Archival footage is footage that you don’t have to shoot (so ‘yay’ for you!). Archival footage is clips or photos that already exist, and you use them in your film to show the passage of time or other various reasons. Just because you don’t have to walk around in a park to shoot archival footage doesn’t mean it’s going to be a walk in the park. There are a few considerations to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to use archival footage.
Firstly you need to decide what you are looking for. Do you really need to go through hours of old VHS tapes? Being clear on the reason why you want to use archival media is crucial. Often it can take hours of your time to trawl through the web or old archives to find this one shot. Ask yourself – can it be re-enacted? Will it improve our story to show the past?
In Nukkan.Kungun.Yunnan – See.Listen.Speak. it was important to the Ngarrindjeri team to give evidence on how the water level of the Lower Lakes have changed. To demonstrate this, they found old photos that clearly showed their jetty being submerged. They then shot footage of the current water levels at the same spot decades later, to juxtapose.
Make sure you have cleared the right to use the material you have found. Most personal release forms include a clause that the participant agrees to release the rights of personal artifacts such as photos, to you or your organization to use.
Be clear with your contributors if there are any restrictions, for example if for traditional cultural reasons certain photos can’t be shown publicly, even though you had written permission to view or use them. Always check with the elders in the community if there are any concerns and restrictions.
You don’t want to sensationalize or exploit, so be careful, clear and reliable. Sometime it is important to re-negotiate, as circumstances may have changed or the stakes are higher, i.e. the archival media could be used to make a strong political point.
Always remember, you are playing with people’s lives, with their real stories – they are taking a risk and are being generous to share their precious photos and memories with you. Make sure it is worth their time and effort.
This is a question of taste – some projects may be made entirely out of archival – old – material, and with a voiceover narration, become current and fresh media…
Using archival media as cut-aways to cover up a bad story that had not enough good footage, may be overuse and could result in boring films with too much grainy old footage and photo after photos flicking on screen.
How can you make your story most effective, most entertaining and ‘real’ – the viewer needs to feel there is a clear sense of purpose behind the use of the old stuff, why are we looking at this old building? Aaaaaah, we now see how the city looked 100 years ago.
In personal stories it is often the only way to relate a sense of space, time and personal connection beyond the interview footage and voice. Sometime you just can’t travel to where your character came from, so it is fantastic if they can bring photos or old video to visualize their history.
For ‘A Life Well Lived’ we used archival images of the Strathmont centre from the 1970’s. When using still images you want to add a little movement (known as a ‘throw’, popularised by Ken Burns) so they don’t sit on screen looking too static. We used old images of the Strathmont centre to contrast the treatment of resident’s between now and then and to show the physical transformation of the space from claustrophobic and drab to warm and welcoming.
But once you open that door, you can get into real trouble: old VHS, Super 8 tapes are piling up, the Uncle found this great audio tape from 10, 000 years ago – how do you know get this stuff on your computer?
Be creative, sometime it can be as easy as taking photos of the old stills, using a cheap image scanner or shooting footage of the old audio tape by setting a microphone up next to the tape record playing the old media.
You may also be lucky that your contributor has a camera that can connect to yours and you can dub the footage over to your digital videotape. This process is called digitizing from analogue media. If you have a budget, you might be able to get a professional service to do this dubbing for you – or even have a researcher locate the media and get it transferred for you. But this is usually very expensive. For the Flood of 1956 project we were lucky to find archival footage we could dub from VHS to miniDV and then upload to our system. Even though we try to emulate the archival style throughout the film, with use of sepia tinting, having access to the real deal gave the film the authentic edge it needed.