Remember writing a boring English paper back in middle/high school? There was a phrase I always dreaded hearing whilst my paper was handed back to me by the teacher: “Braden, you’re just telling me the argument. You need to show it.” It took me far longer than I care to admit to really understand what she meant by that. So, when I started getting into video I found out what that meant at a deeper level when it came to shooting “B-roll.” And yes, video is visual, duh, easy to “show” something, right? Yeah, but let’s explore how you can really effectively bring a story to life by showing the right visuals.
What is B-roll exactly?
The term gets thrown around a lot when it comes to video and some people know exactly what you’re talking about, some people are completely lost and confused, and a good amount of people act like they know what that techy term implies, but actually haven’t the slightest clue. Think of it like this: You have your A-roll, your main video content; for example, you’re doing a story on a recovering hospital patient. The interview with the patient telling her story would be the A-roll, the primary video that provides the main story line and structure to the video. So then your B-roll would be the supplemental video content you would shoot in addition to the main interview.
Don’t think of it as “Plan B”-roll
No, no no. The B-roll is not an afterthought. In fact, it can provide the most visually compelling, contextual, mind blowing evidence/support to your video story. Great, effective b-roll comes from solid pre-production work. If you’re doing a video, once you have the subject, do your research! Find out what else went into that interesting story. B-roll is the texture, color, movement, and style that makes that story attractive to everyone else.
Try this out. For example, if your interviewee talks about their recovery from cancer, some great supportive visual evidence for that story would be her talking over some x-rays with her physician, getting support from her family, showing the progression of hair growing back, etc. Now, when you’re cutting together the video, you can start out with your subject talking about their experience, and then you can show it actually happening. At that point, your audience isn’t just being told the story, they are experiencing the trials/joys/complexities of the story right there along with the subject.
For a side by side comparison, check out this example of how B-roll really helps to tell a farmer’s story. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOdVZZvOwKE
This is easier said than done. As I mentioned before, you’ve got to do some homework, organize some schedules, book some locations, etc. But when it seems like too much of a daunting ask, think of the last video you saw of just a talking head… Charlie Brown’s teacher comes to mind, right? Mix up the visuals by cutting to some interesting and relevant supporting shots of what the speaker is talking about.
Pro Tip: Still struggling to figure out which B-roll shot to use? Try this out: mute your audio. Watch the video with no sound at all. Can you still make sense of what is going on? Sometimes people will be watching the video from across a noisy room, or can’t hear very well, or don’t even understand the language! Visually showing the story, rather than telling, can still communicate the message of your video.