Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What is "B-Roll" in Film?

B-Roll Made Simple

Sometimes you hear film types talk about “B-Roll.” In fact, it came up in the comments to the last article. No, it has nothing to do with B-movies. It’s just extra stuff that’s filmed to be edited in with the main subject. It might be anything: an exterior location, people milling about, whatever might be useful to help illustrate the main story. It can even be “stock footage.”

Stock Footage and B-Roll

Stock footage can be B-Roll, but isn't usually. Stock footage is archival film that is sold to filmmakers. Let’s say you’re making a Western. It’s expensive and difficult to shoot a stampede. You might just buy stock footage of one. (That's why those stampedes always look familiar.)

As an example, here is stock footage of a Bear from Abobe. It wasn't cheap: $89. The Bear bought it some time ago and figured it would come in handy.

But, usually, B-Roll is shot along with “A-Roll,” which is the film of the main subject.

Perhaps its origin and examples will best explain it.

The Strike at the Widget Factory

It comes from the early days of television news - the ‘50’s and 60’s. They didn’t have the technology to record video on location (i.e. outside the studio). They used 16mm film cameras.

Let’s say there was a strike at a widget factory. As a television reporter, you were to interview the owner of the company and also the leader of the striking workmen. That’s your A-Roll. But watching some guys talk makes for a pretty dull story visually. This is where B-Roll comes in.

Your B-Roll was a collection of different shots, any one of which might or might not be used, but would be available to be combined with your A-Roll of the interviews. Almost always, B-Roll didn’t have sound, since it was meant to be cut in as a visual while somebody’s talking.

So, you got a shot of the gate to the widget factory showing the name (Acme Widgets). There are strikers marching with signs. Maybe widgets on a conveyer belt inside the factory. You still had to be sensible and good B-Roll wasn’t and isn't “filler.”

Back at the studio, the A-Roll and B-Roll would be set up on two different projectors pointed at screens in front of two different giant television cameras. So, after the announcer introduced the strike story, they would project The A-Roll of the interviews and shoot the projected footage with the television camera. Into the ether it was broadcast.

During the interview, they would intercut the silent B-Roll and broadcast it by switching to the other giant television camera in front of the other screen. That would show the factory sign, the widgets, and whatever else they decided to use, while the A-Roll audio of the guy talking was still playing underneath. Then they would cut back to the A-Roll interview film.

You see this technique today so often you don’t even notice it. Look for it next time you watch your local news broadcast.

Present Day Example: Interview with the Bear

Whenever the Bear was interviewed in his office for television, a reporter would show up with a cameraman lugging his equipment. They would hook the Bear up with a tiny lavalier microphone then tape the interview - the A-Roll.

Then they would get their B-Roll. They always got the the reporter in a shot set up over the Bear's shoulder. sitting pretty and nodding as if listening. They could edit brief cuts of that into the interview, which is great for seamlessly editing out the Bear’s rambling digressions without an awkward jump in the picture.

They would always want him to "do lawyer things” for the B-Roll: typing on his computer; close-up of his paws on the keyboard; leafing through a file; forging exculpatory statements - you get the idea. That was to be used during a voiceover by the reporter.

Then, the two kinds of shots would get edited into the segment for broadcast. Much less clumsy than the old method from which we got the name "B-Roll."

Beyond News

“B-Roll” survives as a term, even if we’re not using actual film. In general, it’s anything other than the main subject that can be edited into a film later for some purpose. You want to have enough good B-Roll. (In comments to the article below, the filmmaker explains why Bird Feeder Bird got so much screen time: insufficient B-Roll.)

So, now you can impress your friends by saying things like, "By Jove, that's some ripping B-Roll."


  1. Well, except for the fact that there were no big screens with giant cameras.
    Instead, in the projection room, there were a variety of small projectors (16 mm, 35 mm, still slides, etc.) which projected into a prismatic mirror. This, in turn, could be remotely rotated so that the reflected image from that projector would be reflected into the lens of the television camera (which was much smaller since it was fixed focus and did not need a bunch of electronics dealing with brightness, etc.)about six or eight inches away. You did not get a mirror image result since the receiving camera was set up to reverse the picture.
    For WRGB TV where my father worked for 44 years, all of the projection equipment and allied cameras took up a quite small area of the room which also dealt with recorded music, physical graphic art, etc. and, after set-up, was controlled remotely by the control room. As a child, I enjoyed watching the mirrors rotate, projectors start and stop, turntables turn, tape recorders run, etc. all without apparent human intervention (except to load more media as needed)

    1. Thanks for that recollection. I don’t know if what I found in my research represented an earlier solution or different methods were used in different places, or it was just wrong. I did simplify the process, because there was also a step to make the film compatible with video.

      That is an interesting memory you shared. That mus5 have been a great place for a kid.

  2. "forging exculpatory statements," It's not often that lawyers admit that technique.

    1. If I had, maybe I would have had more acquittals. I have already confessed to the worst deeds of my legal career.

      I will tell you how a federal proffer goes, though. You represent C in a meth conspiracy. The Feds think A, B, D, E, YOU, G and H are involved. Now, your client knows everyone but YOU. But the Feds think he has to know YOU, because they suspect YOU. If he does not satisfy the Feds, they will consider the proffer blown, C doesn’t get his Rule 35 (varies from district to district; it was 1/3 off here) from the prosecutor (or 5K1, but we never saw those here) - in short, C has every motivation to make up something about YOU.

      That is just baked into the process. In all the meth conspiracies I defended, do you know how much meth I actually saw? None. Yet in one trial, a fed prosecutor elicited a statement from her witness that my client had a punch bowl full of meth. This isn’t Breaking Bad. It was ludicrous. In my closing I told the jury, “Your government brought in a witness to lie to you.” Well, OMG did the prosecutor and judge freak out. But it was fair comment. He got off on a car theft charge in exchange for testimony and it was out of left field compared to everything else in that case or any case. They eke out ounces per cook. One witness under cross admitted police showed him photos of things first, then asked him to describe what he had supposedly seen himself.

      Yawn. Nobody cares. We’re my clients guilty? Hell yes. Did they get more amounts put on them and thus longer sentences? Sometimes.

      If it isn’t clear, the forging was a joke. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’ve seen pulled by LEOs and prosecutors. Not all, of course, but when the mentality is “this bastard is guilty and we need to make sure he goes away despite that sneaky lawyer of his,” the temptation to gild the lily is strong. And don’t forget, I was a prosecutor, too.

      I know you were joking. Just reminiscing. :-)

    2. I have a funny story. I was preparing a case and went to an area of St. Louis that... let’s say few white people were expected. There I was taking pictures of a boarded up house from th3 street. A car rolls by, the occupants checking me out, and I’m like, “Oh, please drive on.”

      The car stops, and backs up half a block even to me. I figure it might be my last sight, since I was, after, there for a good reason, i.e. gang-related drug dealing. They wouldn’t know and might not care I was a defense lawyer.

      The window rolls down, and one of the thugs who are going to kill me looks me in the eye and says:

      “Have a nice day, minister.”

      Then off they go. I realized it was my trademark bow tie. It was a joke about Louis Farrakhan.

    3. "..the temptation to gild the lily is strong." I understand but I find it disappointing. I expect better from representatives of the Law (both sides). Alas, echoes of Original Sin reverberate throughout us all.

      I myself have begun wearing the occasional bow tie. Years ago I would NEVER had worn one. I hadn't considered that I might be mistaken for one of Calypso Louie's boyz. I would like to imagine that I would have more in common with James Bond. :-)

    4. You must be a gentlemen of a certain age to pull of a bow tie, I think.

      I trust you have learned to tie the knot.

    5. You've seen my identity icon? Using that as my image, it should be obvious that I have tied a few kinds of knots in my time. But, yes I finally could tie a bow tie and can now semi retire a couple of my vintage bows. (They are still good when there is little time before Mass!)

  3. It's wonderful to have a place where I can learn interesting, eclectic things whenever I stop by! Thanks, Bear! Your friend Spider 🕷


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