Teaching Op-Docs: The Role of B-Roll

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.

Teaching Op-Docs: Finding Ideas for Documentaries

“Where do you get ideas for documentaries?” is the number one question I have received through comments and conversations over the years. As my students this semester have been working through ideas toward their story pitch assignment, I have been turning over some possibilities for seeking ideas. Here are some starting points to consider.


Many, many documentaries start with and / or focus on the people making them or the people in their lives. The best stories resonate beyond the scope of their telling, connecting with larger social and cultural issues.

Examples abound: Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March; Amalie R. Rothschild’s Nana, Mom, and Me; Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation; and Irene Taylor Brodsky’s Hear and Now.

Some makers pursue their own passions or questions. I think here of the documentaries about veganism, such as Marisa Miller Wolfson’s Vegucated. Or, makers take themselves as their own subjects such as Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me or Joe Cross in Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.


As in, geographical communities. Stories weave throughout communities large and small. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “No Guns for Christmas” brings the national gun debates to their home in Ohio. Josh Fox’s Gasland explores fracking’s overall effects starting with his land in Pennsylvania.

One key way to find great stories is to talk with people in your community — the ones in coffee shops, laundromats, bus stops. Not through the phone, but in person. Not through texting, but in person. I once asked a man about his tattoo while he rang up my carry-out order. The tattoo itself was visually interesting, but the story behind it was gut-wrenching as it was a memorial for a family member who had been shot and killed during an armed robbery.


Newspapers and magazines build their reputations on quality storytelling, but their stories represent only a glimpse into what could be much larger ones. For High Tech, Low Life, Stephen Maing started with a story in The New York Times that mentioned Chinese bloggers.

“I was curious who these bloggers were and discovered Zola’s [one of the bloggers appearing in his documentary] website, which featured a great number of other fascinating reports,” Maing told me in an email. “I was immediately intrigued and wanted to understand how a young man from a small farming village was managing to pull off such daring reporting all over mainland China and in the face of government censorship.”

Through Zola, Maing later met Tiger Temple, the other key figure in his documentary and featured in the Op-Doc “A Long Ride toward a New China.”

Sometimes, one story leads to another, very different story. Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida started with a newspaper article about a small town with a high rate of people “losing” limbs. The final piece, however, veers from its original inspirations.

Magazines, too, offer ideas. Florence Martin-Kessler’s Op-Doc “Great Expectations for Female Lawyers” follows up with several female lawyers who appeared in a 2001 magazine article.

And, finally, books. Multiple documentaries start with books, including Dirt!, Half the Sky, and Food, Inc.

Social Networking

Since they are driven by people, social networks also offers potential ideas. I refer here both to interpersonal connections and online ones. One of the greatest potential documentary stories I ever heard came from a student who got the story from someone who overheard someone else talking in a diner.

Teaching Op-Docs: Women’s Stories and Issues

One of the key requirements for the web documentary assignment in my class is that my students focus on women and women’s issues in some way. My current university consists of an all-women’s liberal arts core, so this requirement connects with the school and its women-focused mission.

A handful of the shorts appearing in the Op-Docs series specifically focus on women and their stories, and this post offers a round-up of some of those stories.

Most films in that handful represent women facing challenges in some way.

One challenge centers on health-related issues. The recent “Midnight Three & Six” tells two stories, a mother and her Type I diabetic daughter. While the daughter tries to grow up with this life-threatening disease, the mother balances caretaking with worrying and hovering and letting go.

In “A Marriage to Remember“, a marriage takes the center role, but the filmmaker’s mother deteriorates quickly following a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Lost Every Day” shows how a woman lives with Developmental Topographical Disorientation, a condition that prevents her from having a sense of direction. “Flo: Portrait of a Street Photographer” shows Flo Fox’s dedication to her photography despite being nearly blind.

Other challenges are about economic instability and the future. In “Running on Fumes in North Dakota,” Jenny describes her difficult life as a truck driver in an isolated boom town. She sees working there as a means to making a better life for herself, but at the same time she fears for her own safety.

Sarah’s Uncertain Path” offers a profile of a pregnant 15-year-old living in Missouri who wonders about her future. “The Caretaker” weaves together two women’s stories. Joesy is an undocumented immigrant from Fiji caring for the aging Haru Tsurumoto, 95. Though working long hours for low pay and facing an uncertain future, Joesy maintains a strong and meaningful relationship with Haru.

Several interesting women-centered Op-Docs are portraits. “VHS vs. Communism” offers a great example in showing the woman who illegally dubbed more than 3,000 films during the Communist Romania. Irina Margareta Nistor talks about the excitement the dubbing brought for her in that she could see the films and see a world outside her own country, though she ran the risk of getting caught and being punished with each dub she made.

Marie Wilcox is the last native speaker of the Wukchummi language, and she works to document the language before it is lost with her death. “Who Speaks Wukchummi?” follows her and her family’s preservation efforts.

A couple filmmakers turn the camera onto their own lives. Judith Helfand’s “Love and Stuff” is humorous and sad all at the same time. Upon her mother’s death, Helfand must clean out the home and decide what to keep. Helfand catalogs some items that she keeps: gloves, shoes, nail clippers, dentures (!). She also catalogs some of the items her mother keeps, including an entire elephant figurine collection. One of my favorite shots in the entire Op-Docs collection shows the elephants lined up on parade as the camera pans slowly down the line.

Another portrait, Paula Schargorodsky’s “35 and Single” explores the questions of children and marriage for herself through her upbringing and current status.

Teaching Op-Docs: Starting with the Big Questions

For a junior-level course this semester, I am using The New York Times’s Op-Doc series as a model for talking about journalism, documentary, and online video. In addition to watching multiple entries in the series, my students will be creating one of their own that focuses on women and women’s issues in some way. That focus aligns with my current university’s mission.

The class started with two “big picture” questions: What is news and what is documentary? One of the texts we are reading outlined their differences through production practices and aesthetics. For example, in television news the reporter appears on camera, while in documentary the maker remains behind the camera. For another example, television news places the character as secondary, while documentary places character as central. Both lists separated the maker from the story, however.

We watched several titles this week. Since we are in Baltimore, I found it fitting to open with Lotfy Nathan’s “Riding with the 12 O’Clock Boys.” In addition to the perfect local subject, the short raised questions about news values such as timeliness and about techniques such as narration with the voice of authority ranting at the beginning.

We also watched Laura Poitras’s gut-wrenching “Death of a Prisoner.” This one raised a lot of questions about balancing fact and emotion. With something so harrowing, how do we not get lost in all that emotion? For some, it seemed the emotion offered the only angle for this story in contrast to all the news information out there. One student was quick to point how the voice of authority at the opening (archival footage of a Barack Obama speech) of this one contrasted with the previous one. Here, the archival material provided background information, while in the other it set a tone that the documentary addressed the counterpoints on.

Dawn Porter’s “True Believers in Justice” and Jason DaSilva’s “The Long Wait” rounded out the week. These two resonated more than the previous two shown earlier in the week. The portrait of Travis Williams and his passion for being a public defender is engaging. The opening sequence of the tattooing draws us in, and its significance for Williams gives it an even greater weight. One student pointed out how it offered a stark contrast to the popular culture representations of lawyers.

Up to this point, none of the documentary makers appeared on camera, and so the question became, what about documentary makers who do become subjects in their own documentaries and do appear on camera? I always think of A. O. Scott’s term from when he wrote a review of Tarnation: “narci-cinema.” Jonathan Caouette’s documentary tells the story of his life and his mother’s mental illness that follows the traditions of autobiographical documentaries. Some of the more memorable documentaries in recent memory similarly feature a strong central presence; just look at the works of Ross McElwee, Morgan Spurlock, and Michael Moore.

Of course, my students think of confessional and other videos made by individuals on YouTube. Coming at it from different angles, but we ended up on the same page.

Jason DaSilva’s piece became a perfect answer to these questions. DaSilva is the narrator, central figure, and key instigator of events in this piece. “The Long Wait” shows DaSilva’s experiment in getting from his home to a coffee shop using public transportation in New York City. Due to early-onset ALS, DaSilva gets around using a scooter, which allows some mobility but also quickly shows its limitations. He works through the transportation maps and options, raising all the questions about elevators and other forms of access. While his friend made the trip in less than fifteen minutes, DaSilva took almost two hours.

One of my students loved this one, pointing out that the wait actually referred to three waits: DaSilva’s own, his friend’s, and the city’s for updating its accessible transportation options.

But how to balance personal experiences with larger issues without coming across as absorbed or narcissistic? DaSilva balances well his experiences with the larger issues he and others face on a daily basis. Another balance might be to bring in interviews with others for an additional point of view. We will revisit this again, as several Op-Docs start with an individual’s experiences in some way.

Teaching Op-Docs

This semester I am teaching a junior-level course in news writing and reporting. As part of the course requirements, I am having the students create an “Op-Doc” similar to the guidelines outlined by The New York Times. In the prerequisite course, students learn about media writing, including documentary scriptwriting, so this course moves into more multimedia production. The Op-Doc seems to offer the right balance for gaining the skills to make a webdoc and for thinking critically about news and its role within the rapidly changing world of online journalism.

The New York Times defines an Op-Doc as “short, opinionated documentaries, produced with wide creative latitude and a range of artistic styles, covering current affairs, contemporary life and historical subjects.” About 100 shorts appear on the site, and I am slowly working my way through them in order to find representative ones to show and discuss in class. I also am looking for ways to group them, such as through style and subject, so that students can see the patterns occurring and can find their own places within them.

In general, Op-Docs run between 5-10 minutes. Following the definition above, they incorporate a range of styles and approaches to their subjects. Styles include more observational approaches to documentary, more traditional talking heads, and less traditional animations.

Anthony Sherin’s “Solo, Piano — N.Y.C.” seems more poetry in its depiction of the fate of a piano left on the street, while several shorts by Drew Christie pose some intriguing questions and arguments through animation.

The subjects start with the seemingly everyday and reach to the moon — and beyond. “Vigilante Copy Editor,” by Jay Dockendorf, reveals the work of a copy editor in a sculpture garden at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, while Simon Ennis’s “The Man Who Sells the Moon” interviews Dennis Hope, who does just that. (He also sells properties on Mars and Venus, if you’re interested.)

Still other Op-Docs grab you with their stories. When I had asked on Twitter about the most important part of a documentary a bit back, the overwhelming majority of responses centered on storytelling and people. Without either of those, the documentary — short or long, online or on film — will lose audiences quickly.

Shorts face a particular challenge in that they lack the leisure to develop the story slowly. Instead, they must advance the story right away and keep moving, often toward a too-fast ending. The shorts by Laura Poitras and Lucy Walker in particular stood out for me here. For “Death of a Prisoner,” Poitras tells the story of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a prisoner who died in Guantánamo Bay prison after being held there for 11 years. Walker’s short tells the story of his final days and follows the body home to his family. In “Daredevil on a Snowmobile,” Walker tells the story of Caleb Moore, whose career as an extreme snowmobiler ended with a crash during the X Games and his death soon afterward. His death was an unfortunate first for the extreme sport competition.

Each of these shorts challenges ways of thinking about news, opinion, story, and documentary. I will expand more on these points when I have finished watching the rest of them and started organizing the class more.

Why Did CNN, Time, Al Jazeera and Netflix Start Documentary Units?

Several news and media organizations have announced new divisions or commitments to documentary programming:

  • TIME magazine announced the start of Red Border Films, which will feature shorts and longer documentaries both in association with and independent of the magazine’s content.
  • CNN launched CNN Films in 2012 for production and acquisition of documentary films. CNN Films began picking up documentaries with 2012’s Sundance Film Festival with Girl Rising and continued with three more acquisitions at 2013’s festival. The division also hired Morgan Spurlock for “Inside Man” and Anthony Bourdain for “Parts Unknown.”
  • Al Jazeera America, which launched as a new news channel days ago (on August 20, 2013), also announced a new documentary films division. It will include original programming along with partnerships and acquisitions.
  • The New York Times features documentaries in several ways, including Op-Docs in the editorial section and the other pieces that appear in the video section. Op-Docs will be taking pitches at this year’s Camden International Film Festival.

As news organizations, Al Jazeera America, TIME, CNN, and The New York Times follow a broadcast television tradition that started in the late 1950s and ended quickly in the 1960s, when news divisions created documentary specials and series. “See It Now,” “Harvest of Shame,” and “The Battle of Newburgh” came from this “golden age” of documentary programming, which ended quickly as news divisions became held accountable for profit generation along with entertainment divisions under consolidating corporations.

A news organization creating a documentary division or section might seem redundant as documentary and news share motivations, goals, and outcomes. In 1936, TIME magazine’s founder purchased Life magazine, which published the documentary photography of Dorothea Lange. Consider the iconic Migrant Mother photograph that became emblematic of the Depression. Though a documentary photographer, Lange still provided key insights into current events and further elevated the importance of photojournalism.

But these programming initiatives and documentary divisions represent something more strategic. For one, they represent a move beyond every day news-gathering activities, which draw regular criticism for mistakes, oversights, and shallowness. In positioning itself as more in-depth or long-term, the programming stands apart and gains more prestige. Notice how Al Jazeera America, TIME, and CNN all call their divisions “film” ones, not video or digital. CNN Films also was careful to dissuade any associations with reality TV when it first appeared.

In setting this programming apart, the organizations create an opportunity for promotion and acquisition. While The New York Times still maintains a good reputation, CNN has dealt with declining ratings, factual errors, and other missteps in recent months. With its associated prestige a documentary films division makes for good promotional opportunities. These divisions also build on others’ prestige by working with prominent documentary directors or with picking up documentaries at film festivals. A documentary’s appearance at the festival, particularly top-tier ones such as Sundance, already offers the prestige association, and an acquisition there furthers it. As the divisions build their reputations, they might then become sought-after presences at the festival distribution markets and elsewhere.

While these divisions might suggest some possible diversity in perspective and content, two factors remain important here. One, all of these organizations creating them face advertising pressures. Those pressures influence what appears within these divisions. Something that draws desired audiences takes precedence, and these divisions sometimes draw audiences unreachable through other types of programming. Two, though branded differently, these divisions might operate under the same media conglomerate, as is the case of TIME and CNN under TimeWarner, which also owns HBO and its long-running documentary division. Some HBO documentary programming already has been repurposed for showing on CNN. It seems possible that CNN Films and Red Border Films might share resources in the future.

And now Netflix is looking to add documentaries to its original programming. While The New York Times, TIME, and CNN represent traditional news media, Netflix is an online streaming service and DVD distributor that is just starting to get into programming. Its shift from primarily providing content to creating content is an interesting one, and it raises some questions about broadcasting beyond the scope of this post. Netflix could be looking to draw on that same prestige, as some of its recent activities have elicited comparisons to HBO, but the actual programming it creates will make the organization’s intentions more clear.