What Does “b-roll” Mean?

*In case you were wondering, “B-Roll” is an editing term. Here’s the story of it’s origination, according to John Premack:

“The term actually was born well before the ENG era, when us creative dinosaurs who were shooting film wanted to cover a jump cut in a sound-on-film interview. Since audio was an integral part of the film (recorded optically 26 frames ahead of the corresponding picture) there was no way to splice in a cutaway without interrupting the audio.

The solution was to prepare a second reel of film, mostly black leader, containing several seconds of the desired cutaway. Both reels were threaded into projectors in master control and started at the same time (simul-rolled). The TD would watch for the cutaway shot to appear on the monitor, “take” the second projector, and then wait until the splice in the interview has passed through the other projector gate before switching back. This second reel was referred to as the “B” roll. Once editors and directors got the hang of this radical innovation (remember – this was all done live) we began to do more than cover jumpcuts. B-roll was soon routinely used to break the monotony of lengthy talking heads. Eventually reporters’ voice-over tracks were even recorded on short ends of film so that they could be spliced into the A-roll between the sound-on-film bites.

So, like Paul Harvey says – . . . and now you know the rest of the story.”

11 Responses to “What Does “b-roll” Mean?”

  1. Luis Villalon April 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    On the other hand, early in my career I had a small production company and we shot a lot of industrial films. Once edited, we cut the original 16mm to match the cuts on the edited print. To avoid seeing the splices in the prints, we did A & B rolls, splicing alternate neg and black leader, what then was called checkerboard splicing. To me that was always the “b roll” part, what you describe has always been “cut aways” to me.

  2. I recently graduated with a degree in journalism and a minor in broadcasting. At my internship one of the bosses was referring to b-roll, and I had no clue what he was talking about. My teachers called the segments “cut aways.” The process is a lot different now that everything is computers and digital but the old terms have stuck.

  3. The b-roll procedure you described would only work in a shop with lots of time and people or if you were editing a feature film. In the News Department I worked in, the reporter tracks were cut on audio carts and rolled by the director. The b-roll was on a separate reel, but only rolled when the shot was needed. The projector would automatically be stopped by a magnetic strip attached to the countdown leader for the next b-roll shot.

  4. This did not help me. AT ALL. :(

  5. I am new to film production but it seems to me the term B Roll is coming full circle (almost) in the digital age. I’ve heard B Roll used synonomously as “protection or cover” shots but using the same production camera. The purpose though is exactly as described, to get material that can be spliced into the film. Basically, get a “roll” of extra material to make the editors work easier.

  6. The term B-Roll does come up a lot. I’ve told my students at Bowling Green State University the origin of the term, as mentioned above. But I add: what you are doing is visually capturing the story to be used in the final edited production. I feel that the term is fine among those that do what we do. However I caution using it because I feel, in a sense, it devalues what we do. A few days ago at a pre-production meeting, a colleague used the term. Another person, unfamiliar with the term asked what it was. The reply: “B-Roll – it’s just a bunch of shots”. I added my definition – our job is to visually tell the story, not get a bunch of shots. I too started in 16mm with A & B-roll (and demonstrated the process in a few of my classes!)

  7. The terms Aroll and B roll actually originated in narrative film-making when the sound and pictures were recorded separately. To synchronize the picture to sound in editing, the editor listened for the sound of the clapperboard (and watched the film for the writing on the clapperboard of which scene and “take”). These things told him or her where to align the picture and sound.

  8. I agree with Jose’s caution about using this term. It is out of date in the digital era but the term refuses to die, at least in the US. I have never heard it in the UK. I find it irritating and not useful and it is strangely derogatory or dismissive of what are actually crucial storytelling images.

    I have however enjoyed the discussion here and the learned explanations by older pros!

  9. An interesting discussion. I’ve realized that I throw the term around all the time, and use it interchangeably for the term “cutaways.” I just had to define the term for a client I’d been working with for several months and assumed she understood.

    I cut my teeth in corporate television shooting 3/4″ Umatic, where we had “A” and “B” source decks that had to be synced up and switched live to edit with any kind of effects or transitions, so I thought of A and B in those terms as well.

    My hat is off to you veterans who worked in film. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It was a special craft that demanded greater resourcefulness. I look at some old reels of ours from the 80’s and think, “hey we were passionate about what we did, and really squeezed the max out of the tools we had at our disposal.” The basics of composition, lighting, sound and story telling remain, regardless of the technology. All the best!

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