If you ask a doc filmmaker about archival research, you’re likely to be met with groans, wringing hands, and the sudden need to order a stiff drink.
Horrifying picture quality, reluctant or missing rights-holders, or the nonchalant absence of footage whatsoever are pretty standard fare. But when things work out and you’re able to pull a film from the Great Hole of History, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences out there. We’ve compiled a list of the best, most crucial tips No Film School has heard from fellow filmmakers to help you navigate the tricky world of found footage.
Treat the Research Process as the Scriptwriting Stage
Sometimes we leave place markers in our films for archival footage, imagining generic movie images in place of a title card “WWII jet footage” or “1970s New York Cityscape.” However, this method can actually rob you of the creative scripting decisions formed by the research process. In describing her entirely found footage doc to No Film School, director Penny Lane explained the Our Nixon exploratory phase:
I thought about this a lot, and I don’t think [a found footage documentary] is that different than any other production process. You just have to mentally substitute a few things. So, rather than doing the exploratory run-around-with-a-camera-and-see-if-you-can-find-a-story phase, we did the exploratory look-at-archival-footage-and-see-if-we-can-find-a-story phase...Once we decided that we did know what our narrative was, it just became a question of digging in the archives and looking for that story, looking for stuff that would support that story...So again, that would be maybe like going and doing interviews and preparing interview questions and saying “I want you to talk about this.” We were just putting the same kind of things into keyword searches into archive databases instead of going and asking people to speak directly…It's like asking Google "John Erlichman dissapointment" -- did he feel disappointed? Let's find out.
On top of being an integral part of the scripting, the choice to stick to archival source material can have a profound creative effect on a film. Our Nixon producer Brian L. Frye explained to No Film School this way:
I think keeping it archival was a really conscious choice. We didn’t want to editorialize too much. From a filmmaker’s prospective, it can be really interesting to stick to material from the period that you’re talking about. Limiting yourself to the primary materials forces you to come to terms, not with the conventional wisdom about a historical moment or historical period, but with what people actually thought was important at the time -- which isn’t always how we remember it. You remember history through the lens of what turned out being important, but sometimes that is hard to identify at the time.
Familiarize Yourself with Databases like the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Prelinger Collection
A great way to get started is by using the infrastructure that already exists to house moving images – especially ones that can often be in the public domain (in so many words: free) already! DamNation filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel explained to NFS the places (and amount of time it takes) to find footage you are looking for.
Ben: As far as the stills went, that's almost all Library of Congress and National Archives and the occasional university library.
Travis: A fair amount of university special collections stuff but that was usually very specific to a location. The more general stuff or federal dams was just public domain from Library of Congress and National Archive. But it took three or four months of just nonstop digging and working with archivists. It was a lot of work actually for seven minutes of history and then kind of sprinkled throughout the rest of the film.
Ben: Have you heard of the Prelinger Collection? That's where a lot of the films came from.
Get the Word Out On Your Film To Uncover Private Footage
If you know who is sitting on that can of 16mm footage you need, great. But if you’re not sure what’s out there, letting word spread through the grapevine can be a good way to go, as Being Evel director Daniel Junge explained to NFS:
When you're dealing with a figure like Evel Knievel, arguably the most documented man of the 1970's, there's a lot of archive. We had literally many hundreds of stills. We had the famous ABC Wide World of Sports footage, the Caesars Palace footage that everyone knows so well. But we also uncovered a lot of gems and As soon as people started hearing that we were doing an Evel Knievel film, we started getting solicitations for footage and that's why there's stuff in the film that no one's seen for.
If the Archives Don’t Exist, Move On
Sure, that's not what you want to hear when you’re dead set on a particular storyline. We're not saying you shouldn’t get creative with limited footage that really means something to you. We're saying the best thing for your film may be to let the archives dictate the direction your story goes. Teenage director Matt Wolf explained to No Film School how he set strict rules in the research stage to determine the story:
I really wanted to get away from what we would call stock footage -- shots that you see in other historical films, like flappers doing the Charleston with pyramids of champagne poured into glasses. I'm really drawn towards archival footage that looks like home movies or amateur films or the unedited rushes from news reels. In terms of how we constructed the story, Jon and I kind of had a rule that any story that we told needed to have a strong basis in actual archival footage. We kind of figured out the story and the structure of the film based on what we could find, and those were the kind of things we were looking for.
Get Your Archives to Look as Good as Possible
Footage comes in all sorts of chaotically diverse formats, so do your best to consolidate them together in the most lossless way possible. Even if your source material is a VHS dub, as Daniel Junge explained it in regards to post on Being Evel, you still need to pass Quality Control:
How did we consolidate everything? In the words of Orson Wells, "With great difficulty." We had Pal, we had a lot of strange frame rates. We had super eight transfers, 16 mm transfers. The Teradek really helped out in that process and made stuff look great, and hopefully helped us pass QC.
And if you can get your hands on original film prints, as Brian Frye explained to No Film School, scan as high as you can!
Original Super 8 film is relatively high resolution, it actually looks quite good: a little grainy, but the sharpness is good if the camera was focused well. But Super 8 doesn’t print well. Copies of Super 8 film, like Super 8 contact prints, just look like shit, they really do. They’re really fuzzy, they blow out really fast, its reversal-reversal printing. Then condensed to a second generation, everything we were working with was just kind of lo-fi, fuzzy, grainy, high contrast, washed-out images. We kind of accepted it -- as far as we knew, it was all that existed. So we worked with that material for a long time. We actually finished the initial cut of the film using just those prints of the material, and it was then that we discovered Haldeman’s family had just donated all of his original Super 8 films to the Nixon library. We were really excited. We went back and got the original Super 8 films and had them transferred by Jeff Kreines on a Kinetta machine that he has, which is this new format for doing film transfers where you use a high-res digital camera and use the sprocket holes for alignment on the film. He makes 4k scans of super 8 films, and you can do any thing with that. It’s a really cool machine. He actually took his machine, it’s kind of portable you can put it on a desk, and took it to the Nixon library and sat there with the machine in the Nixon library for a week and did a second video transfer of all the original super 8 film.
Here is a before-and-after clip of Our Nixon's Super 8 material:
Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/45079849
Treat Your Recreations Like A Real Film Production
The further back in history and farther away from public figures you go, the more gaps in the archival you have. Don’t break the bank on recreations, but do think long and hard about the kind of look you want, and how to execute it. Jeff Tremaine had this to say to NFS about recreating Nick Piantanida’s 1966 skydiving attempts in Angry Sky:
We had to decide, what do we want those recreations to look like? Do we want them to live? At first I was like, "We could sort of stand out and say reenactment or something, just to let the audience know," but a lot of time that knocks you out of the movie a little bit, I think. Our goal then became, "All right, let's just make them blend in with this archival real footage." We shot them and we really distressed it, making it look terrible...For the capsule that [Piantanida] was in, it was so rudimentary that even on our shoestring budget, we recreated that capsule pretty easily…We have four different angles of him in the capsule...Two GoPro angles and then a 5D. We treated it like a real film. We shot the capsule stuff on a green screen. And then for the background, but we hired a scientist out of Michigan who had been sending weather balloons with a Go-Pro on them up into space. We found some great footage that matched his point of view. That was our background for the green screen. We licensed that footage from them. It just worked out perfectly.
Matt Wolf describes the great lengths he went to create 16mm recreations in Teenage to feel like archives:
I was inspired by the footage I actually found, in terms of creating the look of those recreations. It's something I've done in other films, which is to create my own archival-looking footage. We went through a lot of work to make our footage look that way, because we didn't want to use digital techniques -- I think that's what often makes reenactments look fake. We shot on a hand-cranked 16mm Bolex camera with uncoated C mount lenses and then we struck bleach bypass prints which is like a chemical process almost like VHS dubbing. My cinematographer, Nick Bentgen, hand degraded all of the prints. He dragged them on the floor, put them through coffee filters, threw bleach on the prints. That's why it looks the way it looks… We shot on a lot of reversal. My DP did a lot of research on film stocks. He did a lot of testing. We were inspired by the 1980's Woody Allen film, Zelig. He used newsreels from the 1920s mixed with original material that Woody Allen shot that looked like newsreels. And we did research going back through American Cinematographer to find out the technique that the cinematographer on that film, Gordon Willis, used to achieve that look. And we knew that they did it before there were digital effects, so that kind of inspired us.
Watch Matt giving us a before-and-after look at the degraded footage:
Don’t Pay For Footage That Falls Under Fair Use
There are specific criteria that allow for you to use footage, rights-holders be damned, without paying a dime – it’s called Fair Use! It’s your right, and possibly your duty, as a documentary filmmaker, to take up what should be yours to use in the name of cultural dialogue. Filmmaker Brian Frye explains the process used on Our Nixon in regards to Fair Use:
The vast majority of the news footage and other archival is not in the public domain and we relied primarily on Fair Use claims. And really, it’s because we’re using material that’s talking about political issues. It’s commentary on the politics of the day. We’re using relatively small clips, and we’re using them in a way that comments on the historical record and on how history was written at the time. Those are sort of the core areas that are protected by Fair Use. People are becoming more comfortable with the idea that they don’t have to necessarily license everything that’s archival, that there are first amendment protections to use archival material if its done in a way that justifies fair use. I recommend looking at Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi's book Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright which I think provides a really good explanation and provides rubrics that non lawyers can use to understand what Fair Use is. That said, if you're doing a project that you intend to have some type of commercial release, I strongly recommend consulting with a lawyer.
Even narrative films can often have difficulty navigating fair use claims, as post-production supervisor Laura Yates explained about the clearances, and sometimes rotoscoping, needed in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood:
This film had been done in pieces. Fair use rights lawyers told us what we could clear. Once you contact somebody, can’t use fair use anymore. So I had to follow up on 12 years of paperwork to see who had been contacted. For example, some sports teams in the film had been contacted to use their logos and had originally said they would be willing to let them be used. But when they came back after 12 years for the contract, the sports teams said no. At that point, the film had already sent to DCP.
If you have tips you’ve learned from using archival material or recreations in a film, please share in the comments below. And if you’re embarking on a film with archival material, good luck to you!