What Is B-Roll and Why Is It Essential in Video Production?
B-roll footage is an integral part of any video production. Whether it is a documentary, a television show, music videos, or just a short testimonial clip, filmmakers of all kinds need to understand both A-roll and B-roll footage.
With just a few more scenes and transitions, B-roll footage can make your video more professional and enrich the story you intend to tell. So let’s dive into the topic, find out how to apply it, and answer the question, “What is B-roll?”.
What Is B-Roll Footage?
There are two types of footage you need to tell a visually compelling story. In the early days, Hollywood films used “A-roll” and “B-roll” to describe their respective roles.
B-roll refers to the accompanying footage intercut into the main shot (also known as “A-roll”) of a video edit. For example, your A-roll could include your interview subject speaking to the camera. Any alternative footage, such as cutaways to surroundings or significant places, will be your B-roll. These cutaways are a great video marketing tool to keep your target audience engaged and help you convey what you are trying to say.
The video below by Adam Savage interviewing the Key Stunt Rigger from The Expanse is an excellent example of how it can look. The “A-roll” is the actual interview, while the B-roll scenes (set footage, final cuts, etc.) add to the context of the conversation.
In simple terms: A-roll tells the story, B-roll shows the story.
While B-roll footage can set the tone of a video and establish characters and the setting, it also breaks up the monotony.
What Are the Most Common Types of B-Roll Video?
1. Undirected Footage
Undirected footage is the video you shoot on-site and can be used to complement your main footage. This type of B-roll footage, as the name implies, is not directed by your character. These could be used for interview videos to show your character’s expressions and hands. For a documentary shoot, it can be the everyday activities your character is engaged in.
This interview with Emma Raducanu conducted by Prime Video shows its application perfectly. They used a lot of B-roll footage to fill in the gaps.
2. Stock Footage
Many stock footage websites like Adobe Stock or Storyblok will make it easy for you to find the B-roll you need. You just need to search for a key phrase to find footage relevant to the video you’re looking to make. While you will usually have to pay an additional fee to use the footage in your project without any attribution, there are times when you can get stock footage for free.
The following is a video I’ve created with parts of stock footage for one of my clients Shohreh Aghdashloo, for Valentine’s Day as a message to her fans:
3. Establishing Shots
An establishing shot in television and filmmaking lets the viewers know the context for the scene. Setting can include both place and time, as well as the time of day and possibly time in history. For example, do you see horses and buggies on the streets or a spaceship flying in the background?
Technically, an establishing shot is a wide shot (also known as a long shot) or aerial shot showing a lot about the setting for context. For a variety of reasons, establishing shots are different from other shots in a movie:
The setting shots are a way to set the scene for what’s coming. They don’t have to last more than a few seconds.
The characters are rarely included in establishing shots. The setting where the action is taking place is what most establishing shots are focused on.
Establishing shots don’t include dialogue. They are accompanied by music or sound effects.
Although they might be used to set the mood or emotion that audience members are about to experience, they are not emotionally expressive.
Stock footage might suffice as B-roll if a shot list requires a basic establishing shot in Los Angeles for example.
How to Shoot B-Roll
You should make sure to get enough B-roll while you are planning what you want to film. You don’t want to be caught up in the editing and post-production process only to realize that your interview subject was not showing what should have been on screen.
1. Planning Ahead
As you would plan every other aspect of your video, so you should also plan your B-roll. Review your script and take note of the scenes that would benefit from B-roll footage. Make sure you know what your main footage is before you start to build around it.
For example, when interviewing a subject in their home, you should plan to capture exit and entry footage and ambient footage, and shots within/of the space. To ensure you tell the entire story, create a list with the “must-haves” and the “nice-to-haves.”
2. Get Different Camera Angles
It’s always a good idea to get multiple shots of the same thing, with or without your subject, to have enough variety in your B-roll footage. In case you have to cut parts away, this will cover you.
For educational purposes and to explain the different camera angles, I’m using a few shots from the YouTube documentary series “The Age of A.I.” hosted by Robert Downey Jr. (off-topic, it’s a brilliant series about the evolution of artificial intelligence).
This is often an establishing or environmental shot and shows your subject in action. Wide-angle shots can help to place the viewer in your scene.
Also known as a “waist shot,” a medium shot is a portrait taken at a moderate distance. Medium shots are good for subjects who are speaking or moving.
Close-ups are the shots that show the details. Close-ups are intimate and highlight subtleties that may otherwise go unnoticed. It frames an actor’s face, making their reaction the focus of the frame.
My pro tip: If you are trying to capture a close-up or pan of an important document or an old photograph, use the “Ken Burns Effect” to shoot close-ups and tilts. This will add movement to still images, making them more attractive to the viewer of your video.
In the below example, I’m using a still of the same documentary scene and zoom in from the outer grey border to the blue one at which it will stop.
The result is going to look like this:
With video editing software, you can achieve the Ken Burns Effect quickly. For example, in Apple’s iMovie and Final Cut Pro, you can find it under “Ken Burns effect,” and in Adobe Premiere Rush, it’s called “Pan and Zoom.”
3. Shoot More Footage than You Need
Keep your camera rolling if you have the chance. You might catch something even more fascinating than you initially thought. Record some additional timelapse shots of the surroundings and scout the area.
Make sure you have enough B-roll for at least four times the length of your final video creation. For example, you should shoot 4 minutes of B-roll if the interview ends in a minute. Of course, you won’t use it all, but it’s essential to have options.
Best Use Cases for B-Roll
I can’t say it enough. B-roll adds context and layers to storytelling. A scene that captures the subject entering or leaving a location or shots of an exterior location directs the viewer’s attention into and out of a scene.
Let’s take a look at the common use cases for your B-roll.
The number one type of video you want to use your B-roll for is testimonials.
According to a survey by Wyzowl, 2 out of 3 peoplesay they’d bemore likely to purchase after watching a testimonial video demonstrating how a business, product, or service had helped another person like them. So video testimonials can be a great way to build your customer base and help customers make better purchasing decisions. This high-production video by Mailchimp uses a lot of B-roll footage.
2. Storytelling Videos
The storytelling video is a powerful way to connect emotionally with your audience and communicate your brand. With engaging visuals, these videos highlight core values and purpose. They offer more than just a product, service, or experience.
It doesn’t always have to be a high-quality production with a big camera team. For example, I’ve created the following online video for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a new Hollywood film for Shohreh Aghdashloo’s social media channels. All of the content came from a smartphone and was recorded on the fly during the shooting.
It is not often that the camera stays on top of a shot of someone talking directly to the camera, as you might have noticed in a documentary. Instead, you may have a shot of someone talking and then cut to the B-roll that supports the story.
Documentaries must set the scene for the story they will be telling viewers and convey that story with a level of authority. For example, this Netflix documentary “Our Planet” starts with numerous beautiful establishing shots or “aerial B-roll” of the planet from space and vast forests to introduce the viewer to the episode.
4. Movies & Television
The fourth most common case is trailers and generally in movies and television. A trailer is packed with lots of B-roll footage to establish the characters, conflicts, and action in a short time. It brings excitement, turns up the emotion, and is meant to increase video views and the conversion rates of your content marketing strategy.
Here is an eye-popping movie trailer example that generates interest in the sci-fi action film “The Matrix Resurrections.”
B-roll is a great way to establish your story in videos and build a personal archive of unutilized footage you can draw from or use as a fallback. It can be used to add value to a project or inspire a new one. However, it’s best to keep it if you own it.
I hope this article answered your question, “What is a B-roll” and how you can apply it. For further information about Video Marketing strategy, I have prepared this guide for you, or you can contact me to collaborate on your new marketing campaign.