What is B-Roll?

Tl;dr - In digital filmmaking, the idea of rolls has been translated to media cards, so is the term “B-roll” still applicable to us digital filmmakers?
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Rolls? Do We Still Use Them?

The term “roll” obviously comes from the film days when productions used rolls of 35MM film inside metal housings called magazines.

Some productions still use film. In fact, some directors insist on shooting film. They refuse to use digital cameras.

Good for them. It’s a luxury they can afford and an artistic choice that they stand behind.

Not everyone can afford to shoot on film, or even wants to shoot on film. There are many complications and added steps necessary that would deter novice filmmakers from the idea.

In digital filmmaking, the idea of rolls has been translated to media cards, and most professional cinema cameras still allow you to letter and number your rolls for ease of editing.

So is the term “B-roll” still applicable to us digital filmmakers?

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    B-Roll: Simplified

    In its simplest form, B-roll is everything that isn’t A-roll.

    That’s not super helpful, is it?

    Well, A-roll is considered to be your “main footage”. 

    It’s not to be confused with the idea of an A-camera and a B-camera. A-roll can come from multiple different cameras.

    If you are shooting the main portions of your scenes, you can bet that what you are shooting is in fact A-roll.

    So, anything else, is B-roll. Here are some examples.

    • Insert Shots
    • FX Shots
    • Establishing Shots
    • Stock Footage
    • Pick Up Shots

    I’m sure there are more than this, but let’s dig into some of these a little bit deeper.

    Types of Shots

    Insert Shots

    An insert shot is typically a single shot that is inserted into an edit to provide clarity for the audience. 

    For example:

    A character looks in the corner of the room. We can tell by his face that he’s horrified by what he sees…

    If we left it at that, the audience would understand the characters emotions, which may be all you need. But in other cases, you may need to paint a clearer picture for the audience to help the story.

    So, in this case, we would cut to an insert shot of what the character is looking at.

    We reveal a small mouse hole with a little fluffy mouse poking it’s head out.

    See? Now we understand some context and the audience is able to use their imagination to put themselves in the character’s shoes and dream up what will happen next.

    FX Shots

    There are probably a million different types of FX shots, so defining this may be difficult.

    Instead, I’m going to use an example from a great film called Running Scared starring the late Paul Walker (RIP) and Vera Farmiga.

    Play Video

    In the film, the director uses a number of FX to add a specific style to the movie. Everything from slow-motion closeups of shotgun shells flipping through the air, to strange hand-cranked 35MM film shots with light leaks and odd framerates.

    All of these FX shots are B-roll, but into the main shots of the actors in the film. 

    Check out the trailer to see what I mean.

    Establishing Shots

    Establishing shots are often sweeping landscapes or aerial helicopter shots that signal a scene’s location to the audience.

    We see this a lot in sitcoms, where the scene will start with a shot of the building that the characters are in before cutting inside.

    But it’s actually done in almost every movie.

    A sweeping shot of a gridlocked LA freeway before cutting into a car where a guy is losing his mind with road rage.

    These B-roll shots are crucial for setting up the scene and providing a quick shorthand for the audience to understand what is going on.

    Stock Footage

    Stock footage, by nature, is not A-roll, because you, the filmmaker, have purchased the footage for a specific reason and it’s not the main footage for your film.

    An example of how stock footage can be cut into a scene would be the great drug inducement scenes from Requiem for a Dream.

    Play Video

    Some of these ultra close-up shots are “insert shots” filmed by the production. But, the shots of cells moving through veins and possibly even the close-ups of the dollar bill could be B-roll from stock footage.

    Pick Up Shots

    In some instances, productions need to come back to a location or set and shoot again. 

    Maybe they forgot something the first time, or after seeing the edit, the director or editor realizes that the scene doesn’t work without a certain shot.

    That’s when they go back for pick up shots.

    Now, some may consider this to be A-roll, but there is one common scenario where these pick up shots are unequivocally B-roll. And that’s when they use stand ins.

    Frequently, for simple pickups that don’t feature an actors face, a production will use a stand in.

    It’s cheaper!

    And no one can tell the difference. An over the shoulder shot of the character looking at something, a shot of a hand pulling something out of a pocket or a foot sliding into a shoe. All of these potential pickups could easily be done with a stand in instead of the leading actor.

    What Did I Forget?

    Let me know in the comments if there’s a specific type of B-roll that you use that’s not listed here.

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    Alex Darke

    Alex Darke

    Alex is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker located in Los Angeles, who has spent the past 7 years working with the legendary broadcaster Larry King and shooting thousands of episodes of television as a camera operator and director of photography. He owns the motion picture production company Gilded Cinema and co-hosts the No-Budget Filmmaking Podcast.

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