A View from the Archival Trenches

Following up on our interview with Jim Pickerell last month, we checked in with some veteran archival researchers to find out how all the changes in the footage industry have affected their work. Our conversation with Jodi Tripi, Lewanne Jones and Barbara Gregson finds them busier than ever and rising to the challenges, opportunities and frantic pace of their increasingly digital workflow. 

Footage.net: What big changes have you noticed in the footage business and how have they affected your work? 

Jodi Tripi, Archival Researcher

Jodi Tripi, Archival Researcher

Jodi Tripi: The changes are two fold: what is being asked for and what is available. In terms of what is being asked for, everybody on the planet thinks that YouTube is a search engine and that they are a footage researcher. So battling the misunderstanding of copyright, likeness, trademarks, is a prevailing aspect of footage research. Less and less we’re being asked for shots by description and criteria - “Hey, we’re looking for shots of x y z” - but more and more often is, “We got this on the internet and this what we are want to use.” 

Lewanne Jones, Archival Researcher

Lewanne Jones, Archival Researcher

Lewanne Jones: The main change is the increasingly electronic accessibility of imagery, which has been beneficial. Electronic communication has sped everything up. So we now have faster communication with reps at different companies. It also means there is an expectation of instantaneous compliance with requests on the part of our clients. Formerly we would have a longer cycle, now there is this pace. Like every aspect of life.

Barbara Gregson, Archival Researcher

Barbara Gregson, Archival Researcher

Barbara Gregson: The footage industry seems to be booming; new stock footage libraries and consolidation of others, which I don’t think would happen if there wasn’t some profits.  Since the recession more researchers and clearance people are back at work and many have jobs in sectors that were not as prevalent before.  Reality shows, games, Art departments, Internet shows all hire researchers.  It seems like I’ve also noticed an upturn in the number of archival documentaries and series being produced. The benefit is more productions mean more work for research and clearance people and in turn more sales for the libraries.  The biggest changes would be the move toward digital research and licensing which helps streamline the process.  Producers/directors want material now and the ability to research and purchase on-line helps with those immediate needs. In addition, Footage companies are more aware of the special needs and requirements of licensing agreements for studios, networks and major production companies so they work with us pretty well to accommodate those needs. 

Jodi Tripi: I work on feature films and opening titles sequences often with over 100 shots, pulled from YouTube, or the internet, which are then handed to me to “make this happen”. A portion of my job now is to explain the layers of aspects that need to be weighed when using footage. For example you can’t take a shot of a real tragedy like a close up of some mothers face in anguish because her child has died and then use it because it conveys are great emotion creatively for the project. Her permission is legally needed for a non-documentary commercial feature film I often need to replace at least 50% of the shots, sometimes 100%. The changes are that it’s often it’s a backwards research process now. The director has fallen in love with a shot from the internet, and there could be a myriad of reasons why it has to be replaced and we all hear over and over “but the director wants it!” 

The timelines we work under have changed as well. There is a sense of instantaneousness to YouTube, and smartphone society and their expectation is that all the clearance work will happen faster than is possible or realistic. Of course if it’s straight ahead stock footage from an online library the process is fast and efficient. 

In terms of what is available, the footage industry has grown but has consolidated a lot as well, which sometimes results in loss of some of the materials and lack of diversity. I feel like if you’re going to do news, do news. Some of the agencies are getting so vast and the one-stop-shopping is not always a big advantage for my niche of work.  I would rather just dig in at several smaller collections. It is probably very good for ad agencies, but for an archival and footage researcher working on feature films, it’s not quite as advantageous.

I want the most amount of footage available and my skills are to know where to research, locate and provide as many great options as possible. Lastly, the new technologies have also brought a lot of diversity of material, like access to libraries from other countries and small filmmakers around the world.  

FN: Generally speaking, have footage companies gotten better at supplying footage? Are they more user-friendly?

Barbara Gregson: Ease of research is key.  When we are looking for material, which can vary from a stock shot of a location to a very specific historical event, you hope that the key words that you use are in the description so that the items get pulled up.  The sites that let you put in a variety of key words to do “exact” searches, “any word” searches and combinations thereof are a very important tool.  Sub-categories to refine searches are an added boon.  

Jodi Tripi: I work with all of them, and try to always be very fair to the vendors. I’m aware it’s a business on both ends. Not just the studios but also for the vendors and I’m aware of the cost benefit of stock vs. shooting their own material. The search engines have definitely improved. I find some gaps with each of them, but overall they have gotten pretty good. Footage companies have done a good job of getting their collections up online.  Also important is the quality of the comps and screeners. Take ITN for example. Their thumbnails and comps were comparatively very small and low res. When I gather and present comps batches for productions to review & select, the lower quality comps often do not get selected even though the content and master quality is excellent. I believe Getty will load them up at higher res. Generally speaking, some RF places have a lot of the same footage, though Shutterstock really stands out in the RF arena.

Lewanne Jones: There is a tremendous amount more accessible, so my initial response is yes. The footage companies have seen the writing on the wall and made things available for viewing online, which is good. Some places not so much. There some retrogressive situations out there, but overall there has been more footage acquired, databased and made accessible, either on YouTube channels or internet sites.

Jodi Tripi: In terms of archival and news archives, there is room for improvement. They are not on par with the larger commercial stock footage libraries in terms of digitization and online tools. There are still lots of text records to sift through and shots that are not yet digitized. This can be especially challenging in the context of the YouTube mentality, where productions think everything is on line and the meta-data is readily available, but it really isn't.

Overall, the tech advances have been a huge benefit in being able to have access to material to review and license quickly. The footage companies have done a remarkably good job. And I hope their operations will grow as the needs for footage increase. An example is the advent of the viral video companies. I think it’s a brilliant business model. Now instead of sifting through thousands of viral cat videos on line trying to track down whomever from wherever,  
I can contact one of the companies to find something.  

FN: Generally speaking, is this a good time for archival researchers and other footage users? Why? Why not?

Lewanne Jones: Yes. I think there are a lot of interesting productions. Over the past twenty years the whole value of archives has increased tremendously. Everywhere you go there are people talking about archives, giving special recognition to the value of archives and the efforts people make to use the archives. So there is a greater sense of value. And there seems to be more material opening up, people giving access to things that were not accessible, and the internet has been an amazing tool for this. The tools were so much more limiting before. On the other hand, while there is a lot of production out there is not a lot of money. I was just contacted for a job that was perfect for my background, but I was considered over-qualified, or over-expensive. Often the producers are looking for someone who can learn on the job.

Barbara Gregson: It’s a good time for researchers because of online access to many sources around the world to find material.  The caveat is to always know what the source is and do you trust the source. Many non-pros have the mistaken belief that everything on the internet is Public Domain.  One of our new jobs is to educate producers and companies that this isn’t necessarily so. Just because someone posts a video online, they don’t necessarily own it. Going to trusted sources is beneficial because you’re not wasting your time pulling something from an unidentified source or owner. That doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t happen. We then have to spend additional time to source and track down the proper owner. 

Jodi Tripi: Yes and no. On one hand, there’s generally more demand for footage as the average viewer or consumer is now accustomed to “consuming” a lot of imagery throughout their day so projects are imagery rich. Then, the more productions and editors try to find footage themselves, the more they realize it is not straightforward and they need help from professional researchers. Just because you have Quickbooks does not mean you don't need an accountant. And they are using so much footage now to lend credibility, and a sense of realness so the current style of filmmaking incorporates a lot of real footage. On the other hand, when you are working with people who don’t understand the process, sometimes it is difficult because you just can’t get the clip they expect within the time or money allotted.  So In terms of access and creativity it is better. In terms of the “Selfie-Stick” society, I-Found-It-I-Want-It style of research, it is more complicated. Everyone in the business is complaining about that.

FN: I spoke with a group of independent archives back in November, and most seemed to think the demand for their footage was pretty strong, driven in large part by documentary filmmakers. Have you found that to be the case as well?

Jodi Tripi: It’s not just documentaries. The demand is very big in features, commercials and titles sequences. It’s just a very, very big time for footage. I work on many feature films that need footage of real events - The Big Short, Patriots Day, Deep Water Horizon, 13 Hours Benghazi, Money Monster. I worked on the Academy award nominated documentary  “The 13th”, and a huge percentage of the archival shots were cut from YouTube and other third party sources. There were something like 1200 shots and it took three professional researchers including myself to organize, find, clear or replace everything in a dizzyingly short period of time. 

Lewanne Jones: I would necessarily agree because that is the part of the world I see. I focus on docs and I rarely work on anything else. Maybe museum exhibits. Rarely on features, or advertising. It seems like everybody is using footage now. You go to these events, like ACSIL, and it seems like everyone is looking to put moving image material on their sites. There is a lot of production at the moment.

Barbara Gregson: There are many creative filmmakers who are always coming up with great ideas and topics to explore. Archival documentaries are very popular as well as documentaries about current events, but they can’t always shoot everything they need. That’s why we love stock footage libraries. It certainly keeps me busy.

FN: What are some of the major differences in how you do your work now as opposed to, say, five or ten years ago? What has improved for you? What has gotten worse? Generally speaking, has it become easier to find footage?

Lewanne Jones: The biggest difference is the amount of material online. I don't ever have to get out of my chair! So I miss going to the archives, like ABC, NBC. I can’t even think of the last time I did that. I kind of miss that. I like going places and handling the media. I do recognize that there is a certain efficiency in not having to go to a specific place. But you often got a lot of benefit from the people at the archives who were helping you, just by chatting, you got more immediate guidance.

Jodi Tripi: I think it is a societal difference. Maybe a neurological difference. Digital immediacy has taken things to a pace that is nearly maddening, and I hear this from a lot of people in this business. So managing expectations, educating about parameters and pitfalls of copyright & permissions are now a big part of the job. It might be easy to find footage, but the clearance level it is often more difficult. I miss anyone having the headspace for waiting, simple patience. I need to remind my clients that we are not the only clients requesting approvals or materials at any given vendor. As professionals we usually get our questions answered sooner than someone they’ve never dealt with, but it can’t always happen in five minutes. The pace is faster and faster in the smartphone  “face-tweet-chat” society where everything is instant. It can be almost undoable. Some productions are reasonable and wide open to options and replacements and others not as much. Clients inevitably wind up having to deal with the realities of the process. Nobody is going to release a feature film with uncleared footage. So at the end of the day it has to be legally signed and sealed, or it gets cut and everyone wants to avoid that. And with all the mega libraries, the editors sometimes just pull what they want, then call the footage researchers for the really hard to find stuff. So we have lost work on a lot of fluffy easy requests like time-lapse clouds. Oh, how I long to spend a day pulling clips of clouds and laughing babies! 

Barbara Gregson: I definitely now spend more time on the internet researching as opposed to being on the telephone or in the past actually going to an archive, pulling cards or files and then ordering up the film to screen. In some ways I miss the personal contact.  I still always talk to my reps at the various libraries or meet with them if possible. The ability to do online searches helps streamline the search process. Zap requests are great because you can reach out to multiple libraries at the same time. This has certainly made searching easier.

FN: A lot of footage companies are making their collections available online. I’m assuming this has benefited you. Are there downsides? Anything you really miss about the old, pre-internet days?

Jodi Tripi: I love being able to do my own research online and work on my own schedule.  But I miss the old workflow where as a researcher you presented what you found based on your clients needs and they could say yes or no or give new notes and directions. Technology has changed the process. When editors or clients provide their internet pulls it sometimes results in double the work load. I have to track down their shot and simultaneously try to find a replacement since there could be all kinds of restrictions or problems with the requested shot and deadlines. Technology has brought us interesting access to footage from around the world and history but we can’t always get the proper permissions in time or at all. 

Barbara Gregson: Again, having the collections online and being able to do the research is great. But it is always important to speak with the librarians because they know their collections really well. You must remember to utilize the personnel at the libraries because they want to help you find the best footage for your project. They are truly an asset.  

Lewanne Jones: It’s important to remember that film and video are time-based media and it takes time to look at it, incorporate it, etc. This is not a result of anything in the way footage companies are operating, but more about the way the speed of digital technology has affected production. It’s so easy to get stuff without figuring out what you’ve gotten, so it takes time to organize, catalog. At some point somebody has to do that work and figure out what is where. It is so easy to drag and drop and WeTransfer and you end up with these huge production libraries. We used to be the eyes of the project and we would only bring the best stuff into the project. The cost of transferring the stuff was so high, so there would be a smaller production library. I was just working on a big project and there was a database of 2,000 items in the project library! Anything from a 30-second Getty clip to a one-hour doc from NBC, and rather than a description, an entry would be an evaluation of the footage, like “great narration,” but nothing like a shot list which would be searchable for finding relevant visuals. So trying to find replacement footage, I didn’t have a way of knowing whether it was there or not. It goes back to where time and energy and money are spent for the purpose of utilizing archives. Not something the footage industry could do anything about, except more work on the databases.

FN: There are still many footage suppliers that have not made their clips available for search online. How does that affect your work? Does that make it more difficult or less appealing to work with these companies?

Lewanne Jones: It does make it inefficient and hard to compete with the places that do have their stuff online. It could mean that it will cost something to get a screener. It used to be standard to have a budget for screeners. Which was fair as making the screeners took work. If things are digitized it is so much faster and easier. One of the bigger changes is that even places that don't have stuff online do offer low-cost or no-cost screeners. There are still places that do charge and there is a waiting time for screeners. That is very off putting. If you are doing a big survey of sources and you want to bring in stuff very quickly, if a place does not have an online presence, it is going to go on the back burner, the end of the list.

Barbara Gregson: Libraries that don’t have their collections online can be at a disadvantage to those who have online collections. Researchers want immediate gratification to satisfy the needs of their producers. Waiting for someone else to do the research and then send you a list and then order takes a certain amount of time. That’s not to say there are some libraries that are very efficient and can provide material pretty quickly. There is a tradeoff, a connection with the library that provides this personal service where they will pull the footage for you and can come up with some interesting material that you might not have thought of to ask. That personal connection is very important. 

In my interview last month with Jim Pickerell, he said “[image] oversupply creates too much choice and makes it harder for customers to find the right image for their project. Many customers are spending hours on research and they’re getting frustrated.” He was referring specifically to the stock photo industry. Do you find footage oversupply to be an issue?

Jodi Tripi: There can never be too much footage for me. I am always happy to find new vendor or source of footage.

Lewanne Jones: I guess what I would say that might be true in terms of stock clips, which is not an area that I explore very often. With historical material there is what there is and if you go back in time there is diminishing amounts. I do get a little overwhelmed on contemporary news -- there is so much, even personal collections and cell phone video. There is sort of an overwhelming amount of material at a certain point in history. And the idea that it is possible to bring in so much stuff and not know what you have. It’s a challenge. There is only so much stuff you can keep in your mind, and the editors, who rely on assistants, can forget what you have in the production library. 

Barbara Gregson: I think you have to have a clear idea of what you want, if you’re not sure and are looking at hundreds of images to be inspired, then yes that might be overwhelming. Sometimes there can be a lot of choices to wade through, but I’ve worked on projects where the Producer/Director wants lots of choices. Granted I do the first pass sending what I think they want based on our discussions.  I think I have a pretty good track record of finding what my Producers and Directors need and I’m happy to have many choices.

FN: Jim also said “lower prices make it difficult to offer customers research support, so the leading agencies don’t really offer much in the way of picture research services.” Is this true in your experience? How important these days is access to knowledgeable staff members? By which I mean people at the agencies and footage houses that really know their collections.

Barbara Gregson: Lower prices can be great and on many productions, the budgets for footage and stills are very tight. So lower priced libraries to fill a need. I usually do find someone that can help at the libraries that I work with.  That’s why I said earlier that it’s important to call the libraries, get a rep, make a connection. This is invaluable to what we do. It’s important to work with the reps and from my experience they want to help you find the perfect shot or locate that important historical picture or footage. I work with many of the large agencies and have found them to be very helpful. It’s important for the libraries and agencies to have experienced researchers and reps because they know their collections. That knowledge is priceless and is a very important asset to the libraries.  I’ve seen many layoffs over the years at some agencies and they’ve lost that knowledge which is a shame.

Jodi Tripi: In my niche I am rarely looking for something standard stock-ish, except maybe for a fake commercial within a film, so I am not concerned in features with the lowest cost, per se, I care mostly about content. I definitely don’t want to see low prices drag the business down - most especially not the smaller boutique libraries with small, dedicated staff. We need all the libraries to stay in business and keep as much material available as possible.

Lewanne Jones: Doing research online and having access to the material without talking to someone is both an advantage and disadvantage. It goes back to the discussion we were having about proximity. I don’t get much support from people at the archives, but maybe that is because I don’t ask for it. I do call some of my longstanding contacts at some of the networks – it feels like my personal privilege! It is really important, but at some of the bigger places the person who helps you is a sales rep, not a knowledgeable researcher. I am dealing with a place now that let their research staff go, and so I am not sure if there will be access to someone who really knows the collection. So it does feel like something has been lost. 

FN: Jim noted that “the [licensing] industry has already consolidated to the point where there are really only a few platforms for professional producers to consider. A number of mom and pop platforms that have access to specialist material may survive.” Have you found that there are fewer footage companies these days? How has consolidation affected your work?

Jodi Tripi: There are advantages for people on the editorial staff that can grab their own shots. If you’re a professional footage researcher, it is not always an advantage. Am I happy that all the news is going to stock libraries? A little. But mostly I’m bummed because I’ve seen what happens when they do. I’m still recovering from the loss of the BBC library after shutting down it’s own site  and getting shuffled around. It got ruined. I don’t think a news archive belongs in the same place as Royalty Free time-lapse shot of clouds. Not all content is a commercially developed or devised. Some material needs a different type of care-taking and overseeing than a commercial stock house. 

Barbara Gregson: There are so many libraries and companies. It always depends on what you’re looking for.  You can’t limit yourself to just the few large platforms. The world is my resource and I’ve found and licensed material all around the globe. Small boutique archives, regional libraries and historical societies, foreign networks, filmmakers, scientists, museums. The list is exhausting.  And people are very helpful.  I think the internet has actually made many more libraries and resources accessible. 

Lewanne Jones: Yes it has. I find that a lot of places that I used to deal with more or less directly are being swallowed up and becoming a system within a system at a larger company. There is a difference when the collections are repped and not fully absorbed. It adds layers. If they’ve bought it and own the rights as opposed to being the agent for it, it’s a whole different ballgame. I do enjoy dealing with places that sell their own stuff. It feels like a primary source, more authentic. Every time I hear a big company is buying something, my heart sinks.

FN: What changes/improvements would you like to see as the industry evolves? How could footage suppliers make things better for you as an archival researcher?

Jodi Tripi: Digitize as much footage as possible. I know they can’t do it all, but the more the better. And better and better metadata. The rest is up to me and my colleagues about educating the clients about the speed, process and legalities. I am a bit of philanthropist at heart. If I could save every piece of nitrate I would. I’d love to work full time on film preservation. I have a reverence for the materials, for the art form. I studied Art History in Italy, I’ve seen the attention to detail in their art restoration. Film is our American historical art. But what we do here is toss what does not make money. The 80s and 90s tend to be more sparse and difficult footage to find, I think mainly because the quick changes in  recording technology of the time, and  the changes from Beta to VHS to Digital, wound up not being treated like historical preservation materials. 

Lewanne Jones: The single most important thing would be better metadata, better text descriptions on records. Up till now you can only search dates and that sort of thing. The old CBS cards were so specific. You knew what you were going to see. There is really no way to search on images. You have to screen it. So more metadata. It would be nice to be able to export the data into a spreadsheet, as well. Maybe more standardization in the licensing terms and practices, how markets and terms are defined. I know that the industry knows this, and there were some efforts, but there were a lot divergent views. 

Barbara Gregson: I’d like to see more of the older footage digitized a made accessible online. I’d tell the libraries, don’t negate some of the collections that have been purchased or may be considered “too old” or make collections inaccessible or costly to access.  There is a wealth of material out there but if it’s shuttered away, no one will see it and it might be very useful to many filmmakers. I’ve seen this happen and it’s a shame because all of this material is our history.  Not just the news and sports footage but all of the nature shots, and location shots and creative footage. They all tell a story. They are just waiting for a filmmaker to access it. 

Any final thoughts?

Jodi Tripi: I want to give a shout out to my colleagues and vendors, who diligently keep up with often hilariously absurd requests, crazed deadlines and fast changing media landscape. Somehow we keep pulling it out of the hat like magicians.  

Barbara Gregson: Researchers and Libraries have a similar goal. We want to find that perfect shot or news footage or photo to help tell a story.  Libraries want to sell you their material and want to help you find what you’re looking for.  All of this is done to satisfy the needs of our Producers/Directors. I think it’s important that footage suppliers keep that door open and be accessible to their clients and help them when they can. It not only builds good will, it will build loyalty.  When we can depend on libraries to help us with our needs, everyone wins.

Lewanne Jones: More money for productions!