The U.S. National Archives, maintained by the U.S. government and featuring a wealth of historical materials accessible to any American citizen, is a treasure trove of amazing footage for producers. It also requires the patience of Job to wade through.
Thus, it’s no surprise that the arrival of CriticalPast.com, a new online archive portal that offers 57,000 royalty-free clips and a whopping 7,000,000 still photos collected from U.S. government agency sources, has been met with great interest from producers within the U.S. and internationally.
Jim Erickson, a former partner of Stock Footage Clips and owner and operator of Erickson Archival Telecine, formed the site with brother Andy, an information technology specialist who’d previously launched projects at AOL, in order to ease the process that has historically bogged down the retrieving of U.S. government unclassified clips. “If you’re not familiar with the holdings you can walk away disappointed,” says Jim Erickson. “The U.S. government shoots everything and anything but a lot of times it’s really not useable in any production. So what we have here is a distillation of the best – the stuff that is useable.”
All motion clips available through the site have come through what’s known as the “vendor lab system,” in which clips requested for reproduction are processed by a select group of vendors approved by the National Archives. Everything is in SD and can be up-converted on the fly to HD. Jim Erickson compares the up-conversion process to that of the Teranex HD up-converter, which performs the operation on a pixel-by-pixel basis.
Andy Erickson says the bulk of pro sales for the six-month old site are up-converted HD clips. Pricing is arranged in two tiers for SD and HD and depending on duration: there are clips on the site as short as two seconds, and as long as 43 minutes.
The material spans from 1890 to 1990, with the highest number of clips stemming from the 1940s. Whereas in the past producers would have to slog through 15-minute reels of material to find the 30-second nugget needed, the Critical Past team sifted through reels upon reels from the Archives, selecting clips and arranging them thematically.
“Each clip holds together and tells its own story, but it gives the professional the opportunity to get a much smaller unit of footage,” says Andy Erickson. “Now that 30 seconds is embedded in something two or three minutes long, able to be obtained at a much better price than if you were to go through the vendor lab system.”