Insights on the Art of Archival Production from Tom Jennings, Documentary Filmmaker

Tom Jennings, a multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist, has written, produced and directed more than 400 hours of programming for networks including CBS, Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, Investigation Discovery, and The History Channel. Tom's work runs the gamut of subject matter, from politics and religion to history, crime, sports, mystery and travel, and he has extensive experience with archival production. His most recent film, The Fidel Castro Tapes, premiered on PBS on September 2, 2014. We recently spoke with Tom about the archival filmmaking process. Your latest film is The Fidel Castro Tapes. How did this project get started? 

Tom Jennings: The project was suggested to me by Hamish Mykura, the head of National Geographic International. Haymish very much liked our style of doing films with no narration and no interviews -- using only the media available at the time of the event to tell the story. We had done a similar film for National Geographic U.S. about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Hamish had been thinking about doing a project about Fidel Castro. When he and I met at the MIPCOM conference in Cannes, France, he asked if we could do the same with Castro. That's how it started. 

FN: Your films bring a great sense of immediacy to historical narratives. How do you achieve this effect? 

TJ: We don't use a narrator or interviews in almost all of our archive-driven films. So there's no "looking back" to explain to viewers what happened. Instead, everything we use is in present tense -- from the time in which the story is told. That gives our films the sense that these things are happening right now. It's an interactive experience, instead of images just bouncing off people's eyes. I like to describe our films this way -- the audience starts watching and they are waiting for the narrator to come in and "save them." But the narrator never shows up. Once they realize that they are part of the experience of the story, instead of having the story told to them, we've got them.

FN: What do you want the viewer to take away from the experience of seeing your film? 

TJ: I want people to feel like they have just lived through the event -- and to realize that if they thought they knew the story, they really didn't. For our film about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, we used only footage taken from the local stations -- no national coverage. We didn't have Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite on screen. Instead we had only local reporters who followed the story. For viewers, I like to describe this film as if they are sitting in their living rooms in Memphis in 1968, flipping channels, and having the story unfold before them in real time.

FN: How critical is the storytelling element to you when you are making these films? 

TJ: Without a good storytelling point of view, an archival film is sunk -- it will never work. I've seen some other archive-based films that wind up feeling like clip shows -- where one clip is attached to another in attempt to make a story out of something. If you dig deep enough, there are always more than enough images (footage, audio, police recordings, photos, etc.) to bring a story to life. Our goal is wherever possible not use any images that are familiar to an event. That's how you make the story feel fresh, and it gives us the opportunity to make the story feel brand new. That's key.

FN: Can archival footage be an impediment to creativity?

TJ: Not at all. I think archival footage is another tool to pull from the creativity toolbox. Not every film we make using archival images uses only archival images. When we're approaching a program my team will look at the story and step back to get perspective -- what is out there that we can use and what do we need to create ourselves to help tell the story. If a producer has a story to tell and the network wants to use archival footage it should be a help to creativity because you're starting from the actual images for inspiration.

FN: Is there a bias against archival films on the part of networks, and if so, how do you overcome it?

TJ: Absolutely. I believe many networks are afraid of archival footage -- that their viewers will think they are watching something "old" and therefore not relevant. And if you're showing black-and-white images it's really a struggle. Certain networks will simply not go for shows that have a lot of black and white -- even though those images can be some of the most awe-inspiring ones to watch. For me, archival images can be used as a type of art. We create a story combining as many media elements as possible. By doing this, we believe we get the viewers past the idea that their watching a show filled with archival images. Instead, they're watching a well-crafted film. We edit our images in a way that feels more modern -- a bit quicker paced, more surprises. I used to tell networks that a story using archival film was something "that people should know about." It turns out the best way to convince them to put something on the air is to let them know that we have discovered images from a familiar event that no one has ever seen before.

FN: So discovering a new source of footage is critical to your filmmaking? 

TJ: It's very critical - not just to make a sale, but for me to be excited about the project. When you tell a network you've found something no one has seen before, they get excited. You have to remember their needs. They want to set this program apart from others that may have been done about the topic. For them, it's a marketing tool -- we have something new. For me, it's being able to see something that I think is familiar through new eyes. That's a major part of making these films feel special. 
We do documentaries for television and because of that we have to make sure our projects are as compelling as anything else on TV -- after all everyone wants good ratings.  I think some producers stay away from archive because they haven't figured out a way to make it feel compelling.  It's easier to do a re-enactment and get the exact scene you want instead of figuring out how to use the real images.  

FN: You seem to be able unearth some amazing source material. Are you constantly scouting for new footage sources? Do people come to you at this point with leads? 

TJ: I wish people would come to me with leads! There have been a few instances of people looking us up and talking about some images they have or know of, but they're usually not thinking about how to make a story out of them. For me and my team, we're always on the lookout. Always. My staff knows my passion for this kind of storytelling -- and it's rubbed off on them. You never know where you will find it. But we're always keeping channels open. For example, if we work with an archive house on a project I will always ask their researchers, "what else have you got." Those are the point people who deal with archival footage all day. Once they know how we tell stories, they can tell us about their favorite treasure troves. In my first career, I was an investigative journalist, so the "hunt" comes easy to me and it's a lot of fun. It may sound funny, but I'll sometimes ask myself -- if I were footage of this event, where would I be? 

FN: Was there a big "eureka" moment in the Castro film where you found a really special shot? 

TJ: There was a big eureka moment -- and I wound up not being able to use it! We had discovered a lot of rare footage from Castro's revolution, including interviews with American journalists in the months following his takeover. I think we found every frame of Castro speaking English, which he did quite well back then. And then I found his first interview... with Ed Sullivan, the variety show host. I fell in love with the footage, which is always a bad thing. It turned out that Ed Sullivan footage is very expensive -- it's a premium fee from the network. And we most likely would have had to pay the Sullivan estate as well. My researchers had to convince me that using the 30 seconds of Sullivan footage would eat up 25 percent of the footage budget. So, unfortunately, my eureka moment was left on the cutting room floor.

FN: Much has improved in the world of footage archives over the last few years. That said, I am sure there are still some pretty big obstacle when working with archives. Can you talk a little bit about what has gotten better and what has not, or maybe what has gotten worse? 

TJ: There is so much more footage available to view online. It's great to go to a website and start looking at clip after clip. However, there is a danger to fall into the same trap that producers have before. We see a clip, we like it, we buy it, put it in our film and move on -- forgetting that the clip came from a reel with a lot more footage on it. It would be impossible for archive facilities to digitize everything. So you always have to ask, "where did that clip come from? Is there more?"

FN: What is the biggest challenge in this sort of filmmaking? 

TJ: Getting the rights. It's so easy to find clips online -- my researchers have made me swear-off looking at Youtube. The biggest challenge is not falling in love with footage before you know it can be cleared. My clearance researcher, Liza Maddrey, is the best at making sure every image that goes into our shows is cleared to the point that they can never be questioned. It's extremely critical that producers have someone like Liza looking over their shoulders. Some people may want to rely on "Fair Use" to use images they can't afford or get rights to, but we choose not to go that way. When we complete a project we want to know that we will never be questioned about use of footage.

FN: What's next for you?

TJ: We're going to be doing something on the Atomic Age and a film about the serial killer Ted Bundy. That's what I love about doing these programs.  Life is never dull.