Every maker of video programming has been told how important it is to acquire B-roll footage for their production. But what exactly is B-roll and how is this footage used effectively and creatively?
The terms “A” and “B” roll come from the earliest days of the cinema. The primary footage is A-roll, which typically is of the main talent or action. B-roll is anything else that gives context to the primary shots.
B-roll, though used for different purposes, is just as important as A-roll. It can save the day when a primary shot won’t work or transitional footage is needed for other reasons. Typically, B-roll is acquired with a second camera and is sometimes purchased from stock video libraries.
B-roll works in multiple ways. It is often used as a cutaway between interview shots; for establishing a location; or as a transition between different places in a production. It offers visual information and context to the primary shot.
One example: B-roll can add mood to a scene — say by showing rainy or stormy weather to make a day seem gloomy. It can also cover errors in A-roll footage, such as jump cuts, fumbled words in an interview or a subject suddenly sneezing on camera.
B-roll can also establish the location of a scene. Take any TV series or film story in a specific city or part of the country. B-roll is often used in opening shots to establish the area by showing landmarks that are well known to viewers. For example, using an image of the Golden Gate Bridge can establish San Francisco as the place a story occurs.
Some shows are even built almost entirely on B-roll. When I worked on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, a famously very low-budget reality show, B-roll footage was used over and over again — padding out very thin original storylines. A rule on the show was when you didn’t have enough B-roll, run the shot in slow motion! Much of this padding had poor production value, but it somehow worked.
Very often B-roll is shot at different times from the shooting of A-roll. As a budget saving device, the same B-roll is sometimes used on multiple shows. When writing a script or creating a storyboard, needed B-roll is often mapped out in advance. Even when the necessary shot is known in advance, it is always best to shoot extra footage from different angles for protection.
When on a location, get a lot of establishing B-roll shots that visualize the area well. You never know when you will need them. Take a variety of shots, including wide angle, medium and close-ups. It is always good to have more B-roll footage than you think is needed.
When working with actors or other on-screen talent, think through their actions and use of props in advance. Is a close-up of an actor dialing a cellphone needed? Do you need to see the text message an actor is reading on a mobile device? If an actor is handling a prop, is a close-up needed to see the prop clearly? These B-roll shots can be important elements to a story.
Make sure the screen direction and continuity is correct. When an actor is walking down a street, make sure the B-roll is in the same direction as the A shot. Also, be aware that the environmental conditions are the same in the A and B-roll. If it is raining in one shot, it can’t suddenly be clear in the next. Also, keep the lighting consistent. Nothing is a bigger giveaway than inconsistent lighting from scene to scene.
Put equal emphasis on getting both good A and B-roll. Don’t make A-roll a priority. B-roll is just as important, as everyone learns in post. Though the color of all scenes must match, every shot does not need to be shot with the same camera.
In fact, great B-roll can be recorded on virtually any kind of camera, including GoPro action cameras, smartphones or drones. Just be sure to get not only a range of shots, but various frame rates. Shooting 120 frames per second allows more room to experiment in post. The “Ken Burns Effect” might be used for close-ups, pans and tilts to add movement to still images.
A library of B-roll can be helpful for not only a current production but for future ones. It is important to label all the B-roll files not only by location and date, but by whether it contains wide, medium or close-up shots. Sometimes logging footage by weather conditions is also important. Think about the information you may need in the future.
When shooting B-roll, a common problem is the shot is not held long enough. Be sure to roll at least 15 seconds and up to one minute for each shot. A good rule of thumb is to shoot enough B-roll to cover four to six times the total length of your video. Of course, all this footage won’t be used, but it will be enough to cover unexpected problems.
B-roll is also a good way to establish the pacing of a video production. Long lingering shots can help tell a story without a word of dialog. This footage can establish a slow or fast-paced tone. Because much B-roll does not have natural sound, it can serve as a visual montage for a music and effects bed to help establish the mood of a story.
Never underestimate the value of B-roll. It does not have to be generic or boring and it not just a band-aid for mistakes. To the contrary, it is one of the most important aspects of making compelling video. Embrace it and experiment.
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