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Advice for sourcing stock for docs

Filmmaking can be both an art form and an exact science. For doc-makers and non-fiction program creators, it is often impossible to shoot pristine footage of elephants herding across a savannah, or capture a historic moment or figure in time on film due to budgetary reasons. For these types of clips, creatives commonly turn to footage licensing companies.
December 1, 2007

Filmmaking can be both an art form and an exact science. For doc-makers and non-fiction program creators, it is often impossible to shoot pristine footage of elephants herding across a savannah, or capture a historic moment or figure in time on film due to budgetary reasons. For these types of clips, creatives commonly turn to footage licensing companies.

There are a lot of variables when it comes to footage licensing. It is, of course, always best to know exactly which distribution outlets your media is destined for upfront. Negotiating bulk package rates for licensed footage use in feature films, TV shows, advertisements, DVDs, museum exhibits, digital signage, movie trailers, tech demos, promotional materials, international usage, online and mobile will surely save a project time and money in the long run. However, creators of non-fiction programming typically work with smaller budgets and undefined distribution while their projects are in development. For these folks, it is imperative to keep close track of all footage vendors as independents typically will only license clips for film festival rights, and then upgrade to all rights when the film gets picked up.

One of the most important things to remember when sourcing licensable footage is to keep everything well organized. Keep records of which vendors you sourced which clips from, name your files in an easily searchable fashion, and be sure to keep rights information, source information and clearances all in one place (i.e. a database or spreadsheet). Also, take note of the barcode numbers on screening tapes and DVDs for future reference. Program developers and filmmakers will often use more than one footage resource and need to be able to keep track of which clips they sourced from where – especially for aftermarket licensing needs down the line.

If your program is on a budget, also think about the type of footage you’re going to license. Do you have to license a more expensive clip from a highly produced program – or is there a clip of equivalent relevance available via a much more cost effective news story or royalty free clip?

Digital formats are also an important consideration. Film transfers for older 16mm footage can be costly if the clip is being dug out from an archive for first-time use. If you need to up-convert material to HD or down-convert from 35mm there are often technical fees involved in the mastering from different formats and libraries.

If you can, do as much upfront research yourself. Be resourceful and seek out what’s available to fit your shot needs. Most footage licensing resources have very robust websites that showcase nice samplings of their collections. In addition to our online library, BBC Motion Gallery also provides a service called infax – it’s a text-based database that allows 24-hour access to searches of over 70 years of material from the CBS News Archive and the BBC. Once you’re ready to go ahead and license clips – particularly if it’s something you plan to do on an ongoing basis – create a relationship with your researcher or account executive. These individuals can be a great resource and can truly help you find that perfect shot.

Copyright issues and permissions can be a slippery slope to navigate, and are another thing to keep in mind. Understand that you might need to obtain third-party clearances for clips if they feature talent or copyrighted material. Clear as many rights as you can afford to as early as possible into a production, because more often than not, major distributors will not pick up a film or project unless it’s fully cleared. On that note, be mindful of minimum licensing rates – many footage houses will invest a lot of time and energy into helping you source an ideal shot. While this is usually not the case for royalty free stock footage, rights-managed clips often do have minimum rates for licensing, either on a per-second, per-minute or per-clip basis.

Also, bear in mind that old footage originating on film or tape will look like old film no matter how much of a restoration effort goes into cleaning it up. Understand this going into the research process, and also be prepared with a clear idea of exactly what formats you’ll need to suit your project to make sure that the shot you fall in love with is available in the format that you need it in.

One of the greatest benefits of working with licensed footage – in particular from vendors such as BBC Motion Gallery – is that you are not only licensing a clip you need to complete your story, but along with that clip comes a phenomenal value-add of background work, research assistants, fact checkers and all of the benefits of a BBC or CBS news production.

Finally, before you allocate a big chunk of your budget to send crews halfway around the world for shots – think about the option of tapping into existing or licensable footage as a valuable resource for saving time and money.

About The Author
Selina Chignall joins the realscreen team as a staff writer. Prior to working with rs, she covered lobbying activity at Hill Times Publishing. She also spent a year covering the Hill as a journalist with iPolitics. Her beat focused on youth, education, democratic reform, innovation and infrastructure. She holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University and a Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.

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