Stock footage: Custodians of the world’s visual history

In a digital world, the archive footage industry’s role becomes far more complex than that of just a ubiquitous facilitator of iconic, rare, specific or generic visual material. Hernan Alcerreca reports.

From neil armstrong’s iconic lunar speech to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, or Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations and Australian cricket legend Sir Donald Bradman’s batting technique, the archive footage industry has functioned not only as a one-stop-shop for different types of productions, but also as the foremost keeper and protector of the world’s visual heritage. “We have a moral and social responsibility to assure that our footage material is properly used, stored and looked after,” assertively declares BBC Worldwide Australia’s sales director and acting general manager Julie Dowding.

According to Cyrus Irani, ABC Commercial’s manager, library sales and non-theatric sales, the industry’s greatest challenges are trying to keep up with all the constant changes, and creating a tapeless environment.

“We recently finished the first stage of our archive digitalisation process. Overall, the ABC has one of the biggest collections of broadcast quality digitised material in Australia –about 35,000 hours of television material and 30,000 hours of audio. Thanks to our Material Archive System (MAS), we now have access to all this material as low-resolution files on our desktops, and as ready-to-download, broadcast quality files in our facilities area. This is a fantastic development –in the past we had to rely on text-based descriptions of our archive footage, but there’s nothing quite like being able to look at it. The second stage of our conversion project will proceed this year with roughly the same  volume of analogue to digital conversions.”

“There will always be material on tapes,” says Kevin Schaff, CEO of Thought Equity Motion. “We have over five million hours of material on our collection so it will take years to digitally master all of it. We’re focusing on digitally mastering and storing in 2K our most popular content.”

“Marketing is also one of the main challenges,” continues Dowding. “You have to invest money in order to get your name out there and make sure people know about the services you offer and the clients you represent. The client base of the archive footage industry is extremely broad – film and TV production, advertising, corporate videos, etc.”


Websites are no longer a passive marketing tool; they are an ever-increasing source of new business that, if exploited properly, could eventually become a company’s main source of income. In the archive footage industry, an online presence not only helps to fulfil commercial expectations, but also functions as a potential source of inspiration. BBC Worldwide’s Motion Gallery (www.bbcmotiongallery.com) adds more than 200 hours of footage each week from its catalogue and that of its global partners (ABC, CBS, NHK, CCTV, among others) to its 60,000 royalty-free and rights-managed clips database. The categories range from “Animals” and “Transport” to “Visual Effects” and “News Events”. The site also features an “Inspiration” section where clients can search for their elusive muse by means of keywords that relate to concepts rather than subjects – “Sadness”, “Desire”, “Loss”, “Mind Over Matter”, etc.

“These keywords could potentially help our clients to find something in our archives that inspires them or fits the mood of their project.” Nonetheless, when stuck for ideas, Dowding admits that most clients still prefer talking to their team of researchers, who have access to more than 2.5 million hours of content offline.

“When our clients are trying to find creative ideas for their projects, they prefer to talk to someone that knows the archive,” she says. “You also have to take into consideration the time factor: small productions usually have enough time to browse for content, but bigger productions prefer to save time and approach the research team.”

“Several people like going to a website and spending some time browsing for material, but most people prefer to have someone to do it for them,” Irani continues. That is why ABC Commercial made the decision years ago that rather than trying to build a big and expensive budget they couldn’t really afford, in order to compete with BBCMotion Gallery and other services, it would be wiser to make a commitment with them and allow them to sell some of their content on their behalf.

“People wanting fairly standard shots, aerials of Sydney for example, would probably be better off searching in the website. “People that need complex and unusual footage or copyrighted performances would have approached the ABC Commercial research team. When uploading material to a website you have to make sure that the rights are cleared and that it’s on demand. We have a lot of Australian Cricket, Rugby Union and other types of material that we couldn’t include in a public-access website and make available to everyone because of underlying rights – you would need permission to use it. For example, using stock footage of Cathy Freeman for a commercial could be a way of cheating her out of an income she might’ve received from sponsoring the product. We have a responsibility on how we use the footage of the people that trust us to shoot it.”

Thought Equity Motion’s Schaff, on the other hand, believes that many film and documentary makers find it frustrating to spend too much time and energy doing online research, or putting a research request in and then wait for weeks – sometimes even months -for a research team to find suitable material for their project. Thought Equity Motion recently launched the oneand- a-half-years-in-the-making “Research Store”, a search tool that helps clients to find archive footage by means of the words spoken in the actual material. The systems uses Deep Search Technology, which makes the browsing process fast and accurate by combining robust metadata with a technology that recognises words in 22 different languages (phonetic indexing). According to Schaff, this technology shortens the production process significantly.

“In the early beta phase we discovered that people not only found the content they needed for their project, but a much bigger breadth of material to create a better story than what they originally hoped for.”


In March 2008 the Australian government established the Digital Switch-over Taskforce (DST), which will coordinate Australia’s transition to digital broadcasting. The current deadline for the final analogue switch-off is December 31, 2013, although the process will start in Victoria in 2010.

But if digital broadcasting is now a reality, demand for High Definition footage material has yet to increase. “There is demand for HD material, but not a lot,” Irani says. “The majority of our clients are documentary makers, and still most documentaries are not shot in HD. At some stage everything will be shot on HD, but it’s still early for that. There are also budget limitations to shooting in HD: if you’re not a top-end project, with a big budget behind you, it’s probably not worth shooting in this format yet.”

“We have a fair bit of demand for HD material, predominately natural history footage – most of what we produce in this area is originally shot in HD,” continues Dowding. “Nonetheless, the demand for HD material hasn’t increased dramatically in the last two years… It will increase in the future, though (by 2012 the BBC will have to transmit all of its content in HD). Clients also have the choice to up-convert material in order to meet their HD requirements.”


With a big pool of clients that ranges from natural history documentaries to corporate videos and advertising, the archive footage industry has a very wide spectrum from which to determine what material will be relevant to its clients. “Most of our material is incidental; part of our normal production slate,” Irani says. “We rarely go out and shoot something specific ourselves. What we do is to actively seek for collections to represent. We recently acquired the rights to the natural history footage collection from independent cinematographer and producer David Warth.”

Dowding explains that some footage becomes iconic and in-demand almost as soon as the camera captures it – mostly global historic events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers.

In an internet-driven age, she acknowledges the importance of social networking sites in helping to determine what kind of footage will be popular. “At the moment, videos featured in sites like YouTube can help to create demand for specific footage material,” she admits. “Some of the footage you can find in YouTube is old and has been available for many years, but it suddenly becomes popular because people develop an emotional connection to it.” Dowding cites as examples “Christian the Lion”, a You-Tube edited version of 1971’s documentary Christian, The Lion at World’s End that thousand of people have emailed each other just like one of those ‘inspirational’ PowerPoint presentations; and a BBC iPLayer trailer created for April Fool’s day where filmmaker Terry Jones (Monty Python) discovers a colony of penguins… flying penguins, that is!

Just as social networking sites can create demand for archive footage, they also represent a never-ending battle for copyrights and royalties. “YouTube can be an ally or an enemy,” Dowding says. “We have a team in the UK who are constantly working on getting illegal material off networking sites, but it’s really hard to keep on top of all of them. That’s why we decided to make a deal with YouTube and create an official BBC channel. If you can’t beat them, join them. We also created a channel for Top Gear, one of the most downloaded BBC programs. We though it was better to engage with audiences than with lawyers.”

Moreover, BBC Motion Gallery recently launched a dedicated “Entertainment” site that contains footage as old as the forties and includes content from the Hollywood Reporter and the Prince’s Trust, among other global partners.

But satisfying client’s requests not only refers to content availability. “We’ve tried to respond to the demand of corporate videos or student productions with the ‘Royalty Free’ section of our website,” says Dowding. “By allowing users to pay by credit card and download the material they require straight away, we also have responded to the immediacy of this day and age. In addition, since a lot of Web content is free and the idea of having to pay for it seems alien to many, we try to keep our material as cost-efficient as possible.”

There’s no doubt that the current economic climate has hurt production budgets. But will the global recession also benefit the archive footage industry?

“It could,” says Dowding. “Clearly it is more cost efficient to buy archive than to go out and shoot it yourself. Anyone with a small budget who wants to get the best value for their dollar should seek for archive footage –at least that’s what I’d be doing if I were a producer working in this economic climate. We haven’t seen a massive peak in sales yet, but I don’t think Australia is in recession at this stage… not yet.”

“At the moment the use of footage in commercials has decreased, probably because this sector is more sensitive. There will be an increase in the use of archive material in TV productions, but I haven’t seen it yet,” Irani concludes. 


“The archive footage industry will get more and more diverse,” replies Irani when asked to play clairvoyant for Encore. “There will be more conglomeration and more people will look online for material –but having said that, because of the multiple HD formats, finding footage for a project with the right specifications is becoming increasingly more complicated. Royalty free content will continue to satisfy a lot of people’s needs. A few years ago we looked into distributing royalty free content, but we found it to be a very saturated market; there wasn’t enough profit in there for us to pursue.” “There’s a distinct trend towards more archive footage demand for corporate training videos, for internal use,” continues Dowding when she takes her turn at the crystal ball. “I couldn’t say why, but it’s been going on for the last few months. I’m not sure if people will use the websites more… they seem to prefer talking to a real person. It’s also very hard to speculate about the advertising sector… it all depends on their budgets.”


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