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Doc U Recap: Using Archival Footage in Your Film

By KJ Relth

To see all the photos from this event, visit us on Facebook.

With the almost universal accessibility afforded by video uploading services like YouTube, one would imagine it's simple to find a clip of almost everything with the click of a mouse. But what about all of the news footage that was shot before the advent of digital? What about those sources that are under copyright protection and aren't subject to fair use? How does one tap into those resources? Most of the time, finding that clip you are looking for involves research, planning, digging, and talking to as many people as possible. But there are other options we haven't touched on here: official archives, libraries, footage firms, and other sources that might cost a bit of money. These all exist for the purpose of helping you with the process of finding that perfect clip to help illustrate or clarify your point.

But how and where to start? What will the cost be? And what kind of manpower will it take? Incorporating archival footage into your documentary film can bring a level of authenticity unmatched by other means, furthering the film's impact and reach. With literally thousands of hours of footage from almost all modern history's major events, the biggest hurdle in using archival footage may just be in knowing where and how to start looking.

That's why the IDA called in a few experts in the field to discuss just these issues and answer questions from the documentary community at large. With IDA's Executive Director Michael Lumpkin moderating, the panel for Doc U: Using Archival Footage in Your Film consisted of Clara Fon-Sing, Vice President and General Manager of NBC News Archives; Jackie Mountain, Vice President of Sales for T3Media; and Peter Jones (Director) and Brian Tessier (Supervising Producer), Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. The five discussed the benefits and challenges of using archival footage in your film, from the beginning steps of initial research to negotiating that final licensing fee.

Michael kicked off by asking what a filmmaker should know before they call or email an archive. Clara emphasized the importance of contacting whatever footage firm or archive you want to work with early in the process. Most archives as big as NBC News Archives or T3Media have a staff of researchers who are extremely well acquainted with the content they have available. She recommended that you share what you are trying to do, even if you are not clear on what the end product will be. Be ready with information like whether your project is archival-based, or if you are just looking for a few seconds of material. Knowing at least that much as you going into your conversations with an archive could really help guide or change your writing. Clara also really encouraged people to come in and screen the material themselves. "It will guide where you go," she said.

Each panelist brought in their own material to screen, with Jackie and Clara showing powerful clips from the vast archives available at T3Media and NBC News Archive, respectively. Known for building their stories using rare, previously unseen archival footage, Brian and Peter also showed clips of their films, including Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times, and two other documentaries about Judy Garland and Charlie Chaplin. Although they have experience with archives including T3Media, they also brought up how important it is to speak to the families of the people you are profiling. With the Chandlers, the family had documented everything but were skeptical of the media. Once the elder Chandler passed, however, those home movies and images were turned over to Peter and Brian to help them with their project. What a stroke of luck!

Michael then asked the two filmmakers on the panel what their process is for finding things that haven't ever seen the light of day. "Who do you talk to?" he asked. "Who do you interface with?" Brian (far right), the one on his filmmaking team known for finding clips that have never before been seen, reminded everyone to be reasonable with their time. Be sure that you set aside time to talk to your subject and plan ahead so you can give a wishlist to the archive with which you are working. "If you express your enthusiasm," he said, "then people want to help you." Even though everyone loves YouTube, he mentioned, "you can't replace the human element."

Michael next turned to Jackie to ask if T3Media ever recommends footage to a filmmaker. "We try not to be too presumptuous," she said. "If we know the general feel, the emotion you are looking for," that gives them a good starting point for knowing whether they have footage that's applicable to your project. "Understanding that," she noted, "will allow us to give a recommendation."

"What do you do when that footage doesn't exist at all?" Michael asked the two filmmakers responsible for Johnny Carson: The King of Late Night. "The first years of The Tonight Show are gone. How do you get around that?"

"Never let them see you sweat!" Peter (second from right) joked. When footage of an historical event is totally missing, the small amount of footage that you do use to refer to the event has to really mean something. "The audience doesn't know you can only access four percent of the shot footage" from The Tonight Show, Peter mentioned, so those clips that you show them that represent that small amount of footage might as well be what you selected from among hundreds upon hundreds of hours of tape. "Sometimes," Brian said, "you just have to think differently."

Once the panel turned to the audience for questions, a few heavy points came from the attending members of the documentary community. The question that seemed to be on more than one person's lips: "Why does footage cost so much?" T3Media's Jackie Mountain explained:

"We're representing archives," she said, with the full intention of restoring, reserving, and protecting the footage they own. "We do that for free so that we can represent the collection." Their goal of making it searchable and available is not cheap. "We do the best that we can," she insisted, "to be very fair to the filmmaker"—that is, if they understand the scope of the project. Essentially, the more you know, the better off you will be. This is especially true when working with places like T3Media, who has project-based pricing and offers discounts if they are part of the project in an early phase.

After the panel wrapped up, everyone was invited outside for snacks and more conversation on archival footage on The Cinefamily's picturesque back patio. We were happy to host such an informative event. Look for our next Doc U in September!

Doc U is the International Documentary Association's series of educational seminars and workshops for aspiring and experienced documentary filmmakers. Taught by artists and industry experts, participants receive vital training and insight on various topics including: fundraising, distribution, licensing, marketing, and business tactics.

Doc U is made possible by generous grants and contributions from our donors. Special support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, T3Media, IMAX, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, AXIS PRO, Indie Printing, and Members and supporters of the IDA.