The Building Blocks of
Shooting a Sequence

Too often b-roll, or the visuals that help tell your story, are viewed as secondary in importance to the audio information. Television is a visual medium, so you are not using it to its full potential if visuals merely accompany the spoken and written information.

What we often see is individual, random, seemingly unrelated 'b-roll' shots inserted over the interview shot. The editor repeatedly returns to the interview shot after very few (and sometimes only one) b-roll shots are strung together.

It's much more effective to build a sequence, using individual shots of an activity or event as the building blocks for that sequence. In order to do so the cameraperson needs to first shoot an establishing (wide) shot of the activity to orient the audience about what is going on, where the activity is taking place, and where the different players in the activity are situated. After getting that shot, the cameraperson should break down the activity into individual blocks or shots, isolating the individual players and elements in the activity.

At the recent HIKI NŌ Teachers' Conference, I demonstrated how one might shoot an art class in which three artists are sketching a live model as a teacher looks at the artists' work and gives them feedback. (See "Shooting a Sequence" video.) I first shot the activity in a wide establishing shot; then shot isolated "blocks" of each artist looking at the model, then looking down at his sketch pad; the model by herself; a close-up of the drawing itself; the teacher looking down at the student's artwork, etc. Because these individual elements were filmed as isolated shots (or blocks), the blocks can be rearranged by the editor in an infinite variety of ways to give the audience a full, in-depth, three dimension experience of the art class (rather than just stringing together random shots of the class). By editing the separate shots together, the editor can establish the relationships between the individual elements of the activity: the artists look at the model; from what they see, they each draw a picture of her on their pad; the teacher looks at the drawing on each of the pads and gives the artists feedback. This is visual storytelling. It's a simple story, but it is a story nonetheless.

Also posted here is an excerpt from a PBS Hawaii music documentary: "Ná Mele: Jake Shimabukuro's Musical Journey". (See "Jake Shimabukuro" video.) The scene involves Jake giving a talk and a performance at a Laupahoehoe School assembly. The cameraperson (Glenn Yamamoto) shot the event with one camera from a wide variety of angles, giving the editor (Mike Powell) enough blocks to build a comprehensive, dynamic, three-dimensional experience for the viewer. Through the editing, you really feel the strong bond Jake builds with his audience.

Watching this sequence, you might think it was shot with five cameras from different angles. It was shot with only one camera, by one cameraperson. Can you figure out how he did it?

--Robert Pennybacker

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