Film & TV

What Is B-Roll Footage and How Can You Use It?

Written by MasterClass

Jan 17, 2019 • 3 min read

When it comes to shooting video—whether for documentary, news, feature film, or television purposes—it is always prudent to shoot extra footage, which you can use in a number of ways. Incorporating B-roll footage can take your video from amateur to professional with just a few extra scenes and transitions.

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What Is B-Roll?

In video production, B-roll footage is the secondary footage shot outside of the primary (or A-roll) footage. It is often spliced together with the main footage to bolster the story, create dramatic tension, or further illustrate a point.

  • Types of B-roll footage can include:
  • Atmospheric shots of location or inanimate objects
  • Undirected footage of subject/people
  • Establishing shots
  • Dramatic reenactments
  • Pick-up shots
  • Stock footage
  • Archival imagery

The Difference Between A-Roll and B-Roll Footage

A-roll footage is the main shot you want to focus on. A-roll shows the main subject of the scene while B-roll shots are supplemental footage that show everything else. A story with simply A-roll footage might feel off balance; this is why shooting B-roll is important.

What Can You Do With B-Roll?

There are a plethora of uses for B-roll footage. These include:

  • Setting the tone
  • Providing flexibility in the editing process
  • Establishing characters or setting
  • Breaking up monotony
  • Covering up gaps or errors

4 Ways to Create B-Roll

When you’re planning out what you want to film and creating your production schedule, it’s important to make time to capture ample b-roll. The last thing you want is to get into the edit and realize your interview subject is talking about something that should have been shown visually on screen.

1) Plan Ahead. Take into account what your main footage is, and build around it. For example, if you’re interviewing a subject at her home, plan to capture exit and entrance footage as well as ambient footage and shots in/of the space. Create a list of the “must-haves” and the “nice-to-haves,” to make sure you can tell the whole story.

2) Scout Locations. You might only get a few minutes to get that perfect b-roll footage, so you should scout the location in ahead of time to plan exactly how you’ll get the footage you want You also will have an idea of what special equipment you may need, especially if a location is dark or a small space. Finally, you’ll be ready to capture the most engaging and colorful shots that day of filming, which will make your video more captivating.

3) Get Different Angles. Plan to get a variety of shots of the same thing, both with and without your subject.

  • Wide-angle. Often an environmental or establishing shot, this would show your subject in situ. Wide-angle shots help place the viewer firmly in your scene.
  • Medium. Otherwise called a “waist shot,” a medium shot shows a portrait of the subject captured from a medium distance. When your subject is speaking or in action, for instance, go for a medium shot to balance the visual.
  • Close-ups. Think of the close-up as the shot that shows the details. Close-ups help reveal character both by offering intimacy and by highlighting nuances that may otherwise be missed.
  • The “Ken Burns Effect.” If you are shooting B-roll footage of archival material like photographs, documents, and the like, try the signature Ken Burns Effect, which is achieved by shooting close-ups, pans, and tilts.

4) Shoot More Than Enough. Throughout the shooting of your film, plan to collect a “bank of images” that don’t necessarily fall strictly under your scheduled shot list. Every film needs breathing space, and in the edit room you may discover the need to show the passage of time, evoke a space, or simply transition between locations. Some directors schedule a day or more of pick-up shots that can be used in many ways in the edit. If a bird lands on a telephone wire, for instance, film that bird and put the image in “the bank.” You never know when it may come in handy.

As long as you have enough B-roll, there’s no limit to the myriad ways in which you can tell—and show—the same story.