Fast footage

When it comes to producing a fast turnaround doc, finding the right footage to drive the story, and the right footage house to deliver the goods is essential. Here, realscreen gets the word from various stock houses and researchers about how to get the right clips in a hurry.
May 25, 2011

It’s been a busy news year, with political uprisings in Egypt and Libya, devastating extreme weather in Japan and the southern U.S., and the death of the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden. With broadcasters quick to commission production companies to turn around documentaries on the big news events, stock footage houses are absolutely essential to the process.

Alwyn Lindsey, director of international archives at Associated Press (AP), says that as a global news organization, AP is approached constantly by fast turnaround documentary producers. “The first thing for us in terms of servicing quick turnaround documentaries is that we very much tick the box of having the content very quickly, because we have to for our news operation,” he says.

BBC’s ‘Horizon’ and Pioneer Productions both approached AP the day the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, says Lindsey – Pioneer for its Channel 4/NOVA special Japan’s Killer Quake and ‘Horizon’ for BBC2′s Japan Earthquake: A Horizon Special with Iain Stewart. In the case of BBC ‘Horizon,’ its programs normally have eight-week production cycles, but the Japan doc had a two-week turnaround.

To help those clients, AP had to immediately post material on its website while, simultaneously, researchers gave customers online folders with their findings. As more footage came in, AP would update its clients on an ongoing basis, delivering material via FTP.

The whole process relies on up-to-date technology and the speed it affords. Usually, for productions with more time, the delivery of the master footage would be on broadcast quality tapes or files on discs.

“If it was an eight-week production cycle, the production company would send in their researchers who would sit in our offices and quite happily spend hours viewing material on site, so we could give them piles of tapes and they would’ve taken their time. They probably would’ve gone to different sources to compare and contrast,” says Lindsey.

When approached by a producer of a quick turnaround, Lindsey says he knows AP’s reputation is at stake. “What’s top of mind is ensuring that we don’t let anyone down and we do what we can to make sure that they can work to their own timeframes. Beyond anything else, it’s remembered. The customer will come back to you next time,” he says. “If there’s one thing to be sure of, there’ll be big news events in the future where people need to respond to them very quickly and we’d like to be the place that people come to.”

On the independent side, Global Imageworks’ president Jessica Berman-Bogdan says that quick turnaround producers can approach the stock footage house to supplement and give a deeper perspective to their docs. “We welcome these short turnarounds, as long as there’s a really clear focus, a budget and they know what they want,” she says.

As for that budget, Lindsey says that at AP there generally isn’t a price difference between quick turnaround material and footage than for a doc on a regular production cycle. “The license fee is the license fee,” he says. “We certainly wouldn’t look to exploit the fact that a customer may be more desperate than they would be when they had an eight-week turnaround.”

While Berman-Bogdan agrees with Lindsey on that matter, she adds that there might be some additional fees on the technical side, with delivery and potential rush charges, depending on whether a development lab needs to be brought into the mix.

The type of quick turnaround could also determine whether a producer is paying more on licensing or not. “There’s a really big difference from doing a quick turnaround on a weather event or protest than there is a celebrity, with all the third party clearances,” Berman-Bogdan says.

With a doc focusing on a celebrity, there are loopholes between the studio, talent and music clearances which all need to be considered.

London-based Zig Zag Productions knows a thing or two about these clearances, with titles on Russell Brand, Madonna and Guy Ritchie, and David Beckham in its catalog. Zig Zag’s archive producer Denis Karam, who credits ITN, BBC, Photolibrary, Associated Press and Getty as some of its partners, says that budgets for fast turnaround docs vary from project to project.

“It depends if you’re [including] a couple of movies, a particular event, and it could be anything depending on who you’re [profiling],” he says.

Karam says that programs such as the Russell Brand/Katy Perry doc, Russell & Katy Getting Married, have been produced in five days, while others on Simon Cowell and Madonna were produced in a few weeks. In these instances, relationships with the libraries and footage houses are essential to get the up-to-date and unique footage necessary.

Darlow Smithson Productions’ Megaquake: Hour That Shook Japan for Discovery Channel had four weeks, a luxury compared to the Brand/Perry special. The London-based prodco deftly pulled together the story of the first hour after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan with stock from the BBC and Associated Press, as well as Japan’s NHK, Fuji and NTV.

Of the doc’s approximately 20 minutes of archive, at least 12 minutes of that are user-generated content, from YouTube and other sources.

DSP’s head of archive, Paul Gardner, hired a researcher specifically versed in the challenges that occur in working with YouTube, archive researcher Paul Bell. “[Bell] had quite a bit of experience working with YouTube and finding the original uploader, which is half the problem with YouTube as you can imagine, because it gets passed around straight away,” Gardner says. “[YouTube] is a double-edged sword in that it can offer great things, but at the end of the day we have to supply a film that is fully cleared and not all YouTube uploaders reply [to our requests] or go back to their aliases.”

“YouTube is where most of the best footage is, to be honest,” adds Bell. “People are uploading new stuff all the time. The biggest challenge is actually finding the original uploader of the footage. As soon as it goes on [the site], other people start copying it and it’s kind of human nature that people say it’s their footage when it’s really not. Other than that, it’s old fashioned research.”

Typically the YouTube videos are more personal than what the news agencies are looking for, but the Discovery doc was looking for the personal stories. Gardner says one of the YouTube uploaders even wound up as an interviewee in the film.

While DSP assigned its own researcher to track down the original uploaders, the footage houses realscreen talked to say they’re cautious to use that sort of tactic.

AP’s Lindsey says he can understand producers using YouTube as a source, especially with recent events like the political unrest in Libya being documented on YouTube.

“Absolutely it’s a resource to be used in that way,” he says. “It does, obviously, pose a serious risk because you have to be very confident that what you’re using actually belongs to the person who put it up there in the first place and we know that a huge amount of content isn’t there legitimately.

“Producers who assume that [it's] an amateur video could find that they’ve used something that very much belongs to another company and have a serious copyright issue,” he continues. “People should use it, yes, but be very careful, get good advice and take a professional researcher who can help navigate through ownership and rights issues.”

Berman-Bogdan, meanwhile, is decidedly less supportive of producers using YouTube. “One thing that is really important for people who are doing quick turnarounds [is] to not research on YouTube or be dependent on what they find on YouTube,” she warns. “It’s a shortcut that will cost both time and money. Often this footage is not easily located or can lead you down paths that lead nowhere. You have to be very careful. That’s for a deeper research job when time might be a luxury.”

While YouTube usage will no doubt be a debate for years to come, Lindsey offered some simple advice for fast-turnaround doc producers in the end: Have some faith and be confident.

“To a large extent, they [the producers] are in our hands,” he summarizes. “It goes beyond the traditional supplier/buyer relationship and reputations are at stake. If a producer can’t deliver because they’ve been let down by a supplier, that can be catastrophic.”

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.