Every film has a central focus, whether it’s the main character in a big budget movie or an expert being interviewed for a documentary. However, spending too much time focused on that one subject will lead to an unengaging film. Luckily, there’s a way to prevent that: great b-roll footage.
B-roll can spice up a movie or clarify what a speaker is talking about. It can hide transitions and even cover up mistakes in a performance. Plus, well-shot b-roll can drive a film’s narrative forward. But what exactly is it? How can you get it and include it in your project?
For an answer to these questions and more, check out our video about how to shoot better b-roll:
What is B-roll Footage?
If you’ve watched any kind of video, you have seen b-roll footage. It is simply all of the supplemental footage that is cut into the main footage.
Think about a news segment talking about a local protest. Odds are they cut to footage of the crowds protesting while the reporter continues talking about the protest. That footage of the crowds is b-roll footage. Or, think of a big budget movie where one character is talking to another and the visuals cut to show what the first character is talking about. That is also b-roll. City scenes and shots of traffic. Birds flying and clouds passing. All b-roll.
B-roll footage shows visual examples of what the narrator is trying to explain. It can create a sense of atmosphere and setting for the events of a movie. It can break up the monotony of watching a single person talk for a long time. B-roll can even be used to hide transitions or mistakes in the main footage.
How are A-roll and B-roll Different?
In the earliest days of filmmaking, the footage was recorded onto reels (also sometimes called rolls), and there were two of them. The first roll contained the primary footage of the actors’ performance and dialog. Because it contained all of the main footage, it was labeled the “a-roll”.
The second roll contained all of the additional, supporting footage. Because it wasn’t the primary performance, it was labeled the “b-roll”. The final film would be a combination of a-roll performance with b-roll supplements. Filmmaking continues to use this approach.
How to Shoot B-roll
Nothing will help you get better b-roll footage more efficiently than thorough planning. When planning your b-roll shots, consider the following factors:
Purpose and Relevance
Before you do any shooting, you should have a script (or at least an outline) in place to guide the overall film. Take your script and look for mentions of atmosphere that can be shown in the film. Are you talking about a specific location? Plan a shoot for b-roll showing that location. Is there an item that is relevant to the story? Plan for b-roll footage of that item. All of your b-roll should have some purpose to your final film – don’t just go out and film a bunch of random stuff in the hope that some of it will be useful later. You might spend too much time (and possibly money) doing that and not be able to really use any of it logically in your narrative.
Plan Out Locations and Subjects
Although the films we create are generally presented in a linear fashion, most of the time there is no need to shoot footage in the order that it will appear. Have two sets of shots on the same side of town? Try to get all of that footage shot in the same session – save yourself some travel. Make a checklist of everything you might possibly need from that side of town to shoot in the same day.
Similarly, do you have actors or other talent that need to be shot in a variety of settings? Try to plan out how to shoot as much of their work at a time as possible to simplify schedules and reduce the number of sessions they will need to be present for. Do you have scenes set at different times, but at the same place? Try to shoot the first set of footage, do a wardrobe change, and shoot the second scene without ever leaving. This could mean 1 long day but it’s better than many, many short days.
Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
When shooting your b-roll, there are a few mistakes to avoid.
Not Shooting Enough
There is no such thing as too much b-roll. Fortunately, memory is relatively cheap, so shoot more b-roll than you think is necessary. As already mentioned, don’t shoot without a plan. But definitely aim for too much rather than too little.
The problem many filmmakers will make is underestimating how much b-roll they need in the final edit. Maybe you are shooting b-roll to play over top of someone talking in order to hide cuts you made to make the speaking flow better. If there are a lot of cuts, you might find that you need a surprisingly long clip to hide those edits.
Or imagine that you need a 10 second static shot of traffic flowing down a street. What happens if something happens 8 seconds into that clip that ruins the shot? You might have to shoot for several minutes or more in order to find 10 consecutive seconds you’re happy with. It’s amazing the weird stuff we see in footage after it’s too late that we never caught while filming.
Not Enough Variety
It’s easy to want a shot while editing that you didn’t take at all. “I love this scene of the park but I wish I had some footage that was wider. Oh well.” When you’re planning out your b-roll shoots, shoot as many variations of each clip as you can think of. Shoot different angles, pan into the shot from different angles. Get both tight and wide angle shots. Again, more than you think is necessary at the time.
Be open to going off your plan if you see something unexpected that could make for a great addition – or might be cool in another project down the road. Plans are great and necessary, but flexibility is important too.
No Consistency Between Shots
There are a lot of ways to ensure consistency between shots, but it can be easy to overlook the importance of consistency and end up with jarring, distracting moments.
For example, if you are shooting b-roll footage of someone walking to a destination, most of the time you want to shoot them walking the same direction on the screen. If they are walking left to right in one shot, it’s going to be weird if they’re suddenly walking right to left in the next shot.
Another example: if you have to come back to reshoot b-roll later, you can introduce inconsistencies that will pull the viewer out of the moment. If you’re shooting outside, you might end up with leaves changing colors during autumn or flowers suddenly blooming in the spring. This is why doing as much as possible in the same day is key. It’s really weird to have the sky suddenly look cloudy when in the last b-roll cut it was quite sunny! This sounds obvious but it’s amazing how even subtle changes are not very noticeable in-person but stand out like a traffic signal while editing.
Not Creating Focus
Make sure when you’re shooting your b-roll footage that you are thinking about its role in the overall project. Don’t let background elements distract from the focus of the shot. If your subject is a person in a crowd, figure out how to make that person stand out so the viewer instantly knows who to look at.
How to Organize B-roll
Great b-roll footage won’t do you any good if you can’t find it when you need it. Creating a good organization structure can be time consuming, but will make your life far easier once you start working with a lot of clips. Put in the tedious work now and you’ll thank yourself later, especially when on a deadline and needing some b-roll at the last minute that is limited to only what you’ve already shot.
Organizational systems will be different for every person or group, and the key is finding what organizational system works for you. Think about what information will be most useful when finding the file you’re looking for, what is already saved in metadata, and what kind of sorting and filtering capabilities your video editor has. If there is no way to save a bit of information in the metadata or as a tag, think about an organized way to use it in the filename. Whatever you do choose, try and stick to it!
Some common pieces of information that will be helpful in organizing your files include:
- Shot type – is it a wide angle, close up, or medium close up? Exact focal length may be even included.
- Subject name – if you have multiple people giving interviews, being able to narrow the clips down to one person in them can be helpful. Decide how to organize them (first name first or last name first?) and stick to it.
- Environment – if you have a lot of outdoor shots, labeling whether it’s a mountain, beach, woods, etc. can help you find what you are looking for. Weather type is also handy.
- Sequence – if you have a detailed plan for your shots, think about labeling which sequence a clip will be included in.
- Other descriptors – what else might be unique about your project that can be useful?
You will want to ensure – whether it’s explicitly in the title, in the meta somewhere easy to find, or stuffed into a labeled folder – the following info: footage date, footage length, footage location, footage subject. Organizing massive amounts of material may mean investing in digital asset management software that specializes in video footage, such as Kyno, Adobe Prelude, and CatDV.
Tips for Getting the Best Footage
To get the best b-roll footage, think about the common uses and mistakes above. Think about the purpose of your b-roll and how it can be used to better explain what an interviewee says or what the narration is expressing that moves the story forward. Shoot more than you think you’ll need. Capture a variety of scenes to give you the most flexibility possible when editing your film. Shoot as many angles as you can think of and make every clip far longer than you think you will need.
You should also consider ways to make sure your subject is the focus of the shot. Think about how the composition, lighting, and movement in the frame. Get shots of your interviewee or main character simply walking in the crowd, but ensure they aren’t lost in the scenery. All of this applies to folks who do wedding videos, too. You need a lot of in-between footage of the small things to really make a video shine.
Try experimenting with both motion and static shots. Pan into and out of shots or zoom in or out to add some visual interest. Or, try finding a great static composition and have your subject move into or out of the frame. Give yourself plenty of variety to choose from during the edit. When watching other documentaries or movies, note when there are scenes like these. Someone making tea. People buying magazines from stands. A bird eating from a feeder and then flying away. A groomsman adjusting the tie of another groomsman, etc. By the way, drone footage makes really great b-roll, too!
Great b-roll footage is one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker can use. It can hide mistakes in the primary footage, serve as a visual example for what is being talked about, and create a sense of atmosphere. B-roll can provide insight into what a character is thinking or feeling and shape a viewer’s interpretation of what is actually going on. You can slip in creative symbolism. It can really bring out the artistry in any project.Tags: How to Edit Video, Videography Business Tips Last modified: July 7, 2021