Craft Better B-RollB-roll is a primary tool of any editor, used to both communicate and reinforce concepts, as well as to hide and cover edits, franken-bites, and other things necessary for the edit but unsightly. Combined with music, narration, voice-over, effects, and text graphics, it plays a vital part in conveying mood, information, and emotion to our storytelling. Correctly cut into place, b-roll reinforces our story arcs, both foreshadowing concepts and illustrating information.
There are two kinds of b-roll in the editors bin:
- Literal and illustrative b-roll. For example, you’re cutting a video about a piece of manufacturing equipment and the narrator is explaining how the conveyor belt moves product from one part of the machine to the other. While this is audio is present, there is a shot of the conveyor belt moving product.
- Conceptual and imaginative b-roll. For example, you’re cutting a documentary about a former drug addict and he is talking about his transformation after rehab. While he is speaking about his new life for the future, you cut a shot of him walking towards the camera symbolizing his walking away from his former destructive drug use.
Depending on what kind of video you’re cutting, you may rely more heavily on one type of b-roll over the other. An obvious example is a music video, frequently full of conceptual b-roll. A product demo or training video on the other hand will be much more literal.
While many of us may know this instinctively, how do we actually craft b-roll to illustrate what we want? When do we cut away to b-roll and why? And how to we get around the problems when our b-roll isn’t related to what our subjects are talking about?
In a perfect world, every shot is scripted and filmed and there’s no missing b-roll. In the real world, not so. Even on a scripted film or tv show you might not have every shot you need. And especially when cutting reality tv, documentaries, or short-form promos and corporate work, it’s a common problem that the camera operator did not get the right shots to tell the story we want to tell.
There are two reasons to cut away to b-roll: the first is to illustrate a concept with a different shot. The exact moment when to cut depends on the surrounding edits: Is there enough lead time in the previous shot that new cut doesn’t happen too soon? Does the introduction of the new footage flow with narrator’s words? Does the eye-trace match between the cuts?
For example, let’s say you’re cutting a video about roasting coffee beans. The coffee roaster is describing his roasting method and he is talking about how to start the roasting process. You then cut to a shot of him pouring beans in the roasting machine. If the prior shot of him describing the roasting process is barely a few words long, then an immediate cut to the beans dumping will feel too short on the front end. And if you cut later in the description when he’s talking about the beans coming out of the roaster, it makes no sense to cut to b-roll of dumping beans into the roaster. You need the b-roll to cut to the end of the process, where the roasted beans come out.
But now let’s suppose you have a different problem. Your coffee roaster is describing how he roasts beans, but your videographer never shot footage of roaster working at the roasting machine! All you have in your b-roll is shots of the barista brewing coffee. Curse you, videographer! It’s related footage, but it’s not the literal b-roll we want to use. Instead, we must figure out how use to this other b-roll to illustrate what the roaster is talking about.
“Alternative-but-still-related” b-roll can be used to conceptually illustrate information and feeling. It just needs to be cut together in a different moment in the video. In our coffee roasting example, rather than cut on the words that are describing the roasting process, we need to cut on words that describe the experience of coffee. This is using the b-roll conceptually and imaginatively instead of literally.
When b-roll doesn’t completely match up with the voice-over or narration, we also need to be sure our cuts won’t cause a disconnect with our viewer. Back to our coffee roaster example: the roaster is describing how his well-timed roasting process brings out the flavor of the coffee bean. We have a great shot of b-roll of our barista pouring coffee into a cup. Our audience won’t connect the audio describing the roast time with the shot of pouring the finished product. But they will connect the concept of flavor with the shot of pouring coffee. So rather than making the cut where the roaster is describing the roasting process, we cut when he starts talking about bringing out flavor. If all the other elements in our timeline are right, our audience smell that coffee and taste it in their mind’s eye! The b-roll does more than just break up the long shot of the coffee roaster’s talking head. It evokes a physical response in your audience. In this case, a coffee craving.
There’s a second reason to cut to b-roll: because you need to hide a bad edit, a franken-bite or some other unsightly but necessary element. A bad edit can be caused by any number of issues, either a bad jumpcut, unwanted camera movement at the beginning of a shot, etc. Perhaps you needed to build a sentence out of a few different clips of voice-over. Maybe your on-screen talent decided to brush their nose in an awkward way while giving a kick-ass bit of voice-narration and you need to hide the fingers in their nose. B-roll is a valuable tool for covering these moments, but don’t treat it lightly.
The same concepts for cutting when we want to illustrate with b-roll remain the same when cutting away because we need to hide something. Ideally, our b-roll should come on smoothly with the flow of conversation and it should illustrate what’s being talked about, either literally or conceptually. Unless the b-roll shot is a long take, it’s best not to cut away to b-roll for a single, short shot. Watch and listen to the areas surrounding the bad edit you need to cover. Is there a way to use the b-roll to craft a more powerful moment? Can your b-roll reinforce what your talent, voice-over or narration is talking about? Can the b-roll help reinforce the emotion of the moment? Take the time to craft a full moment rather than just quickly hide an edit point and transform these unsightly areas into invisible and essential story reinforcements.
There’s a third element to crafting better b-roll, whether you’re illustrating purposefully or hiding an edit. Your b-roll will cut on-screen from your primary camera and frequently there will be more than one shot in your b-roll sequence. To prevent each of these cuts from feeling off, pay attention to eye-trace. Let your cuts center on similar focus points from shot to shot before bringing your b-roll sequence to a close. Doing so will prevent your cutaways from feeling like a surprise to your viewers and instead will feel like a natural flow of thought.
B-roll is so much more than a shot we cut away to when we’re bored with what we’re looking at on-screen at that moment. And it’s more than just a bunch of shots that seem sort of related to what we’re listening to. The best edits are the ones we don’t notice. Doing everything we can to craft b-roll that feels seamless and flows naturally from concept to concept creates a better experience for our audience, keeping our viewers mesmerized and engaged throughout every second of our videos.