Footage Hacks: Smart Practices and Strategies for Better Footage Research, Acquisition & Use

In many important ways, finding footage has become easier than ever before. There’s an enormous amount of footage online, both on commercial sites like, as well as consumer-directed sites like YouTube, offering researchers nearly instant access to clips. That said, finding, acquiring and using third-party footage remains a complex process, and high-level footage research requires skill and experience. With that in mind, we pulled together a list of hacks and suggestions from industry experts to help you raise your footage game. 

1. Dig Deeper

Not every piece of footage has been digitized and not every clip is online, so don’t assume that because a clip is not available online that it doesn’t exist. Comprehensive footage research will involve some level of direct interaction with the footage providers, and most footage houses are ready, willing and able to help you out. In addition, almost all archives can now digitize footage on request and send it to you via FTP very quickly for review. For the most, part this means allowing a bit more time for bringing in sample material, but otherwise the process should fit seamlessly into your workflow.

“Unless an archive has exclusively ‘born digital’ materials (like archives that feature contemporary footage) most archives have a vast array of archival source formats that were cataloged but never formally migrated to digital formats,” says Stephen Parr, president of Oddball Films.  “These formats, ranging from 16mm and 35mm film to multiple analog and digital videotape formats are almost always available to be digitized to the format of a clients choice. In fact, most archives are continually digitizing materials to new file formats, whether SD or 4K. You should always ask an archive if they have additional undigitized materials. If so, they may be able to transfer them for you on demand, or at least send you logs before you move forward with transfers. Some archives will digitize original source materials for free, others will charge a fee. Either way it’s incumbent upon a good researcher to ask about undigitized materials - if you don’t ask, you won’t find it.”

2. Provide as Much Information as Possible about your Project and Footage Needs

Talk directly to footage providers about your overall footage needs, not just the specific items you think they have in their collections. Most footage providers know their collections inside and out, so if they understand your project, and what you are looking for, they can offer suggestions you may not have considered. Additionally, providing as much detail as possible on your footage needs will expedite your search.

“There have been numerous times where we would receive an email for a very specific item and rather than just merely send them the requested clip, I would call them up, and because of a direct dialogue, I was able to suggest material they had not thought of, which then turned into many more licensing opportunities,” said David Peck, president of Reelin’ in the Years Productions.

These conversations, whether on the phone or over email, are also the place to dig into the details of your footage needs, especially when looking for editorial footage.

“By being more specific and providing more context in your footage requests, we will get the right footage to you faster, rather than spending more time for us to get you footage and you having to sort through footage you don’t want,” said Eileen O’Donnell, content manager at NBC News Archives.  “With editorial footage, information is important - locations, dates, time periods. If you have a specific event you’re looking for, let us know more than ‘Early Vietnam War’ or ‘Late Vietnam War.’  The more information you provide, the more accurate the search results will be.”

Other issues that warrant deeper communication include the “context [in which] the footage is going to be used,” said O’Donnell. “Are you looking for branded content with reporters to present as a news story, or are you looking for b-roll on the subject in question? If you’re doing a project on a famous person, do you truly need everything we have on that person, or is there a specific interview or topic they’ve spoken about that you need for your story?”  

3. Look for New Sources & Underused Footage

Finding new sources of footage, underused collections and less obvious footage can make a big difference in the final outcome of your film, both in its quality and its marketability. Finding new sources is “very critical - not just to make a sale, but for me to be excited about the project,” said documentary filmmaker Tom Jennings. “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.”

“Look on either side of the iconic moment,” added Jennings. “Too many producers just go for the usual when it comes to telling historic events.  For our Pearl Harbor show, because we had no narration and no interviews, we heavily relied on playing major moments in ways not seen.  I swear if I hear President Roosevelt say, ‘a day that will live in infamy,’ and nothing else, I’m going to go crazy.  It turns out that speech is less than five minutes long.  The ‘Infamy’ part is the first 10 seconds.  The rest of the speech lays out the entire reason why the U.S. is going to war… what Japan had been up to, how they must have been planning this attach long in advance, etc.  It’s fascinating and sums up the entire entry into the war — in less than 5 minutes.  But all we know is, ‘a day that will live in Infamy.’  In our show, we used the entire speech and illustrated it with footage along the way.  I don’t know of any other doc that has played the entire speech, but I believe our viewers are much better informed for having heard it.  So my advice is, look for what’s on either side of the iconic moment. What was said and done before and right after?  Usually, there’s something very rich that just never made it into the highlights reels that so many producers rely on.”

4. Don’t Fall In Love with that YouTube Clip

Relying on YouTube as a footage search engine is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it’s a great platform for accessing a large amount of video and seeing what’s out there. As documentary editor Cindy Kaplan Rooney put it, “YouTube and Google searches can be very helpful, especially when you are working independently. I recently edited the independent documentary Levinsky Park, about the plight of African Asylum seekers in Israel.  I did not have a staff.  It was the producer and myself.  We did use the name sources such as CNN, Getty and F.I.L.M. Archives, but to tell this story we needed to search far and wide and really hunt because this is not a widely covered topic. YouTube and general Internet searches were great research tools and helped to connect us with people that the producer then contacted.  Those contacts led us to very important footage that helped us tell this story.”

On the downside, identifying rights-holders for YouTube clips can be daunting, and sometimes impossible. “You do have to be willing to give up material that has been in your cut that you love if you are not able to get in touch with the rights holder,” said Kaplan Rooney. “This did happen on Levinsky Park.” Or, as Tom Jennings put it, “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.”

Another issue to be aware of when using YouTube and other consumer-oriented video platforms to source footage is that a most of the large, commercial footage houses have not added the bulk of their collections to these sites. These commercial footage collections are much better accessed directly through their owner’s sites or through a footage aggregator like

“Only a tiny fraction of the footage industry’s collective archives are available on YouTube,” according to David Peck. “Relying solely on YouTube (which sadly many inexperienced people in this industry do) and not contacting archives directly does a great disservice the film you are making. Most of the archives out there (mine included) want to help you but if you come to us after the film has been cut with bootleg YouTube footage, than there’s not much we can do. Most companies don’t charge screener fees so there’s really no excuse not to come to us directly.”

5. Some News Footage May Need Additional Clearances

“Remember that while every network and local news station has their content on their websites, not all footage in those stories is available for licensing,” said Eileen O’Donnell of NBC News Archives. “News stories come from a variety of sources, in addition to [the networks] own reporters and camera operators.  Networks and local stations subscribe to agency news feeds where they have broadcast rights or may have secured rights for other third party videos or photos for broadcast.  For this reason, you cannot assume [the news] content you’ve found online is available to license for your project until it’s been fully vetted by the library.” 

6. Send a Zap

Sending a Zap Email through is an easy, effective can way to kick off your footage research project, allowing you to send your footage request instantly to’s full list of stock footage partners, where expert researchers at each company will review your request and get in touch with you directly if they have footage that meets your needs. The process is very straightforward and will ensure that your request goes out to a wide network of footage providers, some of which you might not have considered contacting directly. To send a Zap, just go to, click on the Zap button on the homepage, fill out the (very brief) request form, hit send and you’re done.

7. Understand Third Party Rights

When licensing footage, it’s important to remember that while footage houses usually control the copyright to the footage itself, they may not control the underlying rights, especially those pertaining to the rights of privacy and publicity of recognizable individuals shown in the footage.

“Researchers should always check on the talent and location release status at the start of a search so that later they are not disappointed if their selection does not have the releases they need,” says Paula Lumbard, president of FootageBank HD.

Third party rights can be especially complicated when dealing with musical performances.

"Probably the most important thing to keep in mind when working with a company like Reelin' in the Years, and others such as Historic Films and BBC that have a large archive of music performance and entertainment oriented footage," said David Peck, "is that while we control the copyright to the footage in our collections, we do not hold the underlying rights, such as the rights to the performer's image and likeness. Which means that before using a clip from Reelin' in the Years of the Rolling Stones performing ‘Satisfaction’ from a 1965 appearance on German TV, users will need to obtain clearances from, and often pay license fees to, a variety of other entities, such as music publishers, record companies, unions and directors and, of course, the band members themselves.”

Property and locations may also be subject to privacy rights. Many of the houses, restaurant exteriors and other physical locations used in television shows and movies to set a scene come from stock footage agencies. And, like shots of recognizable people, these location clips typically require releases from the property owner. One of the more famous examples is the Hollywood Sign, the rights to which are controlled by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which has appointed Global Icons to manage these rights and negotiate usage fees.

8. Get the Rights You Need

When licensing rights-managed footage, the distribution rights you ask for and the duration of the license term form the basis of the license fee. To cover their bases, producers will often ask for all rights, for all media, in perpetuity. Many have no choice but to acquire these rights in that they are producing a program for a specific network, which has mandated that all elements of a particular program be cleared for all uses, whether now known or hereafter invented. But if you’re producing an independent production and don’t have the budget to afford this all-encompassing grant of rights, talk to the provider about forming a step-up agreement, wherein minimal rights are acquired in the near-term and a price is set for add-on rights in the future, should they become necessary. 

“If you can't afford to secure all rights up front, it's advisable to discuss licensing options with an archive and have these options included as possible upgrades in the licensing agreement,” says Jessica Berman Bogdan, president of Global ImageWorks. “Options usually have some type of time limitation as to when they can be exercised. It's also helpful to know the costs you'll need to pay to secure additional rights when negotiating with distributors. Narrowing the grant of rights is another good cost control option. In our experience, oftentimes clients really don't need theatrical rights, for example. Overall, if you're not required to deliver this broad rights package or if the budget isn't there, don't ask for rights you really don't need.”

9. Negotiate License Fees

Prices for footage vary widely among footage houses. In the case of rights-managed footage, there is often some room to negotiate. Some archives have a pricing schedule for bulk deals, for example, wherein they will offer discounts for buying more footage from them for a specific project. For others, it’s more of an art than a science. Either way, it’s a good idea to give the archive a sense of the kind of project you are working on, how it is funded and what sort of budget you are working with. Without that knowledge, they’ll have no basis upon which to consider potential discounts.  

“Most archives want to have their footage licensed and want to support the production community,” says Jessica Berman-Bogdan. “Archives can be flexible but only to a point. Keep in mind there's a range within which archives can operate. If you're outside that range, you need to be able to justify why you should get a reduced fee.”

10. Work with Multiple Formats

Third-party footage, by definition, will originate on a wide variety of native formats. So a big consideration when working with third party footage is how these varied formats and aspect ratios will be integrated into your final production. “In addition to archival film and video formats, now with the introduction of Ultra HD, 4K, and even higher resolution clips into the footage world, it is wise prior to licensing to understand the master format options of the clips you are considering,” said Paula Lumbard, president of FootageBank. “Consider asking about the native capture format, the camera used, the resolution of both native digital file as well as the stock clip file, and delivery options.”  Some footage houses may offer to convert their clips from standard definition to high definition, or to assist in scanning of film elements.  Fees are often involved due to processing. Again, these are conversations to have with the footage providers. 

11. Hire a Researcher/Rights & Clearance Specialist

Online footage platforms have made footage research more accessible, convenient and efficient. With a bit of practice, you can get pretty good at finding clips. But deep, extensive and effective footage research takes experience and skill, especially if your project requires a lot of third-party content. For complex projects, the services of an experienced film researcher can be essential. An experienced researcher can not only find great footage, but can often rack down and negotiate with the rights holder, consult on your footage budget, negotiate license fees and help design and implement your in-house production archive. And, as Paula Lumbard put it, “experienced researchers/rights and clearance professionals have relationships with rights holders and archives that can benefit you. In addition to saving time, they may be offered discounts, or granted rights not ordinarily extended to those fresh to licensing.”

12. Organize Your Production Library

A large-scale footage research project will require an in-house system for storage, indexing and retrieval of clips. This is essential for your production workflow, as well as for tracking and accounting for the clips you actually end up using in your production.

“I frequently edit on shows that have many editors sharing material on a server,” said Cindy Kaplan Rooney. “An absolute must is to have a cataloging system started from the first piece of footage that comes in house.  Typically, we set up our system so the clip name tells you what the category of content is as well as the footage source and date if the date is pertinent for the show. The same type of database is created for archival stills as well as footage.  The log also includes a description of the material because you rarely get good descriptions these days. We used to get cards that told you exactly what was there on the clips. So once that footage is out there on the server and various editors are working with it you can always track it back.  Another database is also created for material that is more general in nature and can be used for many different types of sequences. “

“Periodically, an assistant editor or production assistant reviews the rough cuts and makes note of what has been used,” said Kaplan Rooney. “This is also a good check to make sure that there is no duplication.  It always amazes me that on a big history show, or series, with tons of good footage editors often zero in on the exact same shots!”

“If the schedule is tight, the staff will begin immediately to work on the rights clearances, if they haven’t already made an upfront deal with the footage source,” added Kaplan Rooney. “Most places require a log of exactly what shots you are using with time codes and lengths before they will give a quote.  This is pretty much in flux during a rough-cut stage, but it’s a starting point and you can update it later on. By doing this early, if there is a problem making a deal, the editors have time to find alternatives. When working on a big archival show, it’s pretty impossible to clear rights on everything ahead of time because there is so much gathered and only a fraction of that will actually be used.”


We hope these suggestions have been helpful. Obviously, it is not an exhaustive list and learning about the process of finding, acquiring and using footage is an ongoing process. Please let us know if we missed anything important. We are always happy to add to the list!