Photographers taking the first steps in video may be confused with the term B-Roll, but even without knowing the exact meaning of it, they’ve probably done “B-roll” for ages, although calling it something else, especially if they create narratives with their pictures.
B-Roll is, as the name suggests, the roll coming after the A-Roll. So, if the A-Roll is your main collection of images, the B-Roll includes the secondary captures. If we’re talking about History, and a specific moment, for example the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, the A-Roll would have all the important segments of the naval battle, while the B-Roll could have details of all the small events that led to the big event, and the detail of actions that led to the final result. It can be called B, but without it, though, the story would not be complete.
B-roll of views of Earth from the International Space Station
For a more mundane explanation of B-Roll (which can also be referred as B roll, or Broll), imagine a wedding videographer doing the most important footage of a wedding, and giving his/her assistants a couple of DSLRs for them to capture different scenes of the day, from the kids present at the wedding playing outside the church to a tender moment of the grandparents during the ceremony, and many other little things that concur to make the whole story.
So, B-Roll may come second in terms of the apparent importance, but, in fact, it is essential. That supplemental or alternative footage will end intercut with the main shot in an interview or documentary, to keep the whole thing in place.
As an example, imagine you’ve done a fantastic interview with a famous lighthouse keeper on an island, but only when you go back home and start to edit the shoot you find out you’ve not taken a single sequence of the landscape around the lighthouse, the unique cliffs close to the lighthouse, the flowers in the garden he cares for just outside the lighthouse, the books he reads during the lonely hours spent there, everything that he mentioned during the interview. Now that you’re 200 miles away, all that missing B-Roll footage, capturing content that matches what your interviewee talked about, becomes crucial. What a mistake!
A Bit of History
Although the term B-roll applied to supplemental video footage is used by many, some people will use another term, “cutaway scenes”, and argue that the name B-roll is wrongly applied, as it, in fact, means something else. Those preferring the term “cutaway scenes” remind us that B-Roll is a term from the past that has nothing to do with the reality of the modern digital Non Linear Editing Systems. In fact, the designation was used in motion film to refer to two physical rolls – go here to read the whole story -, one with the main film, the second with the supplementary material, but is modernly applied in digital video to suggest extra footage that enriches the story… and may, in fact, be shot in the same memory card.
The truth is that B-Roll can be different things to different people. Many companies tend to have B-Roll of their premises, and different activities related to their activities, that can be used to promote them. You will also find agencies that sell B-roll stock, and that’s a growing tendency of the market and an area that some videographers may want to explore.
Still, the term B-Roll is usually – and mainly – associated with interviews or documentaries in which a talking head (or interviewed) is the main element and fills the A-Roll. But the term can, in fact, be extended to multiple areas of video, because every story, be it your own little homemade video or a commercial shoot, needs to have elements that make for a concise presentation. B-roll should not be underestimated, and looked upon as a filler, but as an enriching part of the whole experience. It can include additional video footage, still photographs, almost anything. The only limit is your imagination!
B-Roll for Indie Shooters
The advantage of video capture in modern days is that it can be a one man band… or business. On the other hand, it means you’ll probably be shooting with only one camera. Unless you’ve the capacity to be ubiquitous, you’ve to plan ahead, because, usually, you cannot shoot A-Roll and B-Roll at the same time. This said, it all depends on the type of action you’re capturing. While for an interview you’ll have the talent on screen all the time and only after it – and sometimes before – you’ll do the B-Roll scenes, if you’re doing a video from some outdoor activity, for example, you may capture some B-Roll in between the A-Roll captures. Essentially, you’ve to know what you’re doing, and be able to adapt to any unexpected changes and do the best with it.
Make a Shooting Plan
The best way to guarantee you’ll get all the footage needed is to make a shooting plan. Study the subject so you know what to expect, visit the locations, if you’ve the chance, or grab whatever information is available to better understand the theme. Even if you just scribble some notes and draw matchstick figures on some sheets of paper, do prepare a script and eventually a storyboard, so you know what is essential to shoot. You can also use online software to create storyboards, a viable solution for those not able to draw. Websites like storyboardthat.com, used to create the examples here, allow for easy creation of storyboards.
The best way to be sure that you will not forget anything is to imagine beforehand what the finished production will look like, and write those guidelines down. You can always adapt to any changes in the course of action, but knowing what your aim is, helps to get things done properly. Although you may have your own way to build your story, there are always sequences that are essential, so defining those beforehand will help to keep things rolling.
Essential Tips for A and B-Roll
In general terms, you should start by shooting your A-Roll, although for some themes you may shoot B-Roll sequences during, or even before the A-Roll is shot. That’s where knowing your subject becomes important. Be aware of the differences in lighting of the different shots and try to organize them in a way that offers continuity in terms of lighting ratios; jumping from bright to low light shots may cut the flow of your video, unless you’re doing it on purpose. What may be the case if you’re doing a video on nature and weather changing conditions, for example.
Furthermore, keep the movement of your camera in A and B-Roll similar, so the continuity and pace are kept when you edit all the sequences to create your video. If you’re making your first steps and are not yet sure, keep what can be called a conservative approach on your A-Roll, following the rules of composition, working with simple lighting, steadying your camera. On your B-roll you can be more adventurous, exploring solutions that may become essential part of your own style. Try different angles, go down on the ground, try to shoot from above. Try as much as you can, but never forget to get the essential B-Roll sequences to tell your story properly.
If you’re doing an interview, divide your shooting in two parts: the interview itself, that goes on the A-Roll; then shoot the remaining images of the person interviewed doing whatever they do. Avoid having a conversation with your subject so they are not distracted. Explain them you want to capture images as if they were working on their own. After all, those B-Roll sequences will go over the interview audio.
Get a Variety of Shots
Although excessive zooming is to be avoided, impressive films and videos always include shots framed in various ways and taken from different distances. Getting a variety of aspects of the subject will makes the editing stage much more interesting. So, the rule is simple: get lots of wide shots, medium shots and close up shots in your B-Roll. Do not be afraid to go for extreme close ups, which attract the attention of viewers and work perfectly together with both wide and medium shots.
Remember to shoot sequences that will allow for some editing. A good rule of thumb is to never shoot sequences under 30 seconds. It might sound like a long time, but it will give you enough video to have smooth transitions between shots. And if you’re like me and prefer to do some long, contemplative scenes, like water flowing, you’ll need longer takes.
Lenses and Type of Shots
Start by taking a wide shot, using a wide angle lens or your zoom lens set at its widest. This shot shows the location. This type of shot is used to open and also to close a video shoot. With a medium focal length you can shoot a long shot, in which the main subject dominates the framing. The background is perfectly seen, but there is no doubt about what is the main subject in the frame.
Getting closer to your subject – here a zoom lens may be a good asset – the medium shot will give more predominance to the subject, that in the case of a person can be seen from the waist up. This is one of the most common type of images seen in movies. With people, it shows clearly the expression on their faces.
A medium close up shot will be adequate for sequences where up to three people are in the frame. Even if you cut some of them, the head and chest are in the image and the expressions are perfectly seen, along with what they’re doing.
A close up shot is exactly what the name implies: a sequence centered on the main subject. In the case of a person, this is the image that will completely convey their expression and feelings. The background is usually out of focus and is not important for the action.
Beachfront B-Roll is a resource for filmmakers and video editors to download (for free!) unique HD stock video footage
An extreme close up is something you’ll probably want to do a lot in your B-Roll. This is a shot revealing details that are important for the whole story. You may not use all of those shoots in your final edit, but do look around the location of your shoot and capture every little bit you think may be of interest afterwards.
When using lenses, try to do as many sequences as you can with the lens in use, before switching, so you do not lose important moments. If you’ve the option to preplan the whole shoot it will make your work easier. This said, always be prepared to adapt to changes. After all you’re doing creative work! Shooting outdoors, for example, can take you in a different direction from the one initially planned.
Photographers taking series of photos to build their narratives of places visited are shooting a kind of “B-Roll” with static images
B-Roll Explained to Photographers
Although under another name, many photographers are familiar with the concept of B-Roll. If they’re used to shoot stories instead of single images, they’re already working their A-Roll and B-Roll. A good example of this is drawn from the experience I offer participants in my photo tours: I always challenge them to go beyond the single image of a place, explaining they should do what I call “peel an onion”. It means going from the main subject photo or photos to a series of pictures that show the small details contributing to a more complete narrative of a theme. It’s like going from the external to the inner layers of an onion!
Making fun of B-Roll – CREAM – WE GOT THAT B ROLL!!, the original from 2009. Have a laugh!
Now that you know the importance of B-Roll, dare to shoot your first video following the suggestions made here. To summarize the essential points of shooting B-Roll, do make a plan, research the subject and define the essential sequences to your story. For an interview divide the shoot in two parts: the interview and B-Roll. For other subjects adapt the best strategy. Remember to use multiple angles and framings and check that there is continuity in terms of lighting ratios from sequence to sequence. And when shooting B-Roll, remember to make each take at least 30 seconds, so you’ve enough editing material. Now go out and shoot! The Part II of this article will give you some extra information.