Licensing, The Right Footage

3 Tips for Uncovering Amazing Archive Footage


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More and more archive footage is becoming readily available to license from massive commercial film and photo licensing companies like Getty, Adobe, and many others, every day. Despite this, there are worlds of unseen footage out there, and fast-growing documentary audiences crave new ways to experience the past. Today more than ever, it is extremely important for content creators and archive researchers to diversify their sources to set their productions and storytelling apart.

Here are a few ways to uncover incredible footage for your productions that will set your production apart.

Go offline

The world of archive footage doesn’t stop where YouTube ends. Neither should your research! A staggering amount of footage documenting everything from the First World War to the new millenium has never been digitized or made available online. In some cases, this material has never been transferred from its original format whether Super 8mm or BetaSP. Browsing through footage online is a good way to start looking for material, but content creators searching for unique material should by no means stop there.

Many broadcast archives, commercial footage sellers, and individual collectors alike will be more than happy to hear about your project and do some digging in their collection (sometimes there will be a fee associated with this, but for unique archive footage, it is well worth it!). Dealing with sources who have catalogued archives and digital databases make the research work faster, but it is always just as important to work with experts who know their collections best. Once you know what a particular source might have to offer, you can begin the process of ordering scans or low-res screeners to narrow down your research while giving your director and editor unique archival options for the edit.

Crowdsource amateur footage

In the last year or two, multiple high-profile documentaries have relied on crowdsourcing – a term usually used to refer to a popular way to raise funds for creative projects or causes online – to tap into fandom to source incredible amateur footage. Bringing together footage from people scattered around the world can seem daunting, but with attentive networking and a bit of organization, it can create intimate, one-of-a-kind archival experiences.

For the recent Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, archive producer Matt White was able to bring together hours upon hours of amateur footage of Beatles concerts from the US to Europe and Japan to compliment material from broadcast and other archives. Amateur footage filmed by die-hard fans also features prominently in Amazon’s rock’n’roll doc on the Grateful Dead, A Long Strange Trip. Archival researchers James McDonnell and Annie Salsich were in touch with deadheads around the world to bring their footage together with the ‘Dead’s own archives in what may go down as the defining filmic portrait of the Grateful Dead. You can check out the extensive interview we did with them, here.

Think internationally!

Chances are that if archive footage covering a specific topic is readily available at archive footage providers in your home market, it has been used by other productions and likely has been seen by your audience. Looking abroad for novel footage and fresh perspectives local or national events in the past is one way to set your story apart. For example, a producer covering civil rights in the US, may seek out footage from European broadcasters or Central American filmmakers who were operating in the US in the 1960s and 1970s and who might offer a totally different look at events than US media would have produced.

Also, when looking for footage of events that happened abroad, make sure to expand your research to neighboring countries, or other countries who would have had an interest in filming, broadcasting, and preserving this footage. For instance, when a producer was looking for footage of the Prague Spring in 1968, German Broadcaster RBB’s ‘footage berlin’ collection – which covers many different footage collections pre- and post-unification – was able to offer incredible footage from the former East German state TV archive that very few people have seen since its initial broadcast.

Whether scouring the internet, tapping into networks of amateur filmmakers and videographers, or reaching out to international footage sources, creativity and organization are key to a successful archive production. Once you’ve done some searching online, reaching out to a maximum number of sources in your initial research will help you better understand what is out there and where you can push your research next. One great way to do just this is to use Archive Valley’s footage request tool to connect with archive providers around the world with the right material for your project.


*photo by Kurt Bauschardt

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