B-Roll is where your story comes together. Make every second count.
Think of it like this… if you are creating a piece of art, you would start with a pencil drawing first and then colour in after that.
So in video terms your A-roll is the pencil drawing. Carving out the “picture”, the story, the narrative.
And the B-roll is the colour. Bringing the story together and making the picture ‘complete’.
Director and cinematographer Hiroshi Hara says, “Even though it sounds like it’s secondary, B-roll is what creates the nuances of visual storytelling.”
B-roll is footage shot secondary to the main footage that usually contains talent and has a bigger crew consideration.
This footage is used to give context and meaning to the primary footage.
Inserting B-roll footage into the A-roll helps to tell the story, drive it forward and ultimately engage with the viewer on a level that simply using A-roll alone could not.
How do I know what I’m talking about? Head to the DigiProTips Experience and Background page to find out how I’ve built up my knowledge over a career spanning feature film, broadcast TV and digital content production.
What is B-Roll?
To answer that question we need to look at where the term originated from and what it means in the present day.
When filming became more readily available and editing processes improved there developed the need and ability for storytelling outside of in-camera storytelling (where the story didn’t change from what was shot).
Part of storytelling is adding supporting context to the main narrative. This needs to be shot, just like the main narrative footage does.
However, there was a problem. The time and money used to film this content was not worth it when you had talent and crew all on set being paid and the film reel only lasted so long.
So the concept of unit shooting was born. The ‘second unit’ would be given separate reels of film to use to capture this supplemental footage that did not need big crews and talent on set.
To delineate between the two sets of rushes the terms ‘A-Roll’ and ‘B-Roll’ were coined. The former for the main unit with talent and the latter for the second unit footage.
Today, talent and crew still cost a lot but there isn’t as much of an issue when it comes to film rolls, as everything is mainly shot digitally now.
This means the term ‘A-roll’ has mostly fallen out of use.
Yet, the term ‘B-roll’ is still used, mainly as a legacy thing but it is also still split out to different teams depending on the type of medium, I.e. film, TV, advertising, music videos, commercial business etc.
If you are a videographer, or training to be, then as a camera operator and editor you will need to, or already, know the meaning and importance of B-Roll in telling the story of your video.
As well as this, Broll has actually taken on new meanings in the digital age. Essentially, anything that is used to tell your story other than your principal photography can be deemed broll as it was not captured with the main unit. This includes things like stock footage or user generated content.
Broll may not need sound when being captured and so further savings on crew and time can be made here because most B-roll sits over the main dialogue or under a music track in a montage sequence.
So, What is B-Roll Again?
B-roll is anything that isn’t your main ‘hero’ content.
Broll is often spliced together with the main footage to improve the story, create dramatic tension, or further prove a point in the narrative.
B-roll can help with:
• Setting the tone of the piece
• Providing flexibility in editing
• Establishing characters or settings
• Breaking up monotony in the story
• Covering up gaps or errors with the A-roll/principal photography
What are the Different Types of B-Roll?
Now that modern needs for film reels have gone away B-roll can consist of many different things (as mentioned above).
However, this means how we capture these needs to be carefully considered to get the best results. We also need to understand the roles different types of B-roll play in an edit.
Types of B-roll footage can include:
• Atmospheric shots of location or inanimate objects (a common trend at the moment is using drone footage to capture this but typically used to be from helicopters)
• Undirected footage of subject/people
• Establishing shots (this can be anything that helps set the scene)
• Dramatic reenactments
• Pick-up shots (shots that are thought of after the fact, usually while in the editing process)
• Stock footage
• Archival imagery (such as old TV news footage or programming)
How to Shoot B-Roll
Planning for Broll
I should plan my B-roll?
If you want to get the perfect shots you had in your head when envisioning how your edit would look, then yes – absolutely!
Planning ahead with any type of shoot is always highly recommended and that goes for broll too.
There are exceptions to this, such as shooting a fly-on-the-wall documentary or a run&gun type shoot where you’re very much ‘in the moment’.
For all other instances, plan it out. For example, if you are shooting an interview in a fixed location then be sure to get lots of ‘coverage’ of the location, the props or things in the room that may have significance or meaning. Also get your talent to move around the room, enter and exit and generally interact with any of those objects.
Write a shot list, build a storyboard, get down on paper what you have in your head and think about all eventualities that could help tell your story once you get into post-production.
Have two lists, the ‘must-haves’ and the ‘nice-to-haves’ and ensure you get absolutely everything on the ‘must-haves’ list and as much as you can after that from the ‘nice-to-haves’ list.
Keep this information close to hand when it comes to shooting and tick it off as you go.
Camera Angles for Broll
Broll is a place to experiment, to be creative and to improve your filmmaking skills.
While there are standard ‘go-to’ angles and shots that you should try to get a first pass of your shots with there is an unlimited amount of ways to film things that could add an extra level of creativity and storytelling to your edit.
In the first instance try to use the following and then venture outside the box.
1. Wide-angle. These are your typical establishing shot. Set far back or using a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the surrounding environment as possible. Capture as many of these as you can to enable flexibility in post or to use in a montage that sets up the environment for the story to take place in.
3. Medium. This will be a shot from the waist up in relation to filming a person or about half as close to something when shooting an open space or object. Between the medium and close-up this will consist of about 30-50% of your edit, so it’s important to get it right.
5. Close-ups. These are the shots that show the ‘detail’. Use close-ups to give nuance and context to the narrative. These can be close-ups of a subject or an object, as long as it has meaning and significance to the overall story then it’s worth capturing. Be playful here and experiment with close-ups that show things or people in interesting ways.
Part of storytelling is how you get from one scene to the next or how you drive the story along through the visuals you are showing.
Transitions are a great way of showing a flow of direction or even disrupting the flow to move things in a new direction.
Rather than rely of transitions inside of your editing software you can create your own transitions on set.
To do this, think about how you envision the story unfolding in your head. What is a natural direction of flow for your characters or objects in or out of the scene?
• You can track an object or person behind a foreground element to create a ‘wipe’.
• You can whip the camera left or right, up or down and then start the next shot from the opposite side but in the same direction to complete the transition in post.
• You use an object or person to fill the screen and reveal in a new location. Do this by moving or zooming into the object or person at the end of a shot and then start the new shot by moving or zooming out from the new object or person.
• There are many more ways to be creative and use B-roll as an experimental playground for transitions.
Every location and setting is different. Even shoots within the same space require different equipment based upon what it is your are trying to capture.
Going into your broll shoot knowing what and how you are going to capture will ultimately lead to better shots and less loss of time trying to figure it out on-the-fly.
Go to the location ahead of your shoot if you can and take a camera with you with a selection of lenses. Try out different angles, lenses, locations, movements etc and get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Also get to know what hear you need so that you aren’t carrying more than you need on the day.
Shoot More Than You Need
Never undershoot – it’s always better to have more to choose from in post.
Yes, time is money and so is media storage BUT recapturing costs a whole lot more (if it’s even possible), so get it on the day rather than regretting it.
You will also find that what looks good on camera may not translate on screen and a variety of options of a shot or angle will ultimately help your post-production process and end result.
Also shoot ‘extra’ content. This is material that isn’t necessarily on your shot lists but shots that look good on the day. Add these to your ‘image bank’ that you can withdraw from in the edit to give context, breathing room and atmospheric depth to your narrative.
Is the sunlight hitting a window or object at a particularly striking angle right now? Capture it!
Did an animal appear in your location you hadn’t expected? Capture it!
Whatever it is that may be unexpected but could add to the ‘colour’ of your film – capture it.
Examples of B-Roll in Different Genres of Media
Ok, so we know what b-roll is, why it’s important and how we could capture it.
Now it’s time to look at some inspiration for the type of film you are looking to produce and specific broll examples for those.
B-roll in Scripted Video
I’m using the term ‘scripted video’ here to cover a large swathe of video genres. Essentially those that are thought out, written and then acted in some way.
In these videos b-roll is essential. It grounds the viewer with a sense of time and place and adds layers of meaning and context to the narrative.
Opening scenes with establishing shots of landscapes, buildings, moving people or cars, skylines and any other depiction of time passing by in one location are all generally considered to be B-roll.
The dialogue between two characters is always intercut with shots that give context to what one or both of the characters are talking about. In a drama piece for example, one character may be recounting a series of events about an affair, an accident or death. Whilst this is being spoken the imagery on screen will most likely be broll of the place, the time and possibly with a re-enactment of that incident. This is still b-roll.
Hara, who I mentioned at the start of this post, describes B-roll as the icing on a cake but A-roll as the cake itself. “Without the actual cake, there’s nothing to put it on. B-roll is generally whatever shot supports the main footage and the plot line.”
B-roll in documentary video
Think of a documentary you’ve watched recently or the last time you watched the news or a journalistic video on YouTube, what’s one thing they all have in common? They all use b-roll to tell the story.
When you haven’t got a script or talent to act out a scene then you have freedom to film whatever you want that will help tell the story you are trying to portray.
Documentaries may have central interviewees or speakers that feature throughout and act as VO (voice over) dialogue, carrying the story forward but it’s highly unlikely that the edit will linger on that person for more than 5-10 seconds before cutting to either another angle of that person or something that gives context to what that person is saying.
“An interview with a person just stationary and just talking into camera can get pretty boring,” Hara says. “B-roll can enhance that storytelling experience. And you can use it when you need to cut between certain soundbites or shave off time without getting stuck with a jump cut.”
Considerations for B-Roll
Tell A Story
With every shot you take you should be enhancing the story you’re trying to tell.
Think about your lighting, think about your composition, think about the subject within the frame.
Director Mike Leonard says, “With every shot and especially with B-roll, ask yourself, ‘Is this image telling a story? Is there something in the background or foreground, where the subject is or what the subject is interacting with, that can make this go from just a pretty shot to a powerful image?’”
Take Your Time (or as Much as Your Schedule Will Allow)
Shoots are nearly always time-sensitive and temptation to rush and try and get all of your shots in one go is very, very high but actually getting the shots that you need with enough time on clock is the most important thing.
Slow down, take your time. Compose your shots, hit the record button and count to 10 in your head. Make sure you’ve got enough in the can to be able to use in post production. There’s no point getting the perfect shot if it’s not long enough
This is why a ‘must-have’ list and a ‘nice-to-have’ list is necessary. Get the must-haves in the can with enough breathing room to use them in post and then anything else is this bonus content, it’s extra, but it’s nice to have it.
Once you’ve got all the must have shots in the bank, and you’re working on the nice to haves, or even if you’ve got time to redo some of the master shots, now’s the time to be creative and get experimental.
Take a shot over and over again and then find different angles.
Use a time lapse approach.
Have you got a drone? Can you can you do it from a drone angle?
Have you got different lenses you can try?
Have you got a dolly that you can use?
Have you got any other way of capturing the shot to make it more interesting?
If you want to know more about getting the most from your shoots then make sure you have got your lighting spot on:
And you are getting the best from your audio on set. Remember, audio is 50% of the viewing experience:
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