its impacts on her marriage with White’s father, Ed.
Some of the B-roll footage in this Op-Doc shows a life well lived: painted portraits, old photographs, home movies. Other footage shows a day’s routines, including morning exercise, newspaper check, breakfast. The day’s routines appear twice — first when Pam White is more able and second after she has declined during the year. Time-lapse shots show the sun moving through the day as it shines through a window, growing brighter and deepening to a golden red as it sets. In a way, the B-roll, both of the family memories and the daily routines, shows us the family history while also doing some of the remembering for her.
Not all B-roll needs to be thought out with such precise attention to detail. When that attention does happen, though, the effect is immediate, particularly within this documentary short.