A-roll footage may be the star of the show, but incorporating secondary b-roll footage is an invaluable way to create visually compelling filmic narratives. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between A-roll and b-roll footage, and how to use b-roll footage effectively in your own shoots.
B-roll (or B-reel footage) is the secondary video shot outside of the main A-roll footage. You can think of A-roll versus b-roll as the main story versus the context vital to tell that story. Although the term b-roll hearkens back to the use of 16 mm film, it is currently used to describe any supplementary footage to be cut into primary footage.
The main types of b-roll footage are:
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B-roll footage provides context and sets tone while also affording more flexibility in the video editing room. In particular, b-roll footage can:
B-roll footage may be used to set context and ambiance. Atmospheric b-rolls often include multiple shots of a location so that the audience develops a strong sense of time, space, and place.
This “Full House” intro sequence is ripe with b-roll examples. Establishing shots include images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alamo Square Park, a cable car, and Fisherman’s Wharf.
By placing the Tanner family and friends in San Francisco, this b-roll footage allows the show to begin without needing to vocally discuss their location.
Create a sense of continuity
B-roll footage can be used to show what a character is thinking and why they behave the way they do—without interrupting the flow of the filmic narrative.
In the following scene from “Snatch,” b-roll footage is used to cut away from the A-roll footage of the main characters talking to each other.
This visual representation of what the characters are thinking grants insight and a sense of narrative continuity to viewers.
You can also use b-roll footage to drive stakes and focus in on an emotionally fraught moment.
For example, the opening scene of “Se7en” showcases b-roll footage of the killer’s plans and hands.
This b-roll established the tense, frightening tone that carries throughout the rest of the film.
Emphasize an idea
Undirected b-roll footage can highlight certain themes and characterizations, particularly for interviews and documentaries.
This pre-match interview with tennis player Emma Raducanu intercuts with undirected b-roll footage of her playing, smiling, and greeting other people to create a narrative about her personality on and off-court.
To shoot and incorporate b-roll in a way that best enhances your video project:
Look for the best locations to shoot your shots and take the time to block each scene. Consider what shots might add to or break up A-roll footage scenes.
Plan it out
Before shooting begins, spend time thinking about what types of secondary footage will craft powerful narrative and imagery. Brainstorm ideas, take notes, and create a storyboard to organize your findings.
But also be open to anything
If something on set or on location catches your eye, even if you’re not sure how it would fit into the narrative, consider capturing it on camera. (As long as doing so won’t heavily hold up production, because then you risk going over budget and time.)
Use a variety of angles
Strong angles for shooting b-roll footage include (but are by no means limited to):
- Wide angle: This angle—often used for establishing shots—provides context to viewers by giving them a panoramic view of the world you’re asking them to inhabit.
- Close-up: Engender a sense of intimacy and put the spotlight on detail with close-up cinematic sequences.
- Medium: This shot combines the contextualization of the wide-angle shot with the nuance of the close-up.
Let your imagination run wild in regards to context, storytelling, relevance, style, and cinematography. b-roll footage infuses your video project with life and depth, so let those creative juices flow—and most importantly, have fun shooting.