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The End of B-Roll As We Know It

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What roll? Why “b”? What year is this?

It happens frequently enough to warrant mention here: after the CEO expertly outlines the company’s mission/goals/values in the project’s key interview, the video crew’s producer begins soliciting volunteers for b-roll—a conference room scene, a hallway-walking scene, a demonstration of machinery vital to the company’s operations—and inevitably an assistant vice president will joke: “I guess I’m only good enough for the b-roll.”

Low professional self-esteem is something to consult your HR representative about, not the video producer being given a rare look behind your organization’s front desk. What video clients may not fully understand about the vague, inadequate term “b-roll” could itself fill a video promoting the high value of b-roll for any project.

As the Wikipedia entry explains in greater detail, “b-roll” is an antiquated way of distinguishing, in the most general terms, between categories of footage. In the days of celluloid film, a roll of film (from which derives the term “footage,” referring to the customary system measurement of remaining negative) would arrive in the cutting room for the editor to begin work. A piece of “a” roll would contain, say, scenes of Orson Welles digressing wittily about wartime morality, while archival newsreel of Viennese lamenting their city’s destruction would be marked “b” roll. (If you haven’t seen The Third Man—do.) In that case, the assistant vice president’s poor self-esteem is accurate: the stars are on the a-roll, everybody else is on the b-roll.

The years between then and now saw a rich history related to the rise of television and the ongoing evolution of media delivery (VHS vs. DVD) and capture media (film vs. digital); some sad, confused academic may someday perform a study of the influence of the consumer electronics revolution on the aesthetics of popular media, but that’s their cross to bear. The industry’s string of lusty flings with competing varieties of video and digital tape helped maintain the relevance of the term “b-roll” into the age of non-linear, computer-based editing systems. As of July 2015 at Fat Chimp Studios, all of our tapes live now in a few boxes on a bottom shelf in the prop room. Few video professionals use tape these days, and fewer of the biggest-budgeted Hollywood productions can afford the cost of developing a day’s worth of film depicting Tom Cruise hanging mid-air from a jet, to the dismay of cinema purists everywhere. Has it come to this?

It has. High-definition digital video is the standard for the services Fat Chimp Studios provides, which is why we hereby advocate for the banishment of terms like “filming,” “footage,” “cutting room,” and—to the pleasure of assistant vice presidents presenting “annual reports” to a CEO in a “meeting” for a scene to be used in a company overview video—the end of “b-roll” as we know it. As “footage” is replaced by information captured on high-volume digital storage devices like SD, CF, and CFast cards, as well as solid-state hard drives that can store terabytes of data at a time, we’re in the lucky position of being able to redefine our terms and innovate accordingly.

But when we talk about “supplementary data supporting what the interview subject or voiceover is describing,” we mean “b-roll.”

 
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