You’re producing a film or video and you’re short on time. You want to engage the audience, make your production look professional, and round out your topic or story with visual variation. But with a deadline coming up, how can you do it?
By using B-roll to elevate your next project. What is B-roll, you ask? How will it help, and where can you source it?
We’ll tell you. In today’s post, we take an in-depth look at B-roll. Find out why it’s valuable for your video production and where you can get the B-roll you need right away.
1. Get to know B-roll
First things first.
Before we break down where to get B-roll and how to use it like a pro, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about B-roll meaning.
What’s the difference between A-roll and B-roll?
A-roll is used to inform the primary story or focus, and B-roll is used to support, illuminate, or accent the main story.
A-roll is fundamental. B-roll is supplemental.
A-roll is your main course and B-roll film is your side orders — and they have to fit on the same plate.
What Is B-roll?
B-roll refers to any supplemental shot or footage in a film, television production, video, or commercial that is not the main shot or focus of the story. B-roll can be gathered with a separate unit, acquired as stock footage, or obtained from any source other than principal photography.
The term B-roll originated in the earliest days of Hollywood moviemaking, when principal footage was termed A-roll. An identical roll of film, the B-roll, or B-reel, was used for filler and transitional cuts.
What Is B-Roll Footage?
- May be shot by second-unit crews.
- May be pulled from stock footage libraries.
- Does not always require sound.
- Provides supporting scenes and cutaway shots.
- Can be used for establishing shots.
In the digital age of filmmaking, the term A-roll has fallen out of practical use, but B-roll remains a term you have to know.
Many news outlets and media companies use B-roll packages for their supplemental footage needs.
The more you know about B-roll, or Broll, or B roll without the hyphen — the better your filmmaking will be.
Think about it. Filmmaking and video is all about movement. Visual variation. You’ll need to keep your audience stimulated.
A static shot, uninterrupted, won’t hold their attention — no matter how riveting your subject matter is.
You’ll use the filmmaking medium to its fullest potential if you engage viewers with a variety of shots and imagery.
Use cutaways to modulate the flow of your production. Hold the audience’s gaze by showing scenes of what talking heads are talking about. Expand the scope with supplemental shots.
Let viewers see the complete picture of the world you’re building in your production.
Below, we’ll explore the best ways to use and find B-roll.
2. Watch B-roll shots
No one really wants to stare at an uninterrupted talking head for hours at a time — or for more than two minutes.
So documentarians and news producers incorporate B-roll footage in nearly every story.
When filmmakers need to take a breath, open it up, hold attention, that’s where B-roll comes in.
In this B-roll example, you can see that B-roll shots on their own might not always be the most compelling things in the world. When you intersperse B-roll film with A-roll, however, that’s where the value comes in.
Watch this B-roll video and just envision these shots and scenes lending texture to A-roll:
Instead of watching someone drone on about whatever topic, the savvy filmmaker will make the content more compelling and digestible by including supplemental images. They’ll incorporate relevant B-roll footage.
In documentaries, B-roll footage is used to keep the audience’s attention and give context to the subject matter.
B-roll film is also used to give visual reference to the story or information conveyed by the person speaking.
B-roll video can be used to illustrate talking points or themes. B-roll can convey information and educate viewers visually — with compelling shots, rather than dry blabbering.
3. Get good B-roll ideas
Let’s look at B-roll examples to see how they enhance a variety of films and formats.
What does B-roll mean to a news segment? How about a documentary or narrative feature? Where does B-roll fit into a corporate video?
The function of B-roll stays pretty consistent in any project. It makes the production feel like a real production. It provides a professional touch and visual value, along with keeping viewers absorbed in the material.
In documentaries, B-roll is often anecdotal and guided by the personal account of the “talking head.”Take a look at this B-roll example from An Inconvenient Truth Sequel. The B-roll shots turn notorious stiff-guy Al Gore into a dynamic fireball of energy:
Al Gore may not have invented B-roll, but he sure uses B-roll footage like a master. Does this give you any good B-roll ideas of your own?
Broadcast news outlets are also masters of cinematic B-roll footage.
Check out a B-roll example from The Washington Post.
What is B-roll doing in the piece below? It’s conveying the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and highlighting the resilience of the people it affected.
Without B-roll footage, this piece would be flimsy.
Imagine if it didn’t include any B-roll.
Before we go on and show you how to use B-roll, let’s watch a B-roll example in a narrative feature film. It’s a lesson in how to shoot good B-roll.Enrich your story with cinematic B-roll. The “hand over wheat” B-roll footage from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator showcases its potential.
You can almost imagine this same piece of B-roll footage lending texture and nuance to a prescription drug commercial or a corporate video. To the most big-budget commercial or corporate video of all time, of course, but you get the idea.
In a feature film, as with documentaries and news, B-roll makes your story more visual.
B-ROLL VIDEO USER'S GUIDE
4. How to use B-roll in your projects
You can shoot your own B-roll footage, or source it elsewhere.
Right now, we’ll focus on how to shoot good B-roll.
Film purists and those with ample enough budgets will often employ a “B-Unit” or Second Unit. These teams can capture specific original shots or sequences that are not a part of the main action.
Usually, no dialogue or sound is recorded with B-roll. But if B-roll with sound would add to the texture of your production, by all means, capture audio as well.
PRO TIP: PLAN YOUR B-ROLL SHOOT
If you’re shooting your own B-roll footage, don’t forget to plan for it during pre production.
Schedule, shot list, and if necessary even storyboard your B-roll shots as you would any other scene in your project.
When you’re managing your production, set up a custom shot list for your B-roll. It’s a good idea to upload reference images to give your team visual direction for the B-roll film you’ll need to capture.
What is B-roll but an integral part of your project? It’s important to include it in the planning stages of your project. That means putting B-roll in your shot list.
Click into the B-roll shot list below, and be sure to adjust the layout and columns in the upper-left corner to see what works best for you.
A beach, a factory assembly line, a train station — plan your production and create your shot list. Look for places where B-roll will accentuate your A-roll. Then include these B-roll shots in your preparations.
In your production management software, invite team members to view the shot list. Or give them editing privileges so they can leave notes and make changes.
To do this, click the Share List icon in the top-right corner. This brings up a pop-up window where you can manage access and invite collaborators.
You’ll also want to create a production calendar to organize your shoot from start to finish. Within the calendar, set up time to plan and shoot your B-roll film.
Click into this production calendar to see how you can add events and adjust the chart. Try different display options in the top-left corner, and click into each event to view details.
In this production calendar, you can assign tasks and team members can check them off as they’re completed. Tasks such as the completion of your B-roll shoots, for example.
And whether you’re shooting A-roll or B-roll, make sure you know about camera shots & camera angles. In your film, corporate video, commercial, or digital project, the goal should always be to make it cinematic.
It’s a visual project, so make it visual.
That means polishing your cinematography chops — or collaborating with people who know their stuff.
So if you want to get great B-roll film for your next project, there are just a few steps you’ll need to take.
First, you must plan for your B-roll shoot. Know what you want to achieve so you will know what to shoot and how to shoot it.
Second, get a wide variety of shots and angles for your B-roll. Cover your bases.
PRO TIP: MAKE SURE THE CAMERAS MATCH
It’s critical to use the same camera (or at least camera type) to shoot your B-roll as you use to shoot your A-roll.
Otherwise, you risk your A-roll and B-roll looking completely different. Your “B-roll goal” is to accentuate the A-roll, and this won’t work if your B-roll is jarring or distracting for technical reasons.
Make the shots interesting or the work you put in could end up on the cutting room floor.
Third, think outside the box.
B-roll can be your chance to go as simple as a static camera on a tripod or as complex as a sequence with multiple shots and movements. Add variety to your overall piece with your B-roll.
Lastly, don’t make your B-roll an afterthought. It’s important. Running out of time means you didn’t properly schedule your B-roll shoot.
5. Find great B-roll footage
So now you know a thing or two about B-roll.
You can shoot your own B-roll, as we’ve gone over above.
And if you don’t have the time, budget, or desire to shoot your own B-roll footage, you have other options.
Next step: Where do you get the B-roll?
Several companies have huge libraries of film and digital stock footage.
There’s no shame in using stock B-roll footage in your film or corporate video. Why do you think so many resources exist? It’s because filmmakers need B-roll, and they don’t always have the time or money to film it themselves.
We’ve done the B-roll footage research for you. Here’s cheat sheet. Use it to source good B-roll ideas and material. Each source is hyperlinked for your convenience:
You will be surprised at what you can achieve using B-roll footage that someone else has already curated.
And whether you shoot your own B-roll or find B-roll footage from a stock source, keep this in mind: B-roll is one component of the big picture.
Get what you need, keep track of the process, and move on to the next phase. Your goal is to deliver a polished and professional film or video.You’ll need to manage the production process from end to end. Whether you’re organizing the fine points of B-roll or putting together call sheets, you’ll want an efficient way to plan and track your progress.
6. Learn from the best B-rollers
Who is the Baron of B-roll? The Empress of Extra Footage?
In narrative film, several directors use B-roll masterfully.
Studying key scenes in their work can give filmmakers at any level a leg up in the use of B-roll in their own projects.
Let’s take look at a few more of these B-roll examples right now.The Coen Brothers, in No Country For Old Men, use B-roll footage to establish the tone, location, and mood of the entire film that follows.
Quentin Tarantino, in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, loves to get inserts. Especially of feet. This director’s flicks flaunt more kicks than a Dr. Scholl’s commercial.
Check it out here.
Christopher Nolan, in The Dark Knight Trilogy, uses B-roll film for stunning views of Gotham, played by the city of Chicago.The B-roll-featuring opening scene of The Dark Knight even digs into cinema history.
Patty Jenkins, with her superhero hit Wonder Woman, uses B-roll shots to establish a realistic fantasy world filled with action. It’s a fresh take on classic heroics, with B-roll an integral part of the ride.
Here’s a detailed perspective on Jenkins’ B-roll technique.
What is B-roll for Peter Jackson? Much like Patty Jenkins in Wonder Woman, Jackson also uses B-roll as a powerful key to visualize a specific fantasy world.In his Lord Of the Rings Trilogy, Jackson makes viewers swoon over B-roll landscape imagery. It brings the world of hobbits, fairies, and men to life. B-roll up a fatty and check out this stunning montage.
In feature films at this level, B-roll is never an afterthought. Even though these shots fit the B-roll meaning and B-roll definition as transitional or establishing footage, they’re integral to the story and the world.
Yes, B-roll footage is secondary, but a film or video is a whole, unified piece of content — the best users of B-roll recognize this.
The directors in the examples above incorporate B-roll into their work organically to tell the story. B-roll film is, to them, every bit as effective as a storytelling tool as their main A-roll footage.
What else can you do with B-roll from a practical point of view? Well for one thing, filmmakers can use B-roll footage for establishing shots.
B-roll footage has always worked well for intros. Just think of any sitcom credits sequence.
Using B-roll for establishing shot lets the viewer know where they are and what the mood will be.
Filmmakers can also use B-roll footage for transitions in interesting ways.
What B-roll you use, and how you use it, can make your transitions natural and seamless, or jarring and abrasive. It all depends on what you want to convey.
Transitional B-roll footage does not need to lack creativity.
It has been said that drama itself is change — a character changing from naive young farmer to intergalactic hero, for example — and what is a transition but a change?
Your transitions can truly bring the drama.
Shooting for transitions can involve movement, color, and/or lighting that’s completely different from your main footage. This will give variation to your visual style and make your piece more compelling to viewers.
Montages are another great way to utilize B-roll footage and accentuate the main story.
A montage can be almost any length to fit your story.
A long montage sequence of action may even become a central focus of the story.The opening montage in Woody Allen’s Manhattan comes to mind.
It’s all B-roll.
And, in this case, it’s all you need.
The individual shots of Manhattan life, the skyline, its traffic, New York pedestrians, and other details would fit right into a news story, a documentary, or any other film set in the city.
But put together in this way, the shots come together as a montage to create a perfect, specific, and intimate opening for the story that follows.
Create a Color Palette Like Ridley Scott
Knowing when and how to use B-roll footage puts you ahead of the filmmaking curve.
So does choosing a color palette for your project. Nobody does this better than director Ridley Scott. Your content will be more effective and compelling if you choose your color palette at the outset of pre-production.
Learn how to do this right now. You’ll even get a free LUT Pack download in the article.
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