What is B-roll and how to use it?

By Matic Broz, editor-in-chief of Photutorial covering stock media, Adobe, and design. He founded Photutorial while finishing his PhD in computational biosciences.
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B-roll footage

Types of B-roll

There are several types of B-roll footage used in film and television production, including:

  • Cutaway shots: These shots shift the focus away from the main action in a scene, often highlighting details or providing a visual punchline.
  • Insert shots: These are close-up shots of specific details or objects within a scene, providing additional context or emphasis.
  • FX shots: These are special effects shots that can enhance the visual impact of a scene or sequence.
    Establishing shots: These shots set the location and context for a scene, often showing the environment or setting before the main action begins.
  • Stock footage: This is pre-existing footage that can be used to supplement the primary footage, often sourced from stock footage libraries.
  • Pickup shots: These are additional shots filmed after the main production has wrapped, often used to fill gaps or provide extra coverage.

Why use B-roll footage?

B-roll footage plays a critical role in video production, often overlooked by novice editors. It provides context, sets the tone, and offers an expanded range of options when editing a video. In this chapter, we will delve into the reasons to use B-roll footage, complete with examples from well-known movies that have utilized it to great effect.

man in black framed eyeglasses holding black video camera

Contextualizing the narrative

One of the primary reasons to use B-roll footage is to provide context to your primary footage, commonly known as A-roll. The A-roll typically comprises your main shots, interviews, or dialogues, while the B-roll serves as supportive footage that supplements the main narrative.

Consider the film “Jaws” directed by Steven Spielberg. There are several scenes where the audience is shown B-roll footage of the beach town’s daily life – kids playing, people enjoying the sun, and tourists indulging in water sports. This footage does not directly contribute to the story but contextualizes the narrative, setting the scene of a peaceful beach town, which amplifies the terror when the shark attacks occur.

Setting the tone

B-roll footage is also instrumental in setting the emotional tone of a scene. It can create a sense of excitement, dread, joy, or any other emotion that you want your audience to feel.

A perfect example of this is from the movie “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick. The B-roll footage of the winding, isolated mountain road leading to the Overlook Hotel sets a tone of isolation and impending doom, preparing the viewer for the unsettling events that are to follow.

Covering jumps in time and space

B-roll footage can effectively bridge gaps in time and space, providing seamless transitions. It eliminates jarring jumps between different scenes or timeframes, making the narrative flow more smoothly.

For instance, in “The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola uses B-roll footage of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island to indicate Vito Corleone’s arrival in America. This B-roll shot covers a significant jump in both time and space, from Vito’s life in Sicily to his new life in New York.

Masking cuts and imperfections

B-roll footage is also an excellent tool for masking imperfections in your A-roll. Perhaps a subject stuttered during an interview, or there was an issue with the lighting in a particular shot. B-roll footage can be used to cover these problems and maintain the professional appearance of your video.

In the film “Birdman,” director Alejandro G. Iñárritu uses B-roll footage to give the appearance of a single continuous shot. This technique masks the cuts and transitions, thereby maintaining the illusion of a single take and the relentless pacing of the story.

Increasing engagement

Finally, B-roll footage can also increase engagement by providing visual diversity. Breaking up the main footage with different angles or viewpoints, it keeps the viewers interested and less likely to disengage.

The film “Slumdog Millionaire” used this technique extensively. Director Danny Boyle used B-roll footage of the busy streets of Mumbai and snippets of Indian culture to provide visual diversity and to keep the audience engaged throughout the film.

How to capture superb B-roll footage

Now that we understand the importance of B-roll footage and how it can enhance our video editing process, the next logical step is to explore how to capture effective B-roll footage. From planning your shots to executing them, this chapter will guide you through the process of producing B-roll footage that will add depth and context to your video projects.

1. Plan ahead

Before you begin shooting, it’s important to plan your B-roll footage. Identify the main scenes or interviews (your A-roll) and consider what supplemental footage could enhance these scenes. Think about what additional angles, close-ups, or establishing shots might add context, detail, or visual interest.

For instance, in the movie “Inception,” Christopher Nolan had a comprehensive plan for B-roll footage, capturing intricate details of the dream sequences, like the spinning top and cityscapes, that further immerse the viewer in the film’s complex narrative.

2. Shoot a variety of shots

When you’re on location, try to capture a variety of shots. Wide shots can establish the location, medium shots can provide context, and close-ups can show details that might otherwise be missed. Remember, B-roll footage is your opportunity to capture the ‘texture’ of your setting and subjects.

This technique is particularly effective in the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” where Wes Anderson’s B-roll includes a mix of wide, medium, and close-up shots that help to create a rich and immersive visual experience of the hotel and its surroundings.

3. Capture natural actions

B-roll footage often includes natural, candid moments that add authenticity to your video. Try to capture your subjects in their natural environment, engaging in typical activities. This kind of footage can bring your characters and settings to life, making them more relatable to the audience.

A wonderful example of this is in the documentary “March of the Penguins.” The filmmakers captured authentic, candid moments of the penguins in their natural habitat, which helped to create a more immersive and engaging viewing experience.

4. Consider movement

Adding movement to your B-roll can create a dynamic, engaging visual experience. This could involve anything from a moving subject within your shot to moving the camera itself, such as panning or tilting.

An iconic example of camera movement in a B-roll comes from the opening sequence of “The Sound of Music.” The camera sweeps over the Austrian mountains before zooming in on Julie Andrews, creating a sense of grandeur and scale that sets the stage for the epic narrative to follow.

5. Quality over quantity

While it’s important to have enough B-roll footage to give you options in the editing room, it’s equally important not to sacrifice quality for quantity. Strive to capture the best possible footage, as this will improve the overall quality of your final video.

A testament to this principle is seen in the film “Blade Runner 2049,” where every B-roll shot is visually stunning and contributes to the dystopian atmosphere of the film, proving that quality B-roll can significantly elevate a film’s aesthetic.

6. Use a variety of angles

When shooting b-roll footage, it is crucial to use a variety of strong angles which may include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Wide angle: Often utilized for establishing shots, the wide angle offers viewers a broad, panoramic view of the setting you’re inviting them to explore. It provides a contextual backdrop that immerses your audience in the world you’re presenting.
  • Close-up: This angle evokes a sense of intimacy by highlighting intricate details. Close-up shots are perfect for highlighting specific elements within your cinematic sequences.
  • Medium: A medium shot cleverly blends the context-providing aspect of the wide-angle with the detailed focus of a close-up. This shot offers a balanced perspective combining the larger scene and the subtle nuances.

Where to get B-roll footage?

What happens when you’re in the middle of editing a video, and you realize you forgot to capture some B-roll footage? Or perhaps you’re working on a project for a client who didn’t send you enough material. Maybe the shoot was too expensive, too complex, or simply impossible to execute. In situations like these, stock video footage becomes a lifesaver.

Stock footage can be a game-changer for filmmakers and video editors. It’s often more affordable than arranging a shoot to capture B-roll footage yourself. Consider the time, resources, and logistics involved in setting up a shoot. You need a location, equipment, and potentially a crew, and then there’s the cost of travel. That’s before we even get to the unpredictability of many shots, especially those involving weather or animals.

Using stock footage not only alleviates these challenges but also offers vast creative possibilities. Need a shot of the sunrise over the Grand Canyon or a bustling Tokyo intersection at rush hour? There’s stock footage for that. What about a cinematic aerial view of a pine forest or a time-lapse of the Northern Lights? There’s stock footage for those, too.

Here are the best stock video sites to get high-quality B-roll footage:

  1. Shutterstock: This is a paid service offering a vast collection of stock video footage, including a B-roll.
  2. Pond5: This is another paid service that is popular for its extensive library of video clips.
  3. Getty Images: Known for its high-quality video clips, Getty Images is another source for B-roll footage, though it tends to be on the pricier side.
  4. Videvo: Videvo offers free and premium stock video footage. Their free section can be a good resource for B-roll, but you’ll need to read the licensing terms for each clip carefully.
  5. Pexels Video: Pexels offers a wide range of free videos. All videos are licensed under the Pexels license, which means you can use them for free for personal and commercial purposes.
  6. Pixabay: Pixabay is another resource for free videos. All clips are released under the Pixabay license, which makes them safe to use without asking for permission or giving credit to the artist, even for commercial purposes.
  7. Videezy: Videezy has a mixture of free and premium stock video footage. They have a wide range of footage, including drone footage, nature clips, and more.
  8. Artgrid: Artgrid is a subscription-based service with a diverse library of high-quality footage. It’s a sister site to Artlist, a popular music licensing site.
  9. Storyblocks: This is a subscription service that provides access to a library of over a million assets, including high-quality stock video, audio, and images.


A-roll vs. B-roll footage

The main difference between A-roll and B-roll footage is their function within a film or video production. While A-roll is primarily concerned with carrying the main narrative or storyline, the B-roll enhances this narrative and provides additional visual elements that help to keep the audience engaged and better understand the context of the A-roll content.

What is B-roll overlay footage?

B-roll overlay footage is supplemental or secondary video content that is overlaid or intercut with the primary or A-roll footage in a video or film. The purpose of B-roll overlay footage is to visually support, enhance, or add context to the story being told in the A-roll footage.
For example, consider a documentary in which an interviewee is talking about their experience climbing Mount Everest. While the interviewee’s talking head footage serves as the A-roll, B-roll overlay footage might include shots of Mount Everest, scenes from the climb, or clips that show the harsh weather conditions.
This B-roll overlay footage adds a visual dimension to the interviewee’s words, helping to paint a more vivid picture of the story for the viewer. It can also provide a break from the A-roll footage, making the video more engaging and dynamic.
In the editing process, the B-roll overlay footage is typically placed on a video track above the A-roll footage, hence the term ‘overlay’. This technique allows the editor to seamlessly cut back and forth between the A-roll and B-roll, creating a visually compelling and contextually rich narrative.


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