What is a broll in filmmaking

What is B Roll in Filmmaking?

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If you’re wondering what is a b roll or curious to know what b roll means for effective visual communication with the audience, understanding its role will help you develop better filmmaking skills.

Over the past couple of decades, the term A roll has dropped out of use and is instead just called main footage, but it still can be a useful term when thinking about the A roll vs B roll functions.

The main footage needs insert shots, establishing shots, reaction shots, pickup shots, a different angle on the action or narrative, possibly FX shots or even stock footage to make the narrative make sense, and give depth to the action, characterisation or plot development on screen. The cutaway footage is there to support the primary footage and add depth to the main shot, not to compete with it.

News production teams will film B-roll before or after interviews, while film and TV production teams may have second unit crews to capture B-roll footage. Science fiction movies will even have SFX teams creating establishing b-roll shots in space and on alien worlds. 

But for the filmmaking student, low budget filmmaker, or YouTuber, developing a skillful use of secondary footage takes a lot of practice and knowing where to get good b roll inexpensively is useful.

What is a B-roll in Filmmaking?

The B-roll in filmmaking is the series of secondary images that are interspersed between the main footage. Because they are contextual shots of scenery, action, or objects, and are secondary to the main action, the sound from the A-roll continues playing over the B-roll images.

Why is B-roll important?

B-roll adds extra information, adding depth to a character’s motivation or highlighting details that aren’t clear in the main footage. The absence of B-roll leaves the audience wondering why a character is sad, shouting out the window, or suddenly has a weapon in their hand.

One camera can be moved around for a different angle on the scene, and this has been done successully in feature film productions. But making relevant b roll shots add to the visual interest and narrative is the conventional and effective way to engage the audience.

And for those needing interesting shots in their video production for YouTube, b roll video can create great alternative footage from the talking head to engage viewers and provide product shots.

A and B roll

The A roll is the main footage showing the characters and action in the scene, while the B roll images are inserted at appropriate moments into the A roll footage. The B roll adds further visual information about the scene taking place, such as the item a character looks at, or an approaching vehicle.

A roll vs B roll

The A roll is on screen most of the time, and its sound track runs through the whole scene. The B roll cuts onto the screen from time to time, where additional visual information is needed about what is happening around the character or what they are thinking about.

What does B roll footage mean?

B roll footage means the visual glimpses of objects, people or action which adds to the audience understanding of what is happening. B roll footage rarely has sound, and is usually brief, because its just a series of quick inserts into the main footage to provide context.

What are b roll shots and b roll clips?

B roll shots and B roll clips are the silent, brief shots which will be inserted at appropriate moments into the A roll footage, where most of the action and all of the sound is held. The B roll shots and clips quickly give valuable visual information for context.

What is the difference between a roll and b roll?

The difference a roll and b roll is significant. The a roll is the main footage, complete with sound. The b roll is just a series of brief shots away from the main footage, which add depth, illustration and explanation to the narrative.

How to use B roll footage

How to use B roll footage depends on the context and intended audience of the primary footage. YouTubers use B roll footage to maintain audience attention, while filmmakers use the B roll footage to provide context about a character’s actions and thoughts.

How to take B roll shots

If you’re looking to take b roll shots, think about what your image will communicate, as it should quickly add to the story’s context. Make the image sit comfortably within the A roll footage, with a cohesive image – unless there is a plausible reason to do otherwise.

How to shoot B roll footage cheaply

Working out how to shoot B roll footage inexpensively means paring the brief shots down to the minimum. Does the villain need to drive down a dusty road, or could they just stand menacing at the door? Can you find stock footage for the B roll instead of shooting b roll footage yourself?

How to get b roll footage

Many YouTubers use stock video images to get B roll footage, often using a subscription library which allows commercial use of the footage. Filmmakers have to be more cautious, especially if aiming for film festival entries, but stock footage can help filmmakers get b roll footage cheaply in the right circumstances. 

Where to get b roll footage

If you decide stock b roll footage is right for your project, look for royalty-free b roll footage. There are an ever increasing number of free and subscription sites available, each with a rapidly expanding broll library of modern and archival footage on offer.

Free b-roll should be used sparingly, as extra footage in experimental and training filmmaking productions, and not supplementary footage for a video production on which your career depends.

How long should B roll clips be?

Deciding how long B roll clips should be depends on the length of the project and the information to be conveyed. A YouTuber might show a B roll shot of the boxed product for 10 seconds as they talk about it, while a movie could show 30 seconds or more of an establishing shot explaining the forthcoming action.

What is considered B-roll footage?

B roll does not stand for inferior shots or footage that is an afterthought. Instead, the B roll is supplemental footage designed to fit in with the visual theme of the main footage and add real information and value to the narrative.

Why it is called B-roll?

B-roll got its name from the studio terminology of the early Hollywood era, when movie making was all based around reels of celluloid film. The B-roll was literally cut to create brief establishing shots within the main footage, held on the A-roll of film.

Obviously today b roll in video editing means the b roll shots are inserted and cropped electronically rather than with physical pieces of film. But the visual rules remain roughly the same, with the same aims as they have for more than a century.

What does B-roll include?

B-roll should only include visual information which is relevant to the narrative at that point of the main footage. Carefully pace each b-roll cutaway shot to inform and engage the audience, not to overwhelm, confuse or distract from point of the scene.

If you think you’re now clear on what is b roll in filmmaking, watch out for it in everything you see on screen. Whether it’s a feature film, TV show, or YouTube video, the main footage will be edited with cutaway shots , and you can learn a lot when you are alert to their use, which is then absorbed into your own video production and filmmaking.