I was at a marketing conference not too long ago and the presenter mentioned b-roll as a way to enhance launch videos. The room went quiet. It was if he had said, “I found the cure for cancer”.
Now, before we dive into this –I want you to know that I LOVE b-roll…done right. But b-roll is not the answer to all of your video problems. B-roll takes time and patience and adds another level of preparation to your video making.
Living in the professional video world I forget sometimes that not everyone knows what the complimentary or cut away footage is called and I also forget that not everyone knows why it’s actually called b-roll.
A client once joked with me that if there is a b-roll there should be an a-roll. I looked at them with amusement and said, “of course there is” and then launched into the history of b-roll (keep reading).
Originally, the term was used in film splicing to cover a jump cut (a jarring cut from one segment to another). Now, it’s used to break the monotony of a talking head and also enrich the story being told through video.
I’ve been at this for a while and so, I learned to edit on a system that had separate tape decks (keep your old joes to yourself). Deck A and deck B. Deck A held the main footage. If you think about a newscast, the deck A footage would be the newscaster at her desk telling the story –a talking head. Then, deck B would contain additional footage – usually without audio that helps tell the story.
So, if the newscaster is talking about a wine festival in Napa (deck A) then the editors would cut in some deck B footage of happy people drinking wine, a close-up of wine barrels and long shots of rows and rows of grape vines from a top winery in Napa. Viola…the origin of the word b-roll.
B-roll is a funny thing. It can really enhance a video or even carry a video if done well –or completely distract from the message if done poorly. B-roll should have a purpose and be captured mindfully, not (as some of my corporate clients have stated) as “a bunch of extra shots”.
If you are new to it, b-roll takes time…sometimes, a lot of it, so don’t assume that you can just “quickly get a few shots of (insert desired footage here)”.
In professional video, we will often carve out a separate day or two just to capture the b-roll. As we are interviewing people I will jot down things I think can capture later to support the story. For me, there’s a lot of artistry to b-roll. It should be beautiful and engaging but not distract from the overarching theme of the story.
If you do want to give b-roll a whirl, here are some helpful hints for shooting footage.
- Mix it up! Have shots of the same subject on extreme close –up, a medium shot and a long shot. See the example below.
- Experiment with lenses. I love me some good 50mm glass (geek speak for lens). You can even rent lenses and get a feel for the difference between a wide angle lens and a 50mm lens. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.
- HOLD STILL. I like to count to at least 15 (yes, with Mississippi’s) before I move on to a new shot.
- Don’t be afraid to “set up the shot”. I will often ask people to walk past my camera while I’m lying on the ground.
- Make a shot list. Have a shot list and then if you have time go back and get some more. I have never been in an editing session where I thought “Wow! I have too much b-roll”.
Do I need B-roll?
My answer to this one is…it depends. If you feel like you want to tell a sub story and have the time to thoughtfully get some additional footage, then yes. If you are trying to show something that is hard to explain but easy to see…then yes. If you have weak content and you are trying to make your video better with b-roll…then no. B-roll will not save your video.
My advice is, if you are just starting out with video –stick with making your content amazing before you dive into b-roll. If you are ready to step up your production game then go for it! And remember to have some fun doing it.
Afterthought: According to urban Dictionary, Broll can also mean “That bro who always got your back online. He likes your photos frequently, shares great deals, always has something nice to comment.” I know you needed to know that – you’re welcome.