While channel surfing recently, I had the good fortune to stumble across ten minutes of a Nugus/Martin production called Destroying Hitler’s Oil. It’s a film about the 1943 Allied raid on Ploesti, an oil facility which was run by the Nazis in Romania. Although I only managed a short glimpse, I couldn’t help but be struck by some of the remarkable footage, most of which I had never seen before.
In one sequence, which could have only come from the U.S. Airforce itself, squadrons of B-24 Liberators – massive four-engine bombers – slip past farmers fields so low to the ground they could be barnstorming. In another, a Liberator takes an anti-aircraft shell to the base of the wing. The camera holds on the stricken craft momentarily, the wing neatly folds back against the fuselage, and the plane drops from the frame – and the sky – carrying 10 or 11 men (Liberators sometimes flew with an extra man) to their deaths. When you take a hit like that, there’s no time to scramble with parachutes.
Watching that sequence, I was again struck by the power of the moving image. Those five seconds contained a lifetime of stories. Who were the men in those planes? How did they come to be at that place at that time? What chaos was being unleashed on the ground below them? Imagine the possibilities those two short clips contained.
This issue, we briefly consider the possibilities for stock footage research in the digital age. Outlets and strands are increasing, but programming budgets are on a downward slide, and one of the easiest places to cut corners is with the hundreds of dollars a day assigned to footage research. The Internet offers a partial solution, but it’s a Faustian formula.
Producers have remarkable access to footage available online, but industry experts peg what’s available there as only a minute fraction of what’s actually out there. Every archive holds a wealth of material that will never see the light of day on the Net because of the small likelihood of it returning a profit.
But, because our societal memory has become increasingly dependant on visual images, by repeatedly turning to that small pool of sources we’ll run the risk of either a) boring ourselves with our own history (and thereby diminishing interest in it), or b) forgetting about events completely if they don’t have immediate financial viability. It’s a thought which is occasionally re-enforced when I find myself flipping channels to see the same footage repeated in different films.
You have to applaud the efforts of producers who find the resources to try to tell the story more completely. Without that effort, we may soon find that we have no room in our mythology for people like those ten men who had their Liberator shot out from beneath them.
And that would be a tragedy.