As movie marketing has become increasingly convoluted, we’ve been subjected to trailers with commentary, trailer introductions, and trailers for trailers. But the most bizarre and seemingly pointless aspect of the promotion process yet is what studios call “B-rolls.”
Generally, b-roll is extra or secondary footage used in documentaries to break up or smooth out interviews or to illustrate something discussed by the talking heads. In behind-the-scenes featurettes, b-roll is typically tape of the director calling “action,” and the actors then doing a scene with cameras in their faces. But producers apparently can’t be bothered to add all the talking we’re used to from documentaries. Instead the studios have given us entire reels of unexplicated, behind-the-scenes footage.
Which, in theory, could be interesting. Comedians cracking jokes, action stars falling on their asses, directors managing actors—stray shots of such on-set activity might provide an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at movie-making in action. Unfortunately, the only apparent guiding principle behind these videos is the removal of anything that could remotely be considered interesting. Almost no one says anything other than their lines, “cut,” or “action.” The b-roll for The Avengers has had the sound cut out and replaced with music. The Bridesmaids b-roll goes four minutes without a single joke that wasn’t in the script.
And those are two of the less terrible ones. For Django Unchained, they cut together 12 minutes of people riding horses. The Back-Up Plan’s b-roll is even less funny than the movie itself.
I did find one exception: the Despicable Me b-roll. It consists entirely of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, and Julie Andrews making funny voices, the hilarity of which is only increased by the complete lack of context. It’s also the only b-roll that actually made me want to see the movie.
Though the b-rolls fail pretty spectacularly as a marketing ploy, they do occasionally offer some insight into the movie-making process. Even without sound, the aforementioned Avengers roll makes clear just how much careful choreography—of the crowds, the cars, and the stunts—went into the climactic battle. Similarly, the b-roll for The Hunger Games offers glimpses into the organization of extras and the training for action scenes. The Rango b-roll shows off director Gore Verbinski’s unorthodox method of recording his voice actors: They were given props and costumes and interacted with each other to give the film a kineticism other animated films might lack. (As a bonus, that one also features Johnny Depp looking spectacularly stoned.)
Still, unless you’re extremely interested in the mechanics of filming a movie or find the noise made by the clapper soothing, do not run or walk to YouTube to dig up these clips. Just marvel, perhaps, at Hollywood’s endless efforts to hawk its wares.