Before we get into the nuts and bolts of obtaining a good, usable B-roll, let’s get some background information on what B-roll is and why it’s so important to your next video.
What is B-roll?
B-roll is essentially alternative footage to your main footage. We refer to your main footage as A-roll, making the cutaway footage B-roll. For example, if you’re shooting an interview with a welder, your A-roll will be the footage of the welder talking. The B-footage would be the cut away shots showing the welder at work.
A-roll is most often the main shot that you will use to tell your story in a given video. In the case of our interview example, the A-roll would be the shot of the welder being interviewed and B-roll is any other footage that supports the welder’s story. B-roll can take many forms, including stock footage, newly acquired footage that you shoot, still pictures, animations or even graphics.
What does B-roll look like?
Well, it better look a whole lot like your A-roll footage. Otherwise, it is going to stick out and distract from your story. The best place and time to get your B-roll is right after you have shot your A-roll interview.
Your shoot should go like this; during your interview shoot, you or an assistant should be taking notes on the topics that the interviewee is talking about. Armed with this list you can go around your current shooting location and capture B-roll footage of the things that visually tell the story. In this way, you’re forced to make the B-roll footage look and feel the same as the A-roll footage. It will look the same because you shot it with the same gear and crew on the same day. Matching the style and look of all your footage is crucial. If you want to have your audience “buy-into” the story you are telling, you need consistency.
Type of video dictates type of B-roll
There are many uses for B-roll and all of them are dependent on the type of video you are producing. For example, if you are shooting an interview with retiring police officers, you may want to shoot B-roll of them walking into their police station as an establishing shot then shoot their awards on the wall or some footage of their favorite pictures at certain events. If they were involved in a famous event, you could get some archival news footage of that event to edit into the video. All of these elements and more can be used to enhance the narrative of the story.
On the other hand, if you are producing an instructional video on cleaning a pool filter, your B-roll will focus on how to use the product. This is an effective and powerful way to teach someone a task by both showing and telling.
The type of B-roll you shoot really depends on the type of video you’re trying to make. A news story’s b-roll is going to look different than a film’s b-roll. Sometimes b-roll needs to look cinematic and others it just need to give context to the person being interviewed. If you want your b-roll to look more on the cinematic side, here’s how you can achieve that.
Now that we know what B-roll is used for let’s discuss the best way to shoot it. First and foremost, if you shoot your interview on a tripod use a tripod or other support for your B-roll shots, listen up. Nothing is more distracting than seeing rock-solid interview footage cut against “shaky-cam” handheld footage. Of course there are times for everything, but as a rule, always shoot good solid footage that doesn’t distract from your interview.
As with all of the toys we video folks like to buy and use, focus on telling the story first and don’t get stuck on the hardware.
Should you use a slider, dolly, jib, steadicam, etc. for your b-roll footage? Well the answer is maybe — it really depends on the look and feel of your particular video. As with all of the toys we video folks like to buy and use, focus on telling the story first and don’t get stuck on the hardware. If a slider move will enhance a shot and tell a better story, then use it. If you are just using a jib because you own one, then save it for later.
Coverage, coverage, coverage
Nothing is worse than sitting in front of your editing system with your video almost finished and realizing that you are three shots short of covering up the last three edits in your interview — it’s due tomorrow. How much B-roll should you shoot to make sure you have enough? A good rule of thumb is to shoot enough B-roll to cover four to six times the final interview length. If your finished interview is one minute then you should shoot 4-6 minutes of various B-roll to cover that interview. Remember, you were taking notes during the interview shoot, so once you compile this list, go out and shoot a wide, medium and close-up shot of each. Before you let your interviewee leave, make sure to shoot a couple of shots of them entering and/or leaving the building to use as establishing shots.
When you think you are all done getting B-roll, do a quick video edit in your head. Make sure you have enough footage to tell this particular story. Not only will you be happy later, but your viewers will understand your story that much better, too.
John Cassinari is Executive Producer at Imagination Unlimited, a video production company headquartered in Orlando, Florida. He also taught advanced video post production editing at the University of Central Florida.