B-roll plays a quiet, but essential, role in every video or film that’s ever been made. While good B-roll makes for an easy-to-watch and engrossing viewing experience, bad B-roll takes you out of the story and confuses. When done well, B-roll supports the story you’re telling, smooths over messy moments in an interview, and adds visual interest. No matter your professional role, understanding B-roll and how it can be used will drastically improve any video projects you are a part of.
What Is B-Roll?
Simply put, “B-roll” is audioless video footage that supports the featured footage in a video. Featured, or “A-roll” footage, can take many forms: an interview subject telling their story, a news anchor reading off a teleprompter, a voice actor delivering lines in a sound booth, etc. For instance, in the segment below from a cooking show we produced for Farmer Focus (you can see the full video here), the opening shot of the group heading up the path towards the farm is B-roll that sets the scene while you listen to the main interview.
A fun fact for fellow video nerds: the terms “A-roll” and “B-roll” are hold-overs from when films were still cut on machines using actual rolls of film.
How Is B-Roll Used?
Here are a few of the more common ways B-roll is used. Note that B-roll can come in many flavors and can serve many purposes, but ultimately it should always enhance the story being told (more on this later).
- B-roll can be used to illustrate a concept when words fall short. Think of the difference between listening to sports on the radio vs. watching it on TV—an entirely different experience.
- B-roll can smooth over imperfections in interview footage. For instance, it can hide deleted stutters or cover pauses in the interview.
- B-roll can provide space between dialog in a video. This gives the audience time to fill in their own emotions and experiences and relate to characters.
B-roll can be linear (as in this classic scene from Jurassic Park, where we live their journey with them in real-time), or non-linear, tying together ideas or multiple storylines with multiple characters (or even compressing years of time down to a few minutes, as in this scene from Up).
Choosing the Right B-Roll for Your Video
Often there are a number of ways B-roll can be used in a video project, and it’s up to you to pick the best one. In the example video above for Farmer Focus, we focused our B-roll on the family farmers. An alternative approach would have been to use expansive landscape or pastoral drone shots that showed the beautiful scenery around their farm; however, the main thrust of the interview centered around what it means to them to raise chickens for Farmer Focus and run a sustainable farm that they can pass along to the next generation. The story they told was largely about connections between people, and the B-roll supports this theme. As you can see, the footage follows their experiences on the farm together as well as the tour they gave to Jefferson and Marco, who cook Farmer Focus chicken later in the show. This approach at the beginning of the video made for a much stronger connection between that segment and the cooking show segment that follows.
Story Always Wins
If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: B-roll should always support a video’s story and align with the story’s themes. As an editor and camera operator, I’ve found that time and time again, it’s more important to choose the shot that tells the story best, rather than being driven by aesthetics alone.
I hope this post will give you more confidence as you plan, film, or edit your next project. In my experience, understanding of how B-roll can be leveraged to impact an audience and support a message is an invaluable part of making an engaging video.