Archival Filmmaking

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Say "archival films" and most people think of Ken Burns and The Civil War. While this is a great example of archival filmmaking, there are plenty of other films that use archival (or simply stock or third-party) footage and stills. Used specifically, archival and stock both refer to material available from public or private archives and/or commercial vendors. Used more generally, however, these words (and the term third-party) describe any imagery the filmmakers didn't create themselves. Home movies, amateur videos, surveillance tapes, and footage shot for public relations, education or training, for example, might generally be described as stock footage.

Third-party footage (and sound) shows up in a wide range of documentaries. Grizzly Man wouldn't have been possible without the footage created by Timothy Treadwell himself. Enron includes pivotal audio recordings of Enron traders manipulating the power grid in California, sound the filmmakers discovered in the archives of a power company in Washington State. Alan Berliner has been collecting others' family photos and home movies for years, the visual history of people whose identities are unknown to him, and he used these eloquently in films such as Nobody's Business and The Sweetest Sound. The archival imagery in Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains was selected not to tell any particular story, but because the men it captures on screen—including Mao, Hitler, and Stalin, known to history for the atrocities they committed—are seen doing disturbingly ordinary things, such as eating or playing with dogs and children.

How you use the archival material is also important. The Civil War, mentioned earlier, used archival imagery (mostly still photographs) to illustrate and advance a powerful and thematically rich narrative. That series has also spawned a wealth of knockoffs. Take two parts archival material, the thinking seems to go, add one part emotional music, a dash of brand-name actors in voice-over, and you've got a film. The missing element, too often, is story.

With archival films, the story is often driven by narration, with visuals playing a supporting role. In rare cases, however, where sufficient archival resources exist, the visuals may drive the storytelling. This was the case with two public television histories, Vietnam: A Television History (about the Vietnam War) and Eyes on the Prize (about the American civil rights movement). Both series covered events for which extensive news footage existed, with stories covered in depth and over a significant period of time. In developing Eyes, executive producer Henry Hampton decided that rather than present a survey of the civil rights struggle between the 1950s and 1980s, he wanted to feature a selection of stories from within that period and let them unfold as dramas on screen. Editors on Eyes often had sufficient archival footage to craft complete scenes that could then be augmented with modern-day interviews (conducted by the Eyes producers). Narration occurred only where it was needed to seam together other elements.

Producers of Vietnam and Eyes also followed rigorous rules for the use of this archival material. An image could not "stand in" for something else, and the rules of chronology applied to footage just as it did to facts. This meant that if you were telling the story of rioting in Detroit in 1967, you couldn't use a great scene that you knew had been shot on a Thursday if your narrative was still discussing events on Tuesday. Care was also taken with sound effects and the layering of sound onto otherwise silent film footage. "We sent all our silent archival footage to the Imperial War Museum in London, and they matched sound effects," says Kenn Rabin, describing his work as an archivist on Vietnam (see Chapter 23). If the footage showed a particular helicopter or a particular weapon firing, the sound effect would be of that model helicopter or that model weapon. "We were very careful not to add anything that would editorialize," Rabin adds. "For example, we never added a scream or a baby crying," unless you could see that action on screen.

Many historical films and series cover events for which there isn't as significant a visual record, or there is none. Furthermore, the existence of historical visual material does not mandate its use; producers may decide to tell their stories using other means, such as recreations. But when historical stills and motion picture are used, how important is it that the images represent what they're being used to portray? This is a subject of some debate among filmmakers and historians. Producers of The Civil War grappled with this issue in making their series because the photographic record for their story was extremely limited. At a conference in 1993 ("Telling the Story: The Media, The Public, and American History"), Ken Burns presented a clip from The Civil War and then said that, with two exceptions, none of the "illustrative pictures" actually depicted what the narrative implied. "There is a street scene taken in the 1850s of a small Connecticut town, which is used to illustrate Horace Greeley's 1864 lament about the bloodshed of the Civil War," Burns offered. "There are Southern quotes over pictures of Northern soldiers. None of the hospitals specifically mentioned are actually shown, particularly Chimborazo in Richmond The picture of Walt Whitman is, in fact, several years too old, as is the illustration for Dix." Burns added, "There's not one photograph of action or battle during the Civil War, and yet nearly 40 percent of the series takes place while guns are actually going off. What do you do? What are the kind of licenses that you take?"

His question is an interesting one and not yet sufficiently explored by filmmakers or the public. In the skilled hands of filmmakers who have the resources and commitment to work with a stellar group of media and academic personnel, the storytelling may override the limited imagery (see Chapter 18 for more discussion of this with filmmaker Ric Burns). But too often, and increasingly, substitutions are made not for historical or storytelling reasons, but because schedules and budgets mandate shortcuts. Not every image needs to be specific to time and place, of course. But if you're using archival stills or motion picture footage as visual evidence of the past, the images you select matter.

Another problem filmmakers encounter is that the cost to use commercial archival images (and prerecorded music, especially popular music) is often extremely high. In some cases, music and images may be added by the filmmakers and featured in the soundtrack or on screen. But they can also be hard to avoid, even in the background. If you're filming a character as he's arrested and a radio in a nearby car is blaring the latest hit, you might have to pay large fees for that snippet of song—or present the arrest without its sync soundtrack. At what point are rights issues hampering a filmmaker's freedom to document real life, or to explore the past and use material from the historical record? These are important issues, and while they're beyond the scope of this book, some information about current efforts to define "fair use" on behalf of documentary filmmakers is offered at the back of the book in the notes to Chapter 23.

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