You have an incredible amount of experience in archival research and production. How did you end up in this field in the first place?
Well, the reason I started in this field was because I was working on the BBC Fantasy Football League a Friday night topical programme where I had to find footage material every week. I started with a blank page on Monday and by Friday we had a show! I had to find funny clips like old TV programs, commercials etc. Famous guests would come on the show to discuss football topics. I did this for 3 years and helped produce over 50 programs! I also worked on a Feature Film starring Colin Firth and Mark Strong called Fever Pitch also about football. Since 1990’s-2007, I had mostly been working as an assistant producer and producer director. After 2007 the work coming my way always involved finding and clearing archive. Although I am very busy it’s a good line of work dealing with wide variety of topics from the cold war to sports. I would like to return to producing and directing too -probably an archive based production.
You seem to be an expert in user-generated content, can you tell us about this?
I’m not really an expert in user-generated content, it’s a new field altogether as nowadays people are making their own footage all the time on their smartphones. Individuals are able to film tragic events like the Boston bombing, weather disasters but also funny videos. For a project with the National Geographic I was once asked to find footage of a natural disaster moments before it happened. I contacted archives but it was hard to find lots of good original footage on something that specific, so I searched through user-generated content found online instead. There are so many sites now that offer this kind of content like Videoplugger, Newsflare, LiveLeaks etc. Individuals capture major or even minor events which can then potentially be used for news reports and docs but funny videos also can be useful for commercials.
These kind of “Home Movies” are posted on YouTube most of the time, so all I have to do is contact the user via the platform. They may or may not reply, but part of my job is about tracking people down by finding clues of where the person lives or their email address. After contacting the person in question we offer to pay them a small fee or sometimes a larger one if the client has a bigger budget. Generally the broadcaster wants perpetuity on the video which is quite easy to get as most of the time the individual is quite happy to license their clip for a small fee. In 95 out of 100 times individuals accept to sell their footage. This field is becoming more and more popular and archives specialised in UGC are developing online. UGC may take over from traditional archive in a few years time. It’s a great alternative for productions with small budgets!
Throughout your career you have worked with many production companies and TV channels especially the BBC. What is it like to work for such a huge broadcaster that creates high quality content?
It has always been good to work for the BBC because they do produce high quality content. It’s kind of my natural home in a way as I have often been employed by them but have also worked on programs for the BBC made by other independent producers. I first started at BBC in the 1990’s and it was great to work in such a place for the first time. What’s specific about the BBC is that it has many different archive storage on line systems and departments that help with clearances. In fact on some projects I am not allowed to clear the rights because it has to be done internally by their lawyers. Generally I do it myself for other smaller companies, although I have occasionally done it for the BBC. Also what’s great about the BBC is that they have a huge archive and sports library with lots of material, there is so much unseen footage. I have found so many funny and remarkable clips within the BBC that were not catalogued or digitized.
Can you tell us a bit about the doc your worked on Of Time and the City which won New York’s Film Critics Circle Best non-fiction film of 2009, Focal International award winner and many others awards?
Well, this doc was probably my big break! The city of Liverpool which was European Capital of Culture in 2008 commissioned 3 films. We presented a short film for a documentary project made up of 100% archival footage and our project was one of 3 winners. The documentary is all about the city of Liverpool in the 1940’s-2008 as seen through the eyes and memories of director Terence Davies. In this 75 min documentary we only used archives, so I had to find as much archival footage as possible of Liverpool but not exclusively. I found the footage and Terence picked what he wanted to use in the film. He also told me to look for footage based on his memories like shots of bonfires and wrestling matches and things he has seen as a child. I had a limited budget for the archives but I was able to make good deals especially with the BBC.
A lot of the footage used were home movies and it was quite a big factor for the project especially on two fronts: for one the footage was unique and unseen, with a lovely nostalgic quality and two it was within the budget. We sometimes knew who had shot the footage which enabled us to have it for a small fee. I knew some footage would be expensive but some inevitably had to be free. In the end 15 min of the footage used was inexpensive or free and we only had a budget of 60 000 pounds entirely funded by the city of Liverpool. All proceeds went to registered a charity so we were able to get good deals, all the profits made were to be reinvested into filmmaking in the North West.
In the end it all came together, it went down really well including in Cannes and with many film critics and was very popular. We won awards at the New York’s Film Critics, Focal and European film festivals. It was a great project: I started with a blank page and ended up with a lot of material that at the beginning I wasn’t even sure where to get from until I found it.
You are often in charge of archival budget management for Cinema and TV productions. What tips can you give us when dealing with budget management?
It really depends, it’s case by case. It’s always good to have a flexible model but it’s also important that the people you work for define their budget. If you can tell the director that he can have some of the footage but not all of it and point out the most expensive ones, this can save a lot of time. I like to give as much freedom as possible to the director but I also sometimes have to tell them that they can either “use those expensive 3 seconds or perhaps drop a minute from another part of the film”. In the end you can’t afford it all and that’s where budget management comes in. It’s important to limit the number of sources, to negotiate, to use alternative archives and to use archives not necessarily for perpetuity especially if it’s topical programme which has a shorter shelf life say of 1 or 2 years. All you can do is your best!
What has been your most exciting archival discovery while investigating on a topic?
I once found some great footage for a Discovery project! I discovered a cameraman also in the RAF that had footage and photographs of the military practicing bomb dropping. I interviewed him and used his footage that showed bombing practices from the sky.
I also found the person that had found rare footage of the 1900’s British filmmakers Mitchell and Kenyon. Their film company was a pioneer of early commercial motion pictures in the early 20th century. The material was static camera footage of mills workers leaving work, people walking in annual parades or shot from trams in northern cities such as Blackburn and Liverpool. It was the first time normal people saw themselves on film. We were able to use the footage for free!
What kind of project are you working on at the moment? Can you give us a sneak peek?
I am working on a Terence Davies film again for 5-10 minutes of footage. I am looking for footage of poet Siegfried Sassoon who fought in WWI. I am searching for footage of the First World War but also of politics at the time.
Otherwise, I am also working on a documentary about the history of Cuba and I am looking for footage of Fidel Castro and how Cuba was taken over.