August 29, 2023

Using B-roll footage: A beginner’s guide for success

Even if you have a simple vlog, cutting to a few shots of B-roll can elevate your production value exponentially.
August 29, 2023

Using B-roll footage: A beginner’s guide for success

Even if you have a simple vlog, cutting to a few shots of B-roll can elevate your production value exponentially.
August 29, 2023
Olivia Abtahi
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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.

B-roll footage is the unsung hero of filmmaking — adding depth and richness to any visual story. The secret lies in painting a picture that complements and elevates the main narrative. 

Let's face it: a lengthy video with one point of view can get boring. B-roll allows creators to enrich their stories with supplementary footage that moves away from a monotonous viewing experience, all without adding too much extra work to the production process. 

This guide shares how each type of B-roll footage has its unique place in storytelling, best practices, and what you need to know to use B-roll like a pro filmmaker. 

What is B-roll?

B-roll, also known as a B-reel, describes footage that isn't the main action in modern film and video production. This supplemental footage is intercut with the main shots in a video or film, and doesn’t include the main subject.

The type of B-roll used often depends on the subject and intended mood of the piece. Each type can add a unique layer to the storytelling.

Think about a few B-roll examples, including: 

  • Scenic shots: Landscapes, cityscapes, and nature footage at different camera angles that capture the broader setting.
  • Atmospheric or ambiance shots: Scenes of crowds, traffic, or weather events that help convey mood or environment.
  • Cutaway shots: Objects or actions indirectly related to the main scene, offering thematic connections.
  • Inserts: Close-up views of specific details within scenes, such as a hand grabbing a mug.
  • Reaction shots: Shows people’s responses to main events, capturing emotions like surprise or joy.
  • Time-lapses: Events that unfold over a longer duration shown in speedy sequences, like flowers blooming.
  • Slow motion: Footage slowed down to emphasize and highlight specific actions or moments.
  • Texture shots: Close-ups showcasing intricate textures or patterns, adding an extra layer of visual appeal.
  • Establishing shots: Broad views that set the scene, like the exterior of a location before an indoor event.
  • Drone footage: Captivating aerial shots providing expansive and often breathtaking perspectives.

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. 

If there were any B-roll, it'd be something like the creator telling the camera, "And then we went to the store," followed by secondary footage. 

But since the pandemic, creators on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are skipping the interview layer, or “A-roll,” in favor of captions and voiceovers. It’s common for the interview subject to even be green-screened on top of the B-roll itself.

Today, a talking-head interview might take up a small portion of the video. This TikTok video from Nas Daily, for example, shows the creator talking about climate change at the start of the video. B-roll footage of melting ice caps and behind-the-scenes footage:

What’s the difference between A-roll and B-roll?

In filmmaking, understanding the distinction between A-roll and B-roll is crucial. 

A-roll is the primary footage. It contains the main narrative or the backbone of your story. Think of interviews, main dialogue scenes, and key moments that drive the narrative forward. A-roll would be the main chapters if your video were a book.

Unlike primary footage or A-roll—which usually contains the main narrative, interviews, or key scenes—B-roll adds depth and context, and prevents monotony. It enriches the story and provides a visual break from the main video content. 

The term B-roll can include everything from scenic shots setting a location's ambiance to close-up inserts emphasizing details. While A-roll tells the primary story, B-roll enriches it, making the piece more engaging and visually compelling.

How to shoot B-roll footage

Creating captivating B-roll footage is a big part of the video content creation process. Proper pre-production, including storyboarding, can help transform a simple video into a masterpiece of visual storytelling.

Here's how you can master the art of capturing B-roll footage:

  1. Plan and prepare
  2. Find compelling shots
  3. Maintain technical quality
  4. Capture ample footage and coverage 

1. Plan and prepare

Video pre-production is more than just pricing and logistics. Before hitting the record button, dive deep into planning. Understand the narrative you want to convey through visual storytelling.

For instance, if your feature film revolves around a bakery, storyboard sequences capturing the main ingredients, followed by freshly baked bread, its shimmering golden crust, or even the steam rising from a freshly baked loaf.

With tools like Descript, you can edit your planned shots like a Word document. Here’s a quick rundown of how easy it can be to organize your B-roll shots: 

Edit videos like a document | Uncover the hidden features of script editing

2. Find compelling shots

The essence of B-roll lies in securing captivating visuals. Consider capturing different shots that visually tell the core of your narrative or context.

For example, in a documentary about a bustling city, A-roll might focus on interviews. The B-roll video can pan through the rush of morning traffic, the tranquility of a park, or the city's vibrant nightlife—each giving added context and visual interest. 

3. Maintain technical quality

While B-roll introduces flavor to your video content, it should still be high-quality. Achieve stable shots, sharp focus, and proper exposure. The production process, enhanced with tools like tripods or gimbals, can significantly elevate your footage quality.

Say you’re filming a mountain scene. A shaky hand-held capture would be off-putting. Panning the scene with a tripod offers stability, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the landscape without distractions. 

4. Capture ample footage and coverage

When shooting B-roll footage, more is often better. Collecting alternative footage from different angles and distances provides editing flexibility

The broader your shot list range, the more choices you'll have during post-production. For example, in a coffee shop setting, aim for close-ups of dripping coffee, wide shots showcasing the ambiance, and medium shots of baristas in action. This ensures you have a list of varied shots to work with during video editing. 

Remember: B-roll should complement and elevate your primary A-roll. With your audience's viewpoint at the forefront, your goal should be to craft visuals that add life and context to your narrative. 

Vlogger Steven Bartlett takes this approach when talking about a recent event in his YouTube series Behind the Diary:

Steven Barlett using B-roll in YouTube video

Uses of B-roll footage

B-roll footage plays a critical role in video production. It adds depth, style, and context to your main footage. Let’s explore the most common uses of B-roll.

Context and setting

B-roll helps set the stage by giving viewers a sense of place or time. It offers background details that help frame the primary story. In a documentary about a historic site, while the main footage might focus on an expert discussing its significance, B-roll can show different angles, panoramic views of the site, or close-ups of relics.

Visual interest and engagement

Watching talking heads for too long gets boring fast. B-roll breaks up potentially boring footage by keeping viewers engaged with extra visuals that contribute to the narrative. 

In a biographical piece about an artist, while they talk about their passion for painting, use B-roll footage that shows their hands mixing paint, the intense focus in their eyes, or their brush strokes coming to life on canvas.

On the Love and London YouTube channel, for example, video editors merge interview-style video content with B-roll footage of London’s Chinatown:

Love and London using B-roll footage in YouTube video

Seamless transitions 

B-roll is an excellent tool for bridging gaps between scenes or segments, which improves the flow of your video. These smooth transitions connect disparate parts of a video and guide the viewer from one point to the next.

While talking about travel, the B-roll of a train journey or a plane in the sky can serve as a visual metaphor for movement and change.

Covering voiceovers or interviews

There are often segments in a video where the audio carries the narrative—be it voiceovers or off-camera interviews. B-roll provides relevant visuals that support and illustrate what's being said, making the story more comprehensive. 

To illustrate, as a farmer speaks off-camera about the benefits of organic practices, B-roll can show lush fields, healthy animals, and close-ups of fresh produce, visually reinforcing the farmer's words.

Finessing B-roll

B-roll is more than just "extra footage." It's a powerful tool that contributes to better storytelling, making your videos more immersive and engaging.

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?”

“If someone were to ask “why did you make this cut?” or “why did you pick this shot?” you should have an answer.”
—Alison Grasso, freelance video editor

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, 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, a drone 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.

Tiff Bauer,a former Descript video producer, used to work on many 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.”

One of the best ways to learn a craft is to seek out the people who do it well. Here are four creators who produced incredible videos with B-roll footage:

  • 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!”

Produce better B-roll with Descript 

The tools you choose to create B-roll can make all the difference. Enter Descript, a video editor tailored to meet your editing needs without friction. 

Intuitive and user-friendly, Descript’s all-in-one video editor makes it easy to create stunning videos. Upload a video file, and Descript will transcribe the spoken content. You can then edit the multimedia file by editing the transcript text.

B-roll FAQs

What is an example of B-roll?

Say you’re watching a documentary about a famous author. While the primary footage (A-roll) might consist of her interview, the shots of her typing away on her typewriter, close-ups of her handwritten notes, or visuals of the friends she mentions in her stories would be the B-roll. These shots provide context, set the mood, and make the documentary visually richer.

How does B-roll work?

B-roll works with the main footage to enhance the storytelling process. Videographers can provide varied visuals to break up potentially boring footage, add depth, and offer viewers a more comprehensive understanding of the topic.

What are B-roll and C-roll?

B-roll is the supplementary footage, while C-roll refers to additional footage that might not be as essential. C-roll can be used for extended coverage, bonus material, or outtakes.

Olivia Abtahi
YA author and filmmaker. Her latest novel, Perfectly Parvin, won the SCBWI Honor and the latest film she edited, "This Land," Won Vimeo Staff Pick of the Year. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and daughter.
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Using B-roll footage: A beginner’s guide for success

Reel-to-reel machine with a computer monitor in the middle

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.

An audio/video editor that includes transcription, screen recording, and publishing.
Check out our useful, powerful tools.

B-roll footage is the unsung hero of filmmaking — adding depth and richness to any visual story. The secret lies in painting a picture that complements and elevates the main narrative. 

Let's face it: a lengthy video with one point of view can get boring. B-roll allows creators to enrich their stories with supplementary footage that moves away from a monotonous viewing experience, all without adding too much extra work to the production process. 

This guide shares how each type of B-roll footage has its unique place in storytelling, best practices, and what you need to know to use B-roll like a pro filmmaker. 

What is B-roll?

B-roll, also known as a B-reel, describes footage that isn't the main action in modern film and video production. This supplemental footage is intercut with the main shots in a video or film, and doesn’t include the main subject.

The type of B-roll used often depends on the subject and intended mood of the piece. Each type can add a unique layer to the storytelling.

Think about a few B-roll examples, including: 

  • Scenic shots: Landscapes, cityscapes, and nature footage at different camera angles that capture the broader setting.
  • Atmospheric or ambiance shots: Scenes of crowds, traffic, or weather events that help convey mood or environment.
  • Cutaway shots: Objects or actions indirectly related to the main scene, offering thematic connections.
  • Inserts: Close-up views of specific details within scenes, such as a hand grabbing a mug.
  • Reaction shots: Shows people’s responses to main events, capturing emotions like surprise or joy.
  • Time-lapses: Events that unfold over a longer duration shown in speedy sequences, like flowers blooming.
  • Slow motion: Footage slowed down to emphasize and highlight specific actions or moments.
  • Texture shots: Close-ups showcasing intricate textures or patterns, adding an extra layer of visual appeal.
  • Establishing shots: Broad views that set the scene, like the exterior of a location before an indoor event.
  • Drone footage: Captivating aerial shots providing expansive and often breathtaking perspectives.

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. 

If there were any B-roll, it'd be something like the creator telling the camera, "And then we went to the store," followed by secondary footage. 

But since the pandemic, creators on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are skipping the interview layer, or “A-roll,” in favor of captions and voiceovers. It’s common for the interview subject to even be green-screened on top of the B-roll itself.

Today, a talking-head interview might take up a small portion of the video. This TikTok video from Nas Daily, for example, shows the creator talking about climate change at the start of the video. B-roll footage of melting ice caps and behind-the-scenes footage:

What’s the difference between A-roll and B-roll?

In filmmaking, understanding the distinction between A-roll and B-roll is crucial. 

A-roll is the primary footage. It contains the main narrative or the backbone of your story. Think of interviews, main dialogue scenes, and key moments that drive the narrative forward. A-roll would be the main chapters if your video were a book.

Unlike primary footage or A-roll—which usually contains the main narrative, interviews, or key scenes—B-roll adds depth and context, and prevents monotony. It enriches the story and provides a visual break from the main video content. 

The term B-roll can include everything from scenic shots setting a location's ambiance to close-up inserts emphasizing details. While A-roll tells the primary story, B-roll enriches it, making the piece more engaging and visually compelling.

How to shoot B-roll footage

Creating captivating B-roll footage is a big part of the video content creation process. Proper pre-production, including storyboarding, can help transform a simple video into a masterpiece of visual storytelling.

Here's how you can master the art of capturing B-roll footage:

  1. Plan and prepare
  2. Find compelling shots
  3. Maintain technical quality
  4. Capture ample footage and coverage 

1. Plan and prepare

Video pre-production is more than just pricing and logistics. Before hitting the record button, dive deep into planning. Understand the narrative you want to convey through visual storytelling.

For instance, if your feature film revolves around a bakery, storyboard sequences capturing the main ingredients, followed by freshly baked bread, its shimmering golden crust, or even the steam rising from a freshly baked loaf.

With tools like Descript, you can edit your planned shots like a Word document. Here’s a quick rundown of how easy it can be to organize your B-roll shots: 

Edit videos like a document | Uncover the hidden features of script editing

2. Find compelling shots

The essence of B-roll lies in securing captivating visuals. Consider capturing different shots that visually tell the core of your narrative or context.

For example, in a documentary about a bustling city, A-roll might focus on interviews. The B-roll video can pan through the rush of morning traffic, the tranquility of a park, or the city's vibrant nightlife—each giving added context and visual interest. 

3. Maintain technical quality

While B-roll introduces flavor to your video content, it should still be high-quality. Achieve stable shots, sharp focus, and proper exposure. The production process, enhanced with tools like tripods or gimbals, can significantly elevate your footage quality.

Say you’re filming a mountain scene. A shaky hand-held capture would be off-putting. Panning the scene with a tripod offers stability, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the landscape without distractions. 

4. Capture ample footage and coverage

When shooting B-roll footage, more is often better. Collecting alternative footage from different angles and distances provides editing flexibility

The broader your shot list range, the more choices you'll have during post-production. For example, in a coffee shop setting, aim for close-ups of dripping coffee, wide shots showcasing the ambiance, and medium shots of baristas in action. This ensures you have a list of varied shots to work with during video editing. 

Remember: B-roll should complement and elevate your primary A-roll. With your audience's viewpoint at the forefront, your goal should be to craft visuals that add life and context to your narrative. 

Vlogger Steven Bartlett takes this approach when talking about a recent event in his YouTube series Behind the Diary:

Steven Barlett using B-roll in YouTube video

Uses of B-roll footage

B-roll footage plays a critical role in video production. It adds depth, style, and context to your main footage. Let’s explore the most common uses of B-roll.

Context and setting

B-roll helps set the stage by giving viewers a sense of place or time. It offers background details that help frame the primary story. In a documentary about a historic site, while the main footage might focus on an expert discussing its significance, B-roll can show different angles, panoramic views of the site, or close-ups of relics.

Visual interest and engagement

Watching talking heads for too long gets boring fast. B-roll breaks up potentially boring footage by keeping viewers engaged with extra visuals that contribute to the narrative. 

In a biographical piece about an artist, while they talk about their passion for painting, use B-roll footage that shows their hands mixing paint, the intense focus in their eyes, or their brush strokes coming to life on canvas.

On the Love and London YouTube channel, for example, video editors merge interview-style video content with B-roll footage of London’s Chinatown:

Love and London using B-roll footage in YouTube video

Seamless transitions 

B-roll is an excellent tool for bridging gaps between scenes or segments, which improves the flow of your video. These smooth transitions connect disparate parts of a video and guide the viewer from one point to the next.

While talking about travel, the B-roll of a train journey or a plane in the sky can serve as a visual metaphor for movement and change.

Covering voiceovers or interviews

There are often segments in a video where the audio carries the narrative—be it voiceovers or off-camera interviews. B-roll provides relevant visuals that support and illustrate what's being said, making the story more comprehensive. 

To illustrate, as a farmer speaks off-camera about the benefits of organic practices, B-roll can show lush fields, healthy animals, and close-ups of fresh produce, visually reinforcing the farmer's words.

Finessing B-roll

B-roll is more than just "extra footage." It's a powerful tool that contributes to better storytelling, making your videos more immersive and engaging.

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?”

“If someone were to ask “why did you make this cut?” or “why did you pick this shot?” you should have an answer.”
—Alison Grasso, freelance video editor

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, 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, a drone 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.

Tiff Bauer,a former Descript video producer, used to work on many 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.”

One of the best ways to learn a craft is to seek out the people who do it well. Here are four creators who produced incredible videos with B-roll footage:

  • 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!”

Produce better B-roll with Descript 

The tools you choose to create B-roll can make all the difference. Enter Descript, a video editor tailored to meet your editing needs without friction. 

Intuitive and user-friendly, Descript’s all-in-one video editor makes it easy to create stunning videos. Upload a video file, and Descript will transcribe the spoken content. You can then edit the multimedia file by editing the transcript text.

B-roll FAQs

What is an example of B-roll?

Say you’re watching a documentary about a famous author. While the primary footage (A-roll) might consist of her interview, the shots of her typing away on her typewriter, close-ups of her handwritten notes, or visuals of the friends she mentions in her stories would be the B-roll. These shots provide context, set the mood, and make the documentary visually richer.

How does B-roll work?

B-roll works with the main footage to enhance the storytelling process. Videographers can provide varied visuals to break up potentially boring footage, add depth, and offer viewers a more comprehensive understanding of the topic.

What are B-roll and C-roll?

B-roll is the supplementary footage, while C-roll refers to additional footage that might not be as essential. C-roll can be used for extended coverage, bonus material, or outtakes.

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