Let’s talk stock footage.

I work in documentary TV and film, therefore I see and use stock footage. On the latest two TV series I am cutting, they are pretty much ONLY stock footage. Very little original footage is shot for them, other than interviews and some b-roll of locations or objects.  Everything else is sourced (a term meaning “obtained from”) stock footage libraries, or past TV shows the network has produced.

So I’m familiar with using stock footage, and issues pertaining to them, such as the “rights” to that footage…meaning how it is licensed. Some you can license for one time use, some for festivals only, some for domestic TV, for a set number of years, but mostly the networks I work for want it for domestic and international, in perpetuity (basically forever).  And the images you use must be clearable…meaning that you have the rights to show the footage, and possibly the people or things in that footage…everything in the shot.

This is where a big issue arises. Let me give you a few examples:

1) A feature documentary I onlined had a section that talked about the subject’s childhood. What era they were raised in, what part of the country, that sort of thing.  Well, at the time they didn’t have a movie camera (super 8 was the camera of choice when they were growing up) so they didn’t have footage of their life. Thus we needed to rely on stock footage.  So they searched a few companies for what they needed, found some great Super 8 from the area and era they grew up in, and downloaded it.  All was grand, until we had a shot pan across a 1960’s era living room, and there, on the TV, was THE FLINTSONES.  This presented a big problem. Sure, you licensed the rights of the film from the person who shot it, but what is playing on the TV…they don’t have the rights to that. For that, we’d need to contact CBS (the network THE FLINTSTONES aired on) and pay a separate fee for.

You know how sometimes in the credits they show at the end of movies and TV shows, “TV SHOW X FOOTAGE COURTESY OF” and then list the network?  No? I guess I’m one of the few that notices that. Anyway, that is because they got permission, and paid for that permission, from the network, and then needed to credit them. So if we wanted to use THE FLINTSTONES, we’d need to pay CBS, and I ‘m sure it is no small fee, and we couldn’t afford that…so…I blurred the TV.  Simple solution.

2) I’m working on a TV doc about presidential assassins, and of course the assassination of JFK is featured.  Now, the most famous bit of film from that incident is called The Zapruder Film. That’s the iconic super 8 color film shot by Abraham Zapruder that we’ve all seen, and that was featured in Oliver Stone’s JFK.  Now, I have worked on a Kennedy assassination doc before this, and I know that that particular film is very expensive to license. So much so that on the Kennedy doc, we used every single angle of the assassination BUT the Zapruder film.

So, here I am on this TV doc and working on a section about Kennedy, when what should I see, from the same stock footage company as in example 1…but the Zapruder film. Now, this company is known for selling the stock footage they have for cheap…cheaper than the competition. So here was this iconic footage, not full frame, but in the center of the picture, about  50% the size of the full frame, surrounded by all sorts of sprocket holes and clutter and stuff to stylize the image. Well, not matter how much lipstick you put on it, it’s still the Zapruder film.  You still need to pay the Zapruder family that huge fee in order to use this footage on a TV show.  Sure, you could BUY that footage clean, but LICENSING it…that was the problem.

3) Example three comes from the same stock footage company in example 1 and 2.  I’m beginning to see why they are cheap…they must not be staffed with enough people to catch these issues.  Today I needed to use footage of how crystals are used in current, leading edge technologies.  So I used a shot of someone using an iPad.  Simple enough, right? Nope…in that shot the first thing they access is SAFARI, and then the main GOOGLE splash page shows up. Sorry, but if you want to use the GOOGLE page, you gotta pay a license fee.  So I look later in the clip and what do they look up? iPAD! So the next shot is the Apple page for the iPad.  Another image we’d need to license.

Dude, what’s up with that?  Sell a stock shot that you cannot clear? Someone’s not paying attention.

We did find a better example…someone using the iPad to look at schematics and then a spreadsheet (not Excel), so generic that it worked.  That shot was sourced from a different company.

The other issue I have with this same stock footage company is so different I can’t call it #4, it’s not about licensing.  No, this is about COMPLETENESS….if that is a word. If not, I hereby coin it.  Nope, it isn’t underlining in red, it must be a real word.  This issue is that a LOT of the footage this one company has, say of a crowd cheering, or a car racing down the street, or a forest scenic shot…does NOT have any audio on it.  So this crowd is cheering, looking very loud, but are in fact, very quiet.  The trees in the scenic move in the breeze, but there is no audio for that breeze, for the wind whipping through the trees. There is no traffic noise as the car drives down through Hollywood. That’s bad. That means that I now need to pay for sound effects, or look in my grab bag of sound effects I already own to see if I can build the audio to fit picture.

This could easily have been avoided if they just included the audio in the image. You KNOW they recorded it.  And audio is very important. If you see an image of people screaming and cheering a football team, but don’t hear it…even if it is happening under narration or an interview…if you don’t hear it somewhat, it’ll throw you. It’ll take you out of the moment where you are engrossed in the story, and have you wondering why that shot is odd. Why are you distracted by it? Your body might guess it and figure out that its the audio. Or it might not and just send a “something is wrong with this” signal. Audio is important.

Want to know another issue with stock footage? This issue has nothing to do with the company seen in the top 4 examples. NO! This is a website that is known the world over, and is an issue that plagues independent docs, and some TV ones.

YouTube.

I cannot say how many times I’ve worked on a doc, or show pitch, and have been asked to source YouTube videos. People seem to think they are free…public domain. People put this footage up for all to see, therefore we can get it to use in a doc.  Well, no, you can’t. You still need to license the footage from the owner.  Even if it is for a single event with a small audience.

This brings up a great example of FREE footage.  Footage that you can ask for, and use…for free! And it all comes from our government.  NASA footage…all free to use. Now, they might have low res versions on the web, but if you call and ask, they will provide you full quality clips.  Why?  it’s YOURS! You pay taxes, your taxes pay for NASA…therefore it is yours to use.

Same goes for the Library of Congress. Any images or docs contained within, that they own (they store some items/footage that they don’t own, but are safeguarding for the owner, because they are important), is also free. We …the citizens of the United States…own it (remember those taxes again!), so it’s free for us to use those images on TV.

OK, back to editing, and searching through bins and bins of stock footage.