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."
“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."