Research in the Digital Age

The footage industry is on a path toward radical change as it integrates new technologies into its operations. Some archives are spending vast sums of money transferring filmed materials to digital formats and developing searchable online catalogs with low-resolution clips for...
June 1, 2000

The footage industry is on a path toward radical change as it integrates new technologies into its operations. Some archives are spending vast sums of money transferring filmed materials to digital formats and developing searchable online catalogs with low-resolution clips for preview on their websites.

It is undeniable that these developments have already had positive effects on the documentary production industry – making the process of locating some images easier and faster – and thereby cheaper than before. This is good news for producers who work on tight deadlines and even tighter budgets. It has also made life easier for archive houses, who can now provide clients from around the world the information they need, without ever having to answer the phone. Digitization has also eliminated the need for on-site warehouses by doing away with bulky film reels. Digital elements, by contrast, can be as compact as an audio cassette tape, or a DVD, and are much easier to transfer for preview tapes and masters.

The question remains, how are these changes affecting the job of the researcher, whose role traditionally conjures up the image of a sleuth, combing through obscure vaults to find that perfect piece of film? Will they too enjoy the promised spoils of the Internet and digitization, doing in-depth research from the comfort of their homes?

The answer is, yes… and no.

‘I guess the first level on which [new technology] impacts what I do, is in terms of methodology,’ says researcher Lewanne Jones of Brooklyn, U.S.-based Autonomedia. She admits that a large percentage of her work can be done off-site now that archives have their catalogs online. ‘I guess overall this makes things easier because you can do so much without having to move around or make as many telephone calls. On the other hand, those other things are often still necessary, which I think means that a lot of people who are less experienced – younger producers, people who are looking more at the budget line – end up thinking that everything can just be done by a few double clicks, and they don’t [allocate] adequate research time or money.’ She adds, ‘Just from experience you know that real research – and not just finding some pictures – is a very time-consuming process.’

Jones says, while finding ‘pictures’ can be easy on the Internet, looking for more specific things can be much more difficult. Part of the problem is the amount of footage that can be tracked down on the Net is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount available on the market. Many archives don’t even have a website, and those that do may only have a portion of their holdings online. Says Jones, ‘A lot of people believe that when an archive says that they’ve got their collection online, you’ll be able to get anything or everything, but I think that if you’re involved in an in-depth research project that involves looking to a lot of different places . . . the material is not available in an easy way at all. Not online and not even in a database.’

This problem is beginning to factor in more significantly since archives have begun to digitize portions of their collections and put clips online for previewing. An even smaller percentage of holdings are digitized and can be viewed on the Web. According to Holmdel, U.S.-based researcher Andrew Noren this will likely not change.

‘In theory, digitization is a great idea,’ he says, ‘except the only way it’s really going to work is if an archive’s whole inventory is up there – and that’s just not going to happen. It’s too expensive and unwieldy to do and from the viewpoint of archive owners, they’re interested in putting stuff up there that they know is going to move. Those images tend to get preferential treatment.’

Noren, who spent 26 years at the Grinberg Archive before starting his own company, The Research Source, in 1998, knows first-hand the considerations made before digitizing. He explains that archives like Grinberg (which he says holds approximately 13 million feet of nitrate film), ‘have to make practical decisions, and everybody knows that things like the Great Depression and Charles Lindburgh are going to sell.’

But from a researcher’s or producer’s perspective, that kind of ‘preferential treatment’ means that less spectacle-oriented films, depicting such things as daily life, can be forgotten. ‘It’s almost inevitable that would happen,’ says Noren. ‘It’s like how the human memory works. We tend to remember things that we like and forget the other things that ever happened.’

This is the value of the researcher – to remember where things are – and some producers wouldn’t take on a project without hiring one. Steve York of Washington D.C.-based prodco York Zimmerman Inc., says his projects require too much detail to cut out the researcher. ‘I think you need a pair of eyes,’ he explains, ‘and they need to have a sense of history [and experience]. I would never send an intern. An intern, almost by definition a young person who’s lacking in experience in anything, let alone the things that I care about. There are two factors here. One is a sense of history and a general knowledge of history, and the other is a good eye. A good visual materials researcher has got to have some of the visual, emotional, intellectual instincts of a film editor. Otherwise they’re not going to get the right stuff.’ He adds, ‘You can find a lot of archives who have little snips of Gandhi doing various things, but if I want to be specific and I want to see Gandhi at a particular place and date, there are very few places in the world that have that. I can’t make a film in good conscience that has a shot of Gandhi in London in 1946, when the story I’m telling has him in Bombay in 1931. I’ve got to find a piece of film, or a shot of him, in the place that I’m talking about at that time or I’m being dishonest.’

But at a time when doc budgets seem to be taking a hit, York admits that his is not an inexpensive approach. York says researchers’ rates can range from US$200 to $400 a day, plus expenses. For A Force More Powerful, a 2 x 90 minute copro with PBS affiliate WETA (budgeted at us$3 million), he had researchers working in at least 15 countries. York says that when cuts to the budget must be made, research usually gets hit. ‘I do sometimes get involved in situations where I am bidding competitively for a project or negotiating a price, and they’ll say ‘We can’t do that. Take $100,000 off.’ The problem is where do I get that money? Research is one of the first places that when we sit down to bargain, people will insist that you shave from.’

But, according to Philip Nugus of London’s Nugus/ Martin Productions, budget is no excuse for using generic footage. ‘It’s totally attitudinal,’ he says. ‘I know people who spend a fortune buying off the shelf images you see every day. That doesn’t take any skill, it’s just someone sitting in an office somewhere not caring about it, doing programs by the yard . . . Some people just take the easy option – they send junior researchers in and ask for so many seconds of this battle and get the same footage every time.’

Known for using a high percentage of never-before seen footage, Nugus explains that this is one of the keys to his company’s success and contributes to the evergreen quality of its programs. Using little else but common images, he says, will ultimately spell the end for some production companies. ‘It won’t work in the market,’ he says, ‘because the buyers, and the broadcasters will wise to the fact that here comes more of the same. I’ve seen all this before – ‘Why do I seem to see the same pictures of Hitler’s bunker every time?’ Because the program-maker has been lazy. He couldn’t care less, he’s just getting footage off his internet site. Anyone can do that . . . The skill is knowing a certain element to that story, getting inside the story and finding footage that no one else has found.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.