The Fog of War:
Footage that shows and tells
Ann Petrone arrived home from work one evening about seven years ago to find a message on her answering machine from the wife of legendary director Errol Morris. The two had a mutual acquaintance through Petrone’s days working at a Boston auction house, and Morris – a collector of Americana – wanted to set up a meeting. ‘I went to his office and we talked,’ recalls Petrone of that first encounter, ‘and then he said, ‘Do you want to come work for me?’ That was how it worked. We just hit it off.’
Since that fateful day, Petrone has sourced hard-to-find images for such projects as Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and the similarly quirky yet fascinating First Person, a series that aired on bravo in the U.S. in 2000. More recently, Petrone was supervisor of archival research for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara – the 2004 Oscar winner for best doc feature in which McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, looks back over his career. As Morris says, ‘I’m lucky I have Ann, who’s an extraordinarily good researcher.’
Petrone started work on FOW early in the filmmaking process. After watching selected portions of the McNamara interviews with Morris and editor Karen Schmeer, the group brainstormed on possible visual metaphors, which Morris believes should advance the theme of the movie. ‘Most of the use of stock footage is perfunctory in documentary,’ he observes. ‘I think one of the things that Fog of War proves is that it doesn’t have to be.’ For instance, the recurring images of bombing represent McNamara’s perspective of World War II and the Vietnam War. ‘It’s been kind of at arm’s length, and the use of visual material underscores that,’ says Morris.
The famed auteur interviewed McNamara for 20 hours, so large chunks of the material weren’t going to make the final cut. Working from the interview selects, rather than reading the transcript, saved time and money by greatly narrowing Petrone’s stock footage search. Watching the selects also gave Petrone a sense of pace, as well as valuable insights as to where stock footage was needed for punctuation or illustration. ‘There’s a very moving scene,’ says Petrone, ‘in which McNamara describes Kennedy’s grave. He wells up. His voice cracks. That’s something you want on camera, rather than stock footage of JFK’s grave. Reading the transcript, I would have never known that.’
While Morris and Schmeer went through the monumental task of cutting down the raw interview footage, Petrone worked to find stock material. It took two years of intermittent work (‘It’s not like I sat shackled to a desk,’ she laughs) to collect over 700 hours of archival footage – about 45 minutes of which made it into the film. Much of the material came from Archive Films/Getty Images and the CBS News Library, though the largest percentage was sourced from the U.S. National Archives.
The cost for stock footage licenses and film transfers totaled US$67,830. ‘This is deceptively low, because so much of the archival footage in the film is from the National Archives,’ cautions Petrone. ‘Much of the material housed there is in the public domain and not subject to license fees, which can be a tremendous savings.’ An additional $5,431 was spent licensing stills.
Petrone notes that she started her dig with a massive online search of the Washington, D.C.-based National Archives so that when she visited in person she was able to maximize her time. She made the trek about eight times, for three or four days each visit. As Morris puts it, searching for something at the National Archives is not like finding a needle in a haystack, ‘but a needle in a million haystacks.’
And occasionally it’s not a needle one finds, but a gem.
One of Morris and Petrone’s favorite FOW clips from the National Archives is footage of Chinese laborers toiling to construct runways that were going to be used for the bombing of Japan. ‘McNamara often would be talking about things that have been, for all intensive purposes, forgotten,’ recalls Morris. ‘But once you know about them, you can say to yourself, ‘Well, I wonder if people shot any footage of these historical events he’s describing?” From a strictly filmic perspective, Petrone loved the theatrical quality of the airfield footage. ‘It looks like Cecil B. DeMille should be there giving direction to all these extras,’ she says. ‘Plus, it’s so crazy, with all these people banging rocks.’
A Google search also turned up footage used in a scene in FOW that shows the 1967 march on the Pentagon. The website alerted Petrone to a protester who had shot handheld footage of the event; she tracked him down and paid him $1,800 to use it. Cut against a sanitized Universal Newsreel story, Petrone says the contrast in film format and framing ‘helps emphasize the disconnect between the Pentagon administration and the demonstrators.’
The rights cleared for the clips were worldwide, all media, in perpetuity. ‘I hoped FOW would have a long shelf life and I didn’t want to have to re-negotiate clearances at some future date or risk having clearances lapse,’ says Petrone.
Following the footage
Even before Michael Moore’s 2003 Oscar-winning doc Bowling for Columbine hit theaters, the director was brainstorming ideas for the next film on his roster, Fahrenheit 9/11. As Carl Deal, Fahrenheit‘s archival producer, explains, ‘We didn’t start off knowing we were going to make a film about the war in Iraq.’
Originally, the film was going to focus on how the Bush administration handled the events of 9/11, but the war was in full swing by the time Moore began the US$6 million doc. That meant both current and archived material had to be gathered at a frenzied pace. ‘We watched a lot of TV,’ says Deal, who worked with full-time researcher Salimah El-Amin and a fluctuating number of part-time researchers. ‘But we acquired footage largely the traditional way, which was through the archives and their agents.’
Deal, who was also chief archivist on Bowling, says standard licensing rates generally range from $45 to over $100 per second for all rights, worldwide, in perpetuity.
‘For Fahrenheit, we cleared all rights, worldwide, for all media, including Internet, in perpetuity,’ he continues. ‘I wouldn’t recommend going for any less than that. I know it’s expensive, but never be discouraged in negotiating deals with archives because everybody has a sliding scale.’
Deal estimates that about 55% of the images in Fahrenheit were acquired from third parties, including commercial stock houses, foreign broadcasters such as Germany’s ard and Qatar-based Al Jazeera, U.S. networks, independent video activists (over 12 of which made regular trips to Iraq to locate footage that wasn’t making it onto the air in the U.S.), the federal government, and even public schools. For example, the notorious classroom footage of Bush glued to his chair on the morning of 9/11 came from the school board in Sarasota, Florida.
The research team collected and logged over 2,000 viewing and screening tapes and built a library that came from about 300 sources from around the world, says Deal. To manage the library, a searchable database was developed with a record of each tape so that researchers could put in key words, transcripts and logs from the Avid.
An unexpected treasure unearthed during the compiling of stock footage made an invaluable addition to the film. While Deal says the production team was aware that the Congressional Black Caucus had protested the 2000 presidential vote, no one realized there was footage of several members speaking out from the floor. When a researcher called from a news archive to describe the footage, Deal told her to bring all of it back to the office. ‘We took it into the edit room and sat with Michael, the editors and some of the producers and watched the entire process that none of us even knew happened. We’re pretty savvy people, but it completely escaped us at the time. We watched it very quietly, and when it finished running there was no doubt that it was going to be an important part of the film.’
As Deal says, ‘Archival research is not about just filling in the cracks in a story; it’s about discovering new things that can take you down roads you may not have planned for.’
New media is new market for stock
Gone are the days when a dot-chomping circle made for a hit video game. Today’s gamers crave a virtual experience – the more realistic the images, the better. So, when Vivendi Universal Games needed visuals for Men of Valor – a Vietnam War sim for Xbox or pc that was released last fall and centers around two brothers entering combat – it turned to FootageBank. Based in Venice, California, the archive has over 30 hours of content from the war.
Of the three hours’ worth of initial research tapes FootageBank supplied to Vivendi Universal (in video format), the media behemoth licensed 86 clips, with an average length of 10 seconds. As FootageBank president Paula Lumbard says, ‘Live footage gives a human interest quality so the gamer is more connected to real life and real experience.’
The gaming market is a part of FootageBank’s non-broadcast initiatives, which make up about 30% of the company’s revenue. Lumbard believes that live action footage (as opposed to digitally enhanced images) will continue to be used in the gaming industry to enhance the gamers’ experience, so her intention is to build that segment within her business model.
‘We expect the revenue from gaming to increase two to three times in 2005 from what it was in 2004,’ she forecasts.
Over at the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Film Library, another video game deal was recently inked. This one involves Microsoft Game Studios and its Zoo Tycoon 2 game, which allows players to build zoos, and adopt and interact with the animals.
Tycoon is packaged with a companion dvd featuring short video segments (culled from the Nat Geo Film Library) of wildlife in its natural surroundings. Matthew White, vice president of the library, says the footage was taken from the 26 x 30-minute Nat Geo Channel series Totally Wild. ‘We didn’t just take the series that already existed and put it on dvd; we created interactive segments with questions built around them,’ he explains.
Nat Geo also helped Microsoft authenticate the animals’ behavior in the digitally rendered visuals. ‘We ended up teaming up in a very strong way in terms of both the content and the way the game was branded and sold through to the marketplace,’ says White.
Digital Media (which includes markets such as the Internet, mobile and video games) is a business unit within National Geographic Ventures. ‘It represents 10% of the Film Library’s overall revenue,’ says White, ‘and we expect that to grow.’
Confident in the future relationship between stock and digital media, White adds, ‘It’s a world that’s chaotic and is in search of equilibrium… Eventually there’ll be winners and losers and it will calm down, but right now it’s clear that action is the key word. Nobody’s waiting to see if they’re going to jump in – people are jumping in very seriously with a lot of investment right away.’ AA
Tips from the stock specialists
Filmmakers can cut costs by getting footage from just a few stock houses, says Petrone. ‘There are savings in time and money all along the line: fewer phone calls, ganging transfer fees, fewer tape charges and fewer FedEx packages. There’s even less paperwork.’
Directors often want footage that is metaphorical, not simply illustrative, so Petrone recommends having a conversation with the filmmaker early on to discuss their vision.
Watch as many docs on your topic as possible so that you know which ‘chestnuts of old footage’ have been overused, advises Petrone.
Build good relationships with the individuals who represent the collections, says Deal. This is especially handy if you’re editing virtually in real time because the quicker they turn around tapes, the better.
‘It’s unusual for a local TV station to save broadcast-quality footage for more than a few months, if at all,’ warns Deal. ‘If you’re ever looking for local footage, get on it right away.’
‘Start on the Internet, but then log off and get your butt into the library,’ says Deal. ‘Nothing takes the place of going to a library or archive or museum and immersing yourself in images.’ AA