B-roll, mindfulness and the art in science documentaries

Why are unfathomable science and maths documentaries so watchable?

Let’s look at an example:

Have you any idea what the documentary is about?

Me neither, but the reason it is still watchable lies deep in the history of Hollywood.

In the early days of movie-making, there would be two film crews on set. A main crew would shoot the scripted scenes with the big expensive equipment and pricey film known as the a-roll.

A second unit would get to work on shooting all the other things needed to tell a full story. They would be given a cheaper set of kit and film – the b-roll.

While the main unit had the great responsibility of keeping the stars in focus, the second unit had to use creativity to fill out all the parts of the story not being told by the actors. So who has the better job? Shooting b-roll sounds more fun and creative to me, especially on bad movies.

Which comes to the tricky subject of science documentaries. How do you make them watchable to the widest possible audience?

One possibility is good content, but that’s a-roll mentality and it relies on the boffins actually saying something interesting – a risky strategy for anyone who found science boring at school.

Any filmmaker, having done their research, could find clues on what to do in the most unlikely places – 1970’s Open University lectures. Take this little gem:

Did anyone, including students who are meant to be paying attention to the lecture, notice anything other than the beard?

And how about this one:

I’m sure most of us could watch this entire lecture, even if we’re only looking at the shirt.

Incidentally, the presenter for this one was the Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s son and the OU was his dad’s pet project. Nepotism isn’t what it used to be.

Getting into the b-roll mindset means realising that Einstein had great hair and E=mc2 works really well in so many different fonts.

However, even artsy b-roll has to obey some fundamental rules for filming an activity – five, in fact:

  1. Shoot a wide shot to establish where the activity is happening.
  2. Include a closeup on one bit of detail
  3. Also shoot a closeup on the person doing it
  4. Take a point of view shot to put yourself in the place of the activity doer and linking together the previous three concepts
  5. Look for an alternate shot, showing what else is going on in the same time and place

Can anybody make boring things watchable by obeying these five laws of b-roll?

I decided to put this to the test, by trying to make something watchable out of the most boring tasks I had to do that day – ironing, vacuuming and washing up.

Did it work? You decide.

It is perhaps unsurprising that I got very little housework done. But what I did get was a strong sense of living in the now. I was looking around for the filmic qualities of everything around me from the textural differences between a cup and a tea towel or the way light plays on a scratched vacuum cleaner.

It involved a level of observation that might make someone a good scientist. It also felt like a rather pleasant exercise in mindfulness and the opposite of that rather pleasant mindlessness of dozing through a documentary.

In any event, I’ll never watch a documentary in the same way again

For some more info on making b-roll try this:

And for an alternative view, try this: