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Ask any researcher and they'll have at least one tale about a misguided soul fumbling with footage research. 'A friend of mine who runs an archive told me a story about an intern working for a producer who didn't have a...
July 1, 2000

Ask any researcher and they’ll have at least one tale about a misguided soul fumbling with footage research. ‘A friend of mine who runs an archive told me a story about an intern working for a producer who didn’t have a clue,’ recounts researcher Kenn Rabin of San Anselmo, U.S.-based Fulcrum Media Services. ‘The intern asked the archivist if they had any footage of Columbus discovering America. He actually said to the guy, ‘We’d prefer something in black and white but if you only have color, that would be okay…”

While most research problems are not as hopeless as this, the story does illustrate a salient point; that not all footage desires can be fulfilled. Whether for availability reasons, time constraints or budgetary limitations, some requests are simply out of the question. But recognizing and assessing potential problems early in a production can rescue a project before it’s too late.

To help ensure success, some filmmakers employ the services of a professional researcher who takes care of the complicated process of obtaining footage. An experienced visual materials researcher can help identify and avoid potential problems early in the life of a production, provide alternatives and save filmmakers time, money and even legal headaches. Combined with their knowledge from years of getting to know collections, researchers can find the right footage more efficiently than might be possible for a producer on his or her own.

Finding the right researcher

The key to working successfully with a researcher may be as simple as finding the right one for the job. Rabin, who hails from the San Francisco Bay area, says filmmakers should begin by identifying where most of the footage needed for a film will likely be found and then try to find researchers in that area. ‘For example,’ he says, ‘I’m working on a film about Ralph Ellison [for PBS], who grew up in Oklahoma City . . . and then lived most of his life in Harlem. There are some specific localities there so we’re going to want someone to do some research in Oklahoma [and] we’re going to want someone who can do research in New York.’ He adds that it’s a good idea to contact archives in those areas to see if they can recommend researchers who live nearby. ‘This is particularly good for historical societies and libraries,’ he explains. ‘If [they] can’t provide research for you, they might work closely with local researchers.’ Not only does hiring locally avoid travel costs, locals will likely be more familiar with the collections in their area. Says Rabin, ‘Because the researchers who go to these archives all the time have ongoing relationships with the people who run them, there’s a certain amount of red tape that gets eliminated. They know the drill, they know how to request films to be pulled for screening, and they know how to sweet talk the guys who run the place. They get treated a little better.’

Another big consideration is the researcher’s experience. Karen Wyatt, a Washington, D.C.-area researcher who specializes in National Archive research, suggests interviewing a variety of candidates to find the right fit for a project. ‘Ask lots of questions about previous projects that researcher has worked on,’ she says. ‘Do the types of projects seem similar? Were they all advertising jobs and you’re looking for someone to do thorough research for a multi-part historical compilation documentary? Take the time to find out if you’re on the same wavelength.’

It is also important to note that researchers’ services vary considerably. Services range from those who simply locate footage, to full-service operations that handle all footage-related work. Says Giovanna Righini, senior account executive at New York’s Second Line Search, ‘We’re a completely full service research, licensing and clearance company . . . One of the beauties of a company like ours is it’s one-stop-shopping.’ Others offer highly unique services, like Rabin, who constructs computer database systems for managing projects that require large amounts of footage from multiple sources, such as long-running series.

There are a number of resources filmmakers can use to find information about researchers: The Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries (FOCAL), which has its membership listings available online; the Footage book (a.k.a. ‘the red book’) produced by Second Line Search; and web portals like provide everything from researchers’ contact information to brief resumes.

Researcher fees

Researchers interviewed for this article reported rates between US$200 to $400 per day – plus expenses – except Second Line Search who determines a flat fee at the beginning of a project for all archival-related costs. However, it is important to note they all offer scaled rates, depending on the length of a project. Explains Graham Shirley, a Sydney, Australia-area researcher, ‘For a day’s work, I would expect a minimum of AUS$350 (US$209) . . . Some requests can take months of research and negotiations to resolve, and the daily fee that I would charge for a long-term project is less than the daily fee I would charge for a day-or-so’s work. A weekly rate of AUS$1,100 to $1,200 (US$660 to $720) is considered reasonable in Australia.’

In some cases, researchers will scale rates depending on the nature of a project. Rabin explains that he does this because he doesn’t want to price himself out of the range of some independent documentary producers’ budgets. ‘I charge different rates depending on whether or not the client is a commercial client or an independent documentary filmmaker,’ he admits. ‘People who have less money to pay me often have more interesting projects.’

Scaled rates or not, it is definitely in a producer’s interest to be prepared from the outset of a project. Karen Wyatt advises filmmakers to provide a written treatment, script and/or shot list to the researcher. She also strongly suggests knowing the film’s subject matter inside and out before dispatching a researcher to find footage. ‘The better prepared a producer is, the better the researcher’s results will be,’ she says. ‘Do the content research to be sure that you have dates, names, places and events correct.’ Accuracy can prevent researchers from looking in the right places for the wrong things.

Wasting time can also be avoided by hiring a researcher with experience. According to Wyatt, hiring someone who is experienced and ‘charges a little more per day, may actually save you money in the long run than the less-trained, all-purpose production assistant who might not find that special nugget of film. The seasoned researcher will probably have seen or know about much of the material you are looking for . . . A good researcher will provide you with complete documentation of the materials – for content research purposes, and for licensing and royalty fee payments. This should help in your post-production phase . . . [An experienced] researcher will also know that many of the stock houses have similar footage and that many sell what is public domain footage. A good researcher will know who has the best copy, and who has the best price, or who can provide it quickly – or if it can be obtained license-free at the [U.S.] National Archives.’

Be Prepared

‘We spent a long time trying to access some footage of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, a small village in Spain,’ explains Giovanna Righini, recalling a past incident with a client. ‘I had warned him from the very beginning, ‘It’s going to take a long time for us to turn around masters. You need to be prepared. You need to let me know well in advance – at least a week – because I can’t turn a master around on a dime. All I have to say is ‘Pamplona, Spain,’ and you should understand what I’m talking about.’ Of course the client calls me less than 36 hours before the edit saying, ‘We need the master and we need it now.’ My head almost blew off my body. But we maintained composure, we set up what I refer to now as the ‘courier Olympics’ and we literally were in contact with every hand-off of this master. I hired a guy in Pamplona to hurtle down the country road with this master to Madrid, where it then was handed off.

It was a relay race from airport to airport. I was on the phone asking, ‘Has it touched down in London?’ ‘Yes, it’s in London.’ Then the hand-off happened, ‘Did it make it through customs in New York?’ ‘Yes, it’s there.’ We made it in 24 hours . . . My hair almost fell out.’

If anything, this anecdote demonstrates the need for preparation on the part of the producer. In this case, were it not for the tenacity of the researcher, this producer’s lack of foresight could have cost him his deadline. Instead, it just cost him a fortune.

Being prepared can include factoring in adequate funds for research as well as sufficient time. Under-budgeting for archival costs can create big problems for producers and is a sure way to drive a researcher crazy. Says Graham Shirley, ‘Hopefully the age of producers embarking on archive-based projects with the misapprehension that they are the cheap-and-easy way of making a film is rapidly passing. I’ve lost count of the number of producers I’ve worked for who have made only one compilation film. I’ve got the impression that the effort and expense has exceeded their expectations, forcing them next time to do something easier – like a feature film.’

Kenn Rabin says filmmakers would do well to hire a researcher as a consultant at the budgeting stage of a project so they can accurately factor in archival-related costs, which include researcher’s fees (plus expenses), duplication costs at archives and license fees. Says Rabin, ‘Many times a producer will be ready to hire me to do research and they’ll have made up numbers that are just so far afield that I’m in the position of having to give them the bad news that they hadn’t budgeted properly for the process. Then they sort of scratch their heads and think, ‘How am I going to do this?’ He adds, ‘Researchers have the experience to be able to say, ‘This is a very finite subject. I think you’re going to find it all in one or two archives. Why don’t you budget a week?’ Or, ‘This is all over the map, you should budget five weeks.’ Or, ‘A little of this is going to come from a lot of different archives. You’re going to hit lots of lab minimums.’

Securing rights

When the time comes to secure rights for footage, some producers choose to negotiate on their own behalf. However, many researchers are qualified and willing to negotiate rights for their clients. London-based researcher Maggi Cook says negotiating is her ‘key role’ in any project. ‘You have to remember that researchers deal with the same archives all the time and are in the perfect position to negotiate,’ she says. ‘Even if the film researcher isn’t a top copyright lawyer, they do know what underlying clearances may be involved [with a piece of footage] and who they should be cleared with.’

Walking into the negotiating process blindly can lead to myriad disasters. ‘In the worst cases, it can cause the program to be pulled or the production company to be sued for using copyright material without permission,’ says Cook. ‘Trying to clear material after it has been included means the source can ask whatever rate they want. [For example,] including that orchestra playing was a nice touch, but do you want to pay every musician a full fee? Even understanding the rates an archive expects can be confusing at times. It’s an expensive mistake if you thought the rate was per minute and not per second.’

Again, the researchers’ advice is: Be prepared. In some cases it’s just a matter of understanding that certain types of footage cost more than others. Says Righini, ‘A lot of times people just don’t realize what’s involved with certain kinds of footage and what needs to be dealt with in terms of licensing. There’s always something that didn’t occur to people but at the eleventh hour reared its ugly head – then you’ve got a panicked producer. Classic case would be, ‘I want 50 clips from feature films.’ And I have to be the bearer of bad tidings and say, ‘These are major clearances.”


What are the most important qualities to look for in a researcher?

Marie-Nicole Feret, Paris, France: ‘Curiosity. Adaptability to people and situations. Tenacity. Good general education. Fluent English. Other foreign languages.’

Maggi Cook, London, U.K.: ‘Obviously experience, but being able to creatively amplify the director’s ideas, think out of the box, communicate and a good sense of humor helps.’

Graham Shirley, Balgowlah, Australia: ‘To be able to think laterally and come up with additional and alternative suggestions.’

Evgueni Nagaitsev, Moscow, Russia: ‘Main qualities a researcher should possess for successful work in Russia: 1) Love for his trade; 2) Deep and versatile knowledge of Russian and world history; 3) Deep and versatile knowledge of archival footage; 4) Skill in overcoming bureaucratic barriers on the way to the archives.’

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.