By Nicole W. Solomon
Want your projects to look more seamless and professional? Looking to pack a little more punch into each minute of runtime? Think you could stand to make your videos just a little more visually interesting? It’s B-roll to the rescue! With its myriad applications, there’s a whole lot you can do with a little bit of additional footage.
What is B-Roll?
B-roll refers to any secondary, supplemental shots that are not part of the main material, or A-roll, you plan to use to tell your story. It originally referred to shots added by editors to hide visible film splices, but today B-roll includes any additional footage added to the primary story. This additional footage may be video shot for a specific project or can include archival materials, stock video, or even photographs or other still images. B-roll generally involves any footage that doesn’t include the main subjects or characters talking or performing scripted actions. While usage of the term “A-roll” to refer to the principle footage that provides the primary building blocks of a project has fallen a bit out of fashion, B-roll remains a crucial piece of every video maker’s storytelling toolbox.
B-Roll in Documentary
B-roll can be a real boon to videographers, documentarians, news producers, or anyone working in the realm of nonfiction -- especially if you create any interview-based content. B-roll serves three main functions in this sort of non-scripted context: it helps break up the monotony of talking head or other interview shots, it adds visual information to the story, and it helps cover up a ton of potential editing issues.
Let’s start with the editing problems: When cutting down and rearranging an interview or other unscripted video that might comprise the bulk of your main footage, one inevitably creates jarring jump cuts, where an obvious edit has occurred despite the shot not changing. While they can be a legitimate part of an intentional editing style, jump cuts often serve to disorient and distract the audience from the characters, story, and all the aspects of your video that you want them to focus on. Slapping some b-roll over these cuts so we don’t see them, but instead cut away to an interesting visual while what sounds like smooth, continuous interview audio plays underneath, solves this problem while also enhancing the imagery of your project. This allows you to flawlessly trim down your duration, jump around in time, or cut out pauses and filler words that can unnecessarily bloat your runtime while awkwardly slowing down the pace.
In addition to fixing sloppy-looking and obvious time jumps, B-roll also can serve to just make your video more interesting. When you have a lengthy interview or monologue by a host, however nicely shot, it’s probably going to get kind of boring to look at after a while, even if what’s being said is fascinating. Having something to cut away to makes nonfiction a lot less dull to watch
Besides solving problems, B-roll brings a lot to the table from a storytelling perspective. In addition to just being more interesting, adding extra footage that illustrates, contrasts with, or otherwise enhances whatever is being said in the audio track, either directly or more abstractly, is another way of sharing information that helps set a tone, create a style, and shape the story. Through B-roll you can focus the audience on a particular visual detail, portray an interview subject in a different context, or show us what they’re talking about. You can cut to animation, photos, or anything else that’s thematically connected or conveys additional information. B-roll is a great way to open up the visual language of your doc.
B-Roll in Narrative Fiction
Much like in documentaries, B-roll can be a real lifesaver when it comes to editing narrative fiction. Sometimes even the most masterfully directed, painstakingly storyboarded and flawlessly shot-listed projects just don’t cut together as expected in the edit. For creators just getting started, having a cache of B-roll on hand will allow for more flexibility and problem-solving in post-production when you weren't able to troubleshoot everything you wish you had in production. Having B-roll to cut away to can make all the difference between a smoothly flowing narrative and a disjointed, amateurish mess.
As in nonfiction, B-roll also provides an opportunity for additional compelling visuals and story information, either but cutting to a particular element of a location or using montage to add footage that may not be of the same time and place, but is connected in a more abstract manner--perhaps by theme, or through a character’s memory or imagination. B-roll can also clarify all sorts of story elements, like location via establishing shots. Maybe it’s helpful to have a wide shot of a building, or a closeup of a street sign. Get some candid shots of the scene at any location where you shoot, and don’t be afraid to move the camera. Are there important props or other objects you want to make sure you have a clear shot of -- like a stolen item of jewelry, a weapon, a favorite item a character fidgets with? Anything revealing of the characters, frequently appearing on screen, or important to the plot is a good idea to capture in B-roll
B-roll can also help enhance emotion or set a mood. Think of the impact of showing sunny versus rainy weather at the beginning of a scene, or any “happy” versus “sad” imagery at various points.
How to Shoot Great B-roll
Start thinking about B-roll in preproduction and plan to shoot as much potentially-useful additional video as you can -- it’s better to be over-prepared than underprepared, and even if you don’t end up using most of it, you’ll be really glad you have the stuff you do. Part of the purpose of B-roll is to account for unforeseen editing problems, so you can’t necessarily know exactly what you’re going to need in advance.
Whether making a doc, short film, or almost any other project, you probably have a shot list telling you or your camera operator exactly what you’re planning to capture on video. Include B-roll on your shot lists. When going through a script for a fiction project, make notes of any general or specific B-roll shots that could be useful -- think establishing shots to introduce locations or cutaways to important objects. For nonfiction involving a lot of talking, think about what visuals could strengthen the story -- how can you show what is being discussed? Or bring in new visuals that will complement the dialogue? Think about how you might want to frame your subjects, what these shots will look like.
Beyond what you have on your shot list, endeavor to capture whatever is around and visually compelling on set, as time allows. For shorts and scripted projects try to shoot any key props or elements of the set design, as well as anything else interesting in the space. For nonfiction and unscripted, look around for location elements that may be revealing of your subject -- if you interview someone in their office, for example, you may want to shoot the photos on their desk, awards, on the wall, knick knacks on the shelf. What’s the view out the window? What does their calendar look like? You never know what will be useful! If you have access to your subject while shooting B-roll, get them entering and exiting the interview location. Shoot their hands while you have an informal conversation. Make sure to get some footage of them going about their normal activities in whatever environment you’re shooting in.
Aim to capture B-roll that looks as nice as your primary footage -- be mindful of the composition and lighting as well as the subject. Experiment with angles and get these details from a few different vantage points -- different framings will convey different emotional information and you’ll want to have options. Variety is the way to go. Don’t just get static shots, try to tilt, pan, and get tracking shots. It’s often a good idea to slow down and let the camera roll on each given shot for longer than you think you will need -- ten seconds minimum. No one wants the heartbreak of a gorgeously composed shot that just has too short or a duration to actually be useful! Consider getting some time lapse photos of any interesting locations. Always plan to shoot more than you need -- you can always save your extra footage to use in future projects!
Because it doesn’t include the main actions, and usually recorded without sound or the main subjects or actors, depending on what you plan to shoot, you may want to plan to get B-roll with a smaller crew on a separate occasion from your main shoot day/s. Depending on how you plan to use it, you may even be able to use a different camera for an intentionally stylized different look -- say if you rented a camera for a day but plan to go pick up some B-roll later with your phone.
But who says B-roll has to be live action? You can also get a little more creative. Maybe you just want to go take some photos to use in lieu of video -- it might be both easier and give your piece a more unique style. Perhaps you want to create some stunning text graphics that share relevant statistics or other information in Photoshop or Canva. If you have animation skills of any sort, that can be a really distinct and unexpected direction to go, that opens up all kinds of visual possibilities that could have strikingly memorable results.
How to Find Great B-roll
In addition to that you shoot yourself, there are a plethora of resources for finding visuals someone else captured or made that you can use in your video projects, often for free. You can pay for stock footage of almost anything under the sun, through a wide array of vendors, that can be altered and edited as you see fit, at a wide range of price points. Meanwhile websites like Pexels and pixabay offer a range of free options. Creative Commons is an invaluable resource for creators seeking all sorts of media for their projects. Always be sure to check the license information to be sure you are using the photos, videos, or graphics as intended, and giving proper credit if required.
Don’t underestimate archival materials as well. For nonfiction projects, do you have or can you get permission to use old family photos or home videos? How about looking for footage or photos of a given location, historical figure, phenomenon? This sort of historical documentation can have narratively, thematically, and aesthetically viable applications for fiction as well as documentary projects if you think creatively. There are also countless fictional films that have fallen out of copyright and thus can legally be used in anyone’s videos. There is a lot out there in the public domain that you can incorporate into your projects, royalty-free. Archive.org is a robust resource for a wide array of media, as is NASA and National Parks Service.
Whatever your project's approach, B-roll provides ample opportunity to professionalize the look of your videos, enhance your storytelling capabilities, and help develop your own unique style. Don’t be afraid to experiment and trust your gut -- if you’re entertained, or moved, or inspired, your audience probably will be as well.
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Nicole W. Solomon is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and media educator. She is half of the independent production company 4Milecircus and co-hosts the film discussion podcast The Celluloid Mirror.