How to Use A-Roll Effectively

The concept of editing, whether it’s a news piece, documentary, or corporate video, is fairly straightforward. First you assemble your A-Roll, which consists of all the sound bites you want to use in your video. Second, you add B-Roll on top of all the interviews, in order to illustrate what the subjects are talking about. Third, you cut between the two.

That’s the concept. The reality is that editing is an art, full of nuance. Each cut has a purpose and the way in which cuts are assembled can have a dramatic impact on viewer emotions.

The question then is, “How does an editor know when to cut?” Or “Why does an editor make a cut at a certain point?” 

Cutting away from a b-roll shot to a talking head shouldn’t be an afterthought. You shouldn’t place your interview subject on the screen just because you ran out of b-roll. Like every other edit in your piece, there should be a reason behind that edit. Why are we looking at your interview subject at this particular moment?

Here are a few of my own guidelines for when you need to show your interview subject: 

Introductions and Re-Introductions 

When introducing an interview subject for the first time, you definitely want to show who’s speaking.

Sometimes an interview subject is heard first, then seen. An editor may choose to insert the subject’s voice underneath a sequence of b-roll shots. Then the editor will cut to the talking head, so viewers can put a face with a voice. If this is the way you choose to introduce your subject to the viewer, be sure not to wait too long before showing the viewer who it is who’s speaking.

In situations where a variety of interview subjects appear throughout the piece (like in the case of a feature-length documentary), you will want to re-introduce your audience to your subject so viewers don’t get confused as to who’s speaking (“Who’s this guy again? I know I saw him earlier.”) This is especially true of you’re editing for television and you know when commercial breaks will occur. It may be necessary to reintroduce viewers to your interview subjects after the commercial breaks.

Emotional Beats 

I usually cut to a talking head when the subject is particularly emotional when discussing a certain topic. Real human emotion resonates with viewers, so if your subject is distraught, upset, teary-eyed, etc. it’s a good idea to show that on screen, but be strategic about it. Show it too often and the weight of that emotion dissipates greatly.

Personal Quirks 

Sometimes you can learn a lot about an individual based on certain facial expressions. A subject may tell you one thing, but his or her face may tell you something completely different. If this inner conflict can be seen on the subject’s face, let’s see it.

You might have an interview subject who smiles after finishing a thought, or scowls, or seems conflicted, or pensive. If so, let’s see it.

It’s great when you can glean information from an interview subject about a certain topic, but it’s better if you can both learn the information and also get a sense of how the person feels about what was just said.

Emphasis

When viewers watch a video, they’re taking in a lot of stimulus at once. They’re listening to an interview. They’re watching b-roll images. They’re reading subtitles, signage, or graphic elements. It could be easy to miss certain details, like an important point your interview subject is trying to make. So, if you really want to make sure your audience doesn’t miss a particular detail, strip everything else away and simply show your subject. Just as a writer will use bold or italic words to focus a reader’s attention, so too can an editor emphasize a point by showing the interview subject on screen.

Bridging Two Story Beats

Editors might choose to show their interview subject as a bridge between two story beats. One chapter is concluding, another one is beginning. So, audiences might see a talking head on screen making one final point before the story moves in a new direction.

Remember, when you’re editing, think strategically about when to show your interview subject. Make sure there’s a good reason for it. In fact, you might not need to show your interview subject at all. In the HBO documentary Come Inside My Mind, which details the life and career of Robin Williams, viewers never seen Robin Williams actually sitting in an interview telling his story, even though it’s his voice narrating the film. I’ve edited short docs before where I never show the interview subject. There just wasn’t a good reason to.

Have any other editing tips? Leave them in the Comments section below.

Here's Why Your Short Film Script Isn't Working

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I really enjoy working in short films. Over the years I've written, directed, and edited close to 20 shorts. I've read many short film scripts. I've seen dozens of shorts at various festivals. I've judged short film screenplay competitions. The more I see, the more I read, and the more I create, the more I start to see and understand why certain short films succeed, and why others fall short.

Here are a few common denominators I've seen among those short films (including my own) that just don't work. If you avoid these while writing your next script, the finished film will be a lot stronger.

Too much backstory

Short films offer audiences brief glimpses into a world. We don't necessarily need to know how we got where we are. What's most important is what's happening right now, in this moment. Eliminate anything that has to do with backstory. 

Too much set up

Have you ever listened to people at a party try to tell a joke, but they get so bogged down in the details of the setup, that by the time they finally reach the punchline you've lost interest? The same is true for short films. If you take too long to get to the core essence of what you're film is about, then viewers will lose interest.

Too much exposition

Christopher McQuarrie, writer and director of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Mission:Impossible - Fallout, said (in an interview on The Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith) that "Information is the death of emotion." Don't have your characters tell each other exactly what they're thinking or feeling. Use subtext. Don't tell the audience exactly what's going on. Convey that information visually.

Too much voice-over

In my opinion, voice-over is often unnecessary for one main reason - it doesn't add anything to the story that can't already be ascertained by what's happening on screen. When executed correctly, voice-over can provide the viewer with necessary context. It can also be used for comedic effect. But if you're thinking about using voice-over, I would recommend first writing your script without it. See if the story works. If not, then carefully introduce voice-over in very strategic spots.

Too many flashbacks

Flashbacks are dangerous in a feature-length film because they can completely kill the forward momentum of the story. So they should definitely be avoided in a short film. But hey, we've all used them before. I know I have. However, I've since learned my lesson. Remember, you want your short film to get straight to the point. Flashbacks only add to the time it takes to get your audience from A to B.

Too on-the-nose

One of the great things about art, be it paintings, books, or films, is that it's always up to interpretation. It's fun to discuss art; its themes, emotions, motivations, etc. So it's disappointing when I see short films or read scripts that tell me exactly what it's all about. It feels like some kind of after-school special, where characters tell us the main lesson just before the credits roll. "See Timmy, good friends make all the difference." Don't preach to your audience. Be subtle. Don't be afraid to be ambiguous. Life is messy. Some things are better left unsaid. If your character motivations are clear, and the story lean and concise, the themes will be evident.

As you read through these tips you may have noticed how many times I used the phrase "Too much..." That's because the best short films are the ones that keep everything simple.

What other tips do you have for creating a really strong short film? Leave them in the Comments section below.

Two Ways to Build a Solid Reputation in Your Local Film Community

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There's one thing ALL low/no-budget short films have in common: most everyone is working for free. It never ceases to amaze me how many talented people are willing to donate their time and their talents to work on a film project, just because they believe in the material and genuinely enjoy the craft. And it's remarkable what you can achieve if you simply ask.

But "nice" will only get you so far. In addition to being nice, you have to be respectful. Your cast and crew have given up their nights and weekends because they a) love the process of filmmaking, b) believe in you, c) love the material, or d) all of the above.

If you want to maintain a good reputation in the local film community, always do the following:

  • Come to set prepared. Be respectful of everyone's time. Show up to set with a solid schedule, a clear vision, and a thorough shot list. A short film set is not a social club. You aren't there to hang out. You're there to work. Believe me, your cast and crew will have a fun time on set if you provide clear direction throughout the day. Having fun is the result of being prepared. If your set is chaotic and disorganized, people will be less inclined to help you in the future.
  • Finish the film and get it out there. Nothing is worse than when talented actors and crew members donate their time for a short film project only to find out months later that the director a) didn't even finish the film, or b) finished it but doesn't want anyone to see it because he/she is too displeased with it. Let the cast and crew see the fruits of their labor. You don't have to submit it to film festivals. You don't have to post it online. But at least coordinate a private viewing party so everyone can see the final product.

Have any other tips for building a solid reputation as a low/no-budget filmmaker? Leave them in the Comments.

Are Zoom Shots Wrong?

 Image courtesy of  Juno Namkoong Lee

Image courtesy of Juno Namkoong Lee

I recently watched a promotional video that employed the use of zoom shots quite a bit. You've probably seen this technique used in corporate work and local commercials. You know, the shot starts out tight on the sign overhead the store front and then the camera slowly zooms out to reveal the building? Or the interior shot that starts out on a wide and slowly zooms in to a specific product on the shelf?

When I saw this technique used again and again in the video I was watching, I have to admit that I had a negative reaction. Then I started thinking, "Why?" What was it about seeing a shot zooming in or zooming out that affected my emotional response to the piece? Is it wrong? Is it a violation of some cinematographer code?

The short answer is, "Maybe." In my opinion, contrary to what others in the industry may say, zoom shots are not old-fashioned. Serious and well-respected filmmakers still use them, as the following video discusses. But before you consider this carte blanche to start zooming in and zooming out on every shot, remember that choosing to move (or not move) your camera will impact your piece and will result in an emotional response from your audience, whether positive or negative.

As you learned from the above video, using the zoom is another tool in the cinematographer toolbox. Like any tool, it should be used at the proper time to achieve the proper result. It should be used for good reason. I don't want to watch an entire video where every shot is either zooming in or zooming out. But I also don't want to watch an entire video that utilizes nothing but jib shots or dolly moves.

The problem with zooming is not the act itself, but choosing when to zoom. Every composition, every move, should be motivated. It should enhance the story you're trying to tell, not distract from it. If there's no good reason to zoom, maybe you should try a different technique. However, using the zoom at the right moment, and in the right way, can be beneficial to your video.

What are your thoughts on zoom shots? How do you feel about them? What advice would you give to other shooters? Leave your thoughts in the the Comments.