There are lots of terms in Hollywood that you have to learn, and one of the most important is B-roll. It's one of those words that gets tossed around your first day on set and that you may have heard a thousand times before without ever really knowing what it truly means. Well, we can't have that.
Today we're going to define B-roll, look at some examples, and talk about why it's so important to shoot a lot of it on set.
Let's dive into what B-roll means.
The B-Roll Meaning
I have to admit, I think I heard the term B-roll a dozen times before I actually sat down to think about what it means. And at that point, I was spelling it "B-role." But thankfully, I did some research. And now, I have the definition here for you.
The B-roll definition is simple—it's supplemental footage shot to support the main footage.
It's all the footage not included in the main action. The term "B-roll" comes from the early days of Hollywood, when editors inserted new shots to give information, or B-roll, and then cut back in the A-roll.
B-roll is the alternative footage to the principal photography—the main shots in your project—and is used to complement the A-roll. Sometimes, B-roll will be written as "B-roll footage, Broll, or B roll."
The Difference Between A-Roll and B-Roll
A-roll is the main footage that tells the primary story. It includes the main interviews, dialogue, and straight-on shots that are essential to the narrative of the video. This is the footage that includes the main subjects and the primary audio elements. It's what you plan to capture to tell your story.
B-roll, on the other hand, is supplemental footage that provides context and depth to the A-roll. It includes cutaways, background shots, and other secondary clips that help to flesh out the story, illustrate points, and create a more engaging and visually appealing narrative. B-roll is often used to cover edits, allowing the video to flow more smoothly by covering the cuts that may otherwise jar the viewer.
Here are some key differences:
- Content: A-roll is the core content, whereas B-roll is supportive content.
- Purpose: A-roll drives the narrative forward, B-roll enriches the visual experience.
- Use: A-roll typically contains the main audio, while B-roll is often shown with overlaying audio from the A-roll or with music and other non-diegetic sound.
- Editing: B-roll is used in editing to hide cuts, provide context, or add interest, whereas A-roll cuts are more deliberate and focused on the narrative.
What is B-Roll Footage?
There are many different kinds of this footage. A few of them include:
- Atmospheric shots of locations
- Shots of inanimate objects
- Undirected footage of subjects/people
- Establishing shots
- Insert shots
- Dramatic reenactments
- Pick-up shots
- Stock footage
- Archival imagery
- Still photography
What is B-Roll Used For?
These kinds of shots and footage are used for many different goals inside a project. You can use it to set the tone, like including the killer's hands and plans at the beginning of Se7en.
Or it can give exposition, like the newspapers that cross the screen in Citizen Kane.
Mostly, B-roll is used to give the editor options. It can help break up a scene, a monologue, and dole out information. It can also help you use most of a take you like, even if there's a mistake, because you can cut around it with the other footage.
Here are a few other uses of B-roll:
- Setting the tone
- Giving editors choices
- Adding exposition
- Highlighting an important detail
- Introducing characters
- Covering an error in a shot
B-Roll Examples in Film and TV
B-roll in film and TV has many more uses and occurs on a much larger scale. See, film and TV shows are shot with different units. The first unit stays with the director and focuses on shots with the actors or main plot points. The second unit shoots almost everything else. That means things like establishing shots, inserts, and even some close-ups are covered through B-roll.
Think about shots in sitcoms, which show the city, before the show cuts inside, like on Seinfeld or 30 Rock.
Or even shots that visually symbolize what's going on inside a character, like in the dog vs. rabbit scene in Snatch. That provides something to cut to while we see the main characters reacting and talking. It also breaks up the monotony in the scene.
B-roll helps your projects come alive. And sometimes, you can sell your B-roll for stock footage. So you might want to look into that to license. You can make some great money from shooting B-roll.
How to Shoot Cinematic B-Roll
When you're making a shot list, don't rush your B-roll. So many times we see static, boring shots that double as B-roll. These shots have no energy and can feel out of place in the edit. If you want more cinematic B-roll, try incorporating movement.
For some ideas, check out our article 4 Easy Shot Ideas for Handheld Cinematic B-Roll.
You can also look at the opening of Field of Dreams. We start static, but eventually get the crane up, pans, and other ways to transition us into the corn. We get a sense of the scope and the endlessness of the area. We can feel the isolation out there. This movement is cinematic.But what if you don't have that kind of insane budget? Then think outside the box.
In Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, we hear a sordid story about Alyssa Jones. Instead of staying on the person telling the story, we use B-roll in a POV shot. The movement of the camera keeps us engaged with the performance, as exposition gets delivered by a character we will never meet again.
If these don't inspire you, let me leave you with one more example of cinematic B-roll. It's from Mad Max: Fury Road. These clips show about 20 minutes of the first and second units capturing B-roll for the movie. It's cinematic, gorgeous, and takes a ton of skill. They use the movement of the camera, the subjects, creative angles, and lots of other shots to add style and context to the scene.
How to Shoot B-Roll for Film and TV
When it comes time to shoot B-roll, it's time to break it all down.
You need to treat it like you would A-roll. That means scouting a location and blocking a scene. Think ahead to some shots you can use to break up the scene. They can be inserts of people touching things or even just atmospheric shots. You could slip into a POV shot, close-up, or do a different sort of angle to switch things up. These are shots you can put into your shot list. They deserve attention and care, even if the second unit is going to capture them.
Summing Up the Meaning of B-Roll in Film and TV
Now that you know all about B-roll, it's time to put it into good use. Get out there and roll camera. Make sure you shot list and scout where you'll be some you can be effective. There's so much you can get done. B-roll is amazingly important and an unsung savior to editors everywhere.
What are some of your favorite B-roll uses and strategies? Let us know in the comments.
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