Using B-roll: A beginner's guide

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Do you need B-roll? Depends on the content. If you’re filming a chat show that you’ll upload to YouTube, then probably not. If you’re doing a storytime on TikTok, also no. But if you’re trying to explain a concept, idea, or history, something with a bit more complexity, then B-roll can help. Even if you have a simple vlog, cutting to a few shots of B-roll can elevate your production value exponentially and break up the same old footage with exciting visuals.

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What is B-roll? 

B-roll is your secondary layer of video. The primary layer is often the interview, or important soundbites, that are the meat of your story. B-roll is usually layered on top of that in order to give context to the interview or explanation happening below. Many beginning editors will start with “see-say” B-roll. That’s where if someone mentions a cow, the editor will then layer a shot of a cow on top of that soundbite.

But B-roll is so much more than that. It’s a chance to elevate storytelling and add dynamic visuals to your project. What if when a subject says “cow,” you cut to a cheeseburger? Or a temple? It instantly adds more depth and meaning to the interview, all while giving your audience provocative and intriguing visuals. That’s the beauty of B-roll. 

The rise of B-roll

Before the pandemic, a 30-minute-long talking-head video was generally considered a complete and engaging video on YouTube. Simple, straightforward edits were common, and if there was any B-roll at all, it’d be something like the creator telling the camera, “and then we went to the store” — followed by footage of the store. 

But since the pandemic, more and more creators on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are skipping the interview layer, or “A-roll,” altogether in favor of captions and VO. Maybe it’s Zoom fatigue from looking at people on screens all day. Maybe our shrinking attention spans need constant imagery to stay entertained. Now, a talking-head interview might take up only 10% of the video instead of the entire runtime. Sometimes the interview subject will even be green-screened on top of the B-roll itself.

Finessing B-roll

Alison Grasso, a freelance documentary and commercial editor, says that B-roll is where an editor’s artistry can really shine. “You could just put a bunch of shots together and it might work, but if you really want to hone your craft, that’s where I get obsessed — how is the shot ending? How is the next shot beginning?” she says. “If someone were to ask ‘why did you make this cut?’ or ‘why did you pick this shot?’ you should have an answer.” 

Rather than just slapping a bunch of shots together, really think about your B-roll as its own story, just like the interview that might be lying beneath it. If your subject is talking about trees, then you could start with a wide, establishing shot of trees, then go to macro shots of the detail of a tree while we get more information. As your story transitions away from trees, that’s where something like a drone shot or motion shot moving away from trees could be a big help. You can treat the B-roll like its own sequence all while supporting the interview or voiceover below it.

B-roll flow 

Whenever I’m not sure about an edit, I ask myself, “Does this cut feel smooth or rough?” That is, does it happen seamlessly, or does it stick out? Sometimes a bad cut can feel like footage bellyflopping into your sequence. It just doesn’t feel right. Often, a poor cut is one that audiences notice. On the other hand, A great cut feels like a clip diving cleanly into the next one, leaving barely a splash. It’s so seamless it might not even register. That’s a great cut. 

Tiffani Bauer, my colleague on Descript’s video production team, used to work on a lot of documentary-style corporate videos. B-roll was something she relied on to help elevate them. “I remember the feeling of the first time I cohesively put together a well-shot interview with some really nice B-roll and music and I finally felt like editing was clicking in my brain,” she says. “I watched it back and didn't feel like I was watching my work. It was kind of surreal how it all just fell into place.”

B-roll tips and tricks from successful creators

One of the best ways to learn a craft is to seek out the people who do it well. Here are four sources Tiff recommends for B-roll inspiration:

  • Daniel Schiffer: “He’s the YouTube king of product videos and product B-roll,” Tiff says. “It’s mostly food focused, but it’s a really great source of inspiration if you want to shoot some super interesting B-roll.”
  • Bryce McNabb: “This video gives a great breakdown on how to shoot ‘scenes’ of B-roll, the six types of B-roll shots needed,” Tiff says. “You could probably use this ideology when picking stock footage that you use as B-roll too!” 
  • That Camera Girl: “This goes over a bunch of good places to find stock B-roll for people who don’t want to shoot or don’t have the capabilities of shooting their own B-roll!” Tiff says.
  • Joey Helms: This short film was shot entirely on an iPhone. “This is awesome because it shows that it’s not necessarily about using the most expensive gear to get great looking b-roll, just be creative!”

At the end of the day, B-roll is another tool in your arsenal that can elevate your video. If you’re filming lifestyle or vlogging content, you might even want to consider it being the only kind of footage you use. Remember: B-roll will always be more visually appealing than a talking head. Use that knowledge to your advantage! 

If you feel lost and aren’t even sure what your video’s story is, it might help to learn more about rough cuts. And if you feel like your video’s B-roll is in a good spot, you’re probably ready to move on to fine cuts. 

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