5 Tips for Sourcing Archival Materials

One thing to keep in mind as you source for archival material is that it can be an overwhelming experience at first. But if you do it right and if you know where to look, it’s going to be worth it.  Here are some best ways and places for you, the documentary filmmaker, to properly receive and use archival materials – whether you have to pay for the usage or not.


1. Understand License Fee vs. Royalty-free vs. Public Domain

The very first thing that I’ll mention to you is that you need to have a working knowledge of the different terms associated with archival footage.  An important distinction to understand as you set out to obtain archival material is the difference between license and royalty-free and public domain (or also referred to as copyright fee, in some instances).

The obvious one is license fee.  If you have to pay for a license, you will have a contract set up between you and the licensing party.  They may be a stock photo agency, they may be an individual who owns copyrights to the footage, they may be a commercial entity who owns the copyrights.  You are setting up a contract with the entity or individual which gives you the rights to the footage, usually for a set amount of time and usually for a type of distribution and territories of distribution.

Now, it’s the term royalty-free that often throws people.  And with good reason.  We see that little word ‘free’ attached to royalty and can easily assume that it means that the footage is free to license and use.  Of course, this is not the case at all.  Yes, it may be cheaper than going the usual license route, but it is not free.  Royalty-free simply means that after deciding upon how and where footage will be used and for how long you pay a one-time fee and then you don’t pay royalties on the usage of the material afterwards.

And of course Public Domain or copyright free is truly free of charge.  It is material that either never had or is no longer under copyright.  It is free for your use.

Which leads me to…


2. The National Archives

This one is a no-brainer for anyone living in the United States. It is THE primary source for US Govt films and donated archival collections.  And the wonderful thing is that much of the footage or photographs are in the Public Domain, so the only costs that you will be responsible for lab costs and/or shipping.

Another wonderful thing is that access to their extensive library – which comes with a wealth of notes and information pertaining to the archival material, by the way – is entirely on the internet.  Many of you may chuckle at this and say of course it is.  Well, I can assure you that it wasn’t all that long ago that this database didn’t exist.

In 2004, we had to take a trip to Washington D.C. to go through footage by hand.  We had to fill out paper work there and it was weeks before the footage was shipped to us.  If you think about it, can you imagine the time it would take to research and log information, then upload the archival material to a database?  This must have been extraordinary work.

In any case, to see what The National Archives has simply go to archives.gov.  You will be able to take advantage of their searchable library there, and then order archival material directly from there.


3. Focal International

Of course, the National Archives doesn’t really help my global #doclifers out there.  For you guys, I can recommend the London-based Focal International.  Now, don’t necessarily expect that all archival material will be free.  This is more of an extensive resource intended for professional film researchers, film and television producers, commercial film and audiovisual libraries.

Focal International will point you to where you need to go to either get permission or to pay a fee for the archival material.  They will supply you with details and information, contact information and website addresses you will need.  The thing with Focal is that it is absolutely massive in what it offers.  It pulls from over 120 footage libraries from 20 countries from six of the continents. (Perhaps no Antarctica?  Maybe #doclifer and past guest Anthony Powell can get on that)  Their website is focalint.org.


4. License Upfront

The idea here is to license as much as you can afford upfront. What this means, is that you should take a very broad look at where and how you’d like your film to be distributed well before seeking out licensing of any footage.

The reason being is that, for example, if you were to license a piece of footage for your film for, say theatrical distribution within the UK and a couple of other European countries, well then when you want to distribute for domestic television rights, cable television rights, international television outlets, DVD distribution domestically and internationally… well, you’ll have to set up a contract all over again.  And that, unfortunately, can sometimes become far more expensive than if you had done it the first time around.

So make sure to know where you’d like to distribute before you contract out for your archival footage. If you can, err on the side of inclusion. Estimate as much distribution as you can.  Yes, it may be a little expensive up front, but it could be well worth avoiding having to re-contract footage later on, when either you’ve used up post production funds or when you return to the entity who you originally purchased footage from they’ve jacked up the licensing fees on you.


5. Cast Out a Wide Net About Your Need for Footage

The idea here is to cast a very wide net out in the hopes that some archival fishies will come back to you.  By getting word out about your documentary, you not only increase awareness of your film, but it is also a way of letting people know – whether directly or not – that you may have a need for archival footage.

You’ll be amazed at the people who will out of nowhere find a way to reach you to inform you of old family movies they have that you can use. Or photos of your subject that no one else has seen.

As we’ve seen with our current documentary project Elvis of Cambodia. It’s been amazing to see the world reaching out to us, to tell us how their father or friend of the family knew our subject. Or how they had music that no one else had. Or they had photographs that we might be able to use.

Now, of course, there will be entities reaching out to you that want to sell you footage. That’s to be expected.  And really, that’s okay. Because you might be able to score some footage that you never knew about, and that may, in fact, be affordable.

Casting a wide net for potential footage can be a fascinating and sometimes in-expensive way to locate footage that may, in fact, otherwise have never even seen the light of day.


How have you gone about sourcing archival footage in the past? What challenges and triumphs have you encountered? Let us know your experiences and recommendations in the comments below.


Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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