As part of the History Focus and Archives Workshops lead by Elizabeth Klinck for the Connected Edition of Sunny Side of the Doc 2020, we take a look at the numerous ingenious ways of using archive footage in a documentary production.
In spring 2020, the health crisis brought filming to an abrupt standstill all across the world. Despite restrictive measures being eased slightly in some parts of the world, filming live scenes is proving to be difficult. Flexibility is a must. You have to find ways of getting around such restrictions – and using archive materials is just one way of doing so. As part of the Archives Workshops lead by Elizabeth Klinck during the Connected Edition of Sunny Side of the Doc in June 2020, we discussed this effective, agile method which favours a “short supply chain”.
Giving classic film a new lease of life
In October 2020, the Lumière MIFC (the World Classic Film Market in Lyon, France) held a one-day workshop dedicated to classic films from across the European Union, looking at how culture and innovation are both inherently linked to classic film.
In a recent article published in Le Film Français on 16th October, it stated that: “In preparation for the European Union’s Horizon-Innovation programme for 2021-2027 (research and innovation framework programme) which is currently being finalised by different European authorities, Maria-Silvia Gatta (European Commission representative from DG Connect) explained that classic film and digitalisation will carve out a niche for themselves. The idea is to build bridges between culture and the economy, by using digital tools to promote culture.
The EU representative also believes that we must ‘sell’ cultural heritage Europe wide, as a mix between culture, European history, innovation and resilience all while strengthening the sector’s economy as part of the Horizon-Innovation programme, which offers an opportunity that we should not pass up on.”
A collective approach
The notion of a co-production can truly take on its full meaning when it comes to archival research (photos, recorded images, audio, etc.). Andrew Bird’s documentary “Berlin 1945: Diary of a Metropolis” is a fine example of this. As one of the most influential film editors on the international documentary production scene, he explains that “it’s thanks to the contribution of numerous researchers from several countries like France, the USA, the UK and Russia that we managed to gather an incredible amount of never-before-seen archival footage.”
Mixing sequences from archive TV news footage and propaganda videos with photos and copies of private diaries, the documentary manages to create a coherent story that’s incredibly universal – paradoxically thanks to this diverse approach.
Another example is “The Secret History of WW2” series produced by WoodCut Media in collaboration with Channel 5 and Histoire TV. It is also had diverse source materials, meaning the subject matter could be treated in a rich, in-depth manner. “We had a lot of difficulty in finding archive footage of African soldiers – not only due to people unwilling to make footage available, but also due to its rarity,” explains Kate Beal, CEO of WoodCut.
“We thought it inconceivable to not show this aspect of the world war and I’m delighted that our research paid off…. enabling us to gather such beautiful images.”
Storytelling and remembrance
Berlin 1945 : Diary of a metropolis
Apart from documentary production, collecting archive materials is a way of preserving historic and cultural heritage. “We were given access to and thus developed an incredibly precise catalogue of resources,” explains Andrew Bird. “Some archive footage was filmed in 16:9, others in 4:3, but we didn’t want to change any of these different formats because they each tell their own story.
“We then made a 4K scan of everything, and for each archive we created a tag system making it easier for us to find an item for the documentary we were making… but also with the purpose of creating a database, an archive library for future use.” As producers, editors and broadcasters point out, rights management is a prerequisite for the use of archives. “Purchasing archive footage for ‘Berlin 1945’ turned out to be a bit expensive, but ultimately quite easy to organise,” explains Andrew Bird, “Although there were times when we had to change a sequence at the last minute because we had difficulties in obtaining the rights on time.”
For Tom Jennings, archive footage can just as much be a video clip as it can a photograph or even a contact sheet. “When you want to tell a story, everyone has an iconic photo ingrained in their memory, but we mustn’t forget that it is part of a long series. And if you look closely, sometimes you can find another ‘gem’ which tells the story in a different way, from another angle and taken within the space of a few minutes.” For the audience, the memory linked to the legendary photo is thus reinforced by this ‘new’ image.
The same can be applied to sound recordings, whether they are private recordings or radio archives. “We too often forget the audio medium, but it offers greater narrative freedom to those who know how to use it,” details the producer of Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes.
Elizabeth Klinck is a copyright expert and producer specialising in archival materials. Right on cue, she also adds, “Audio material and photos are often cheaper in terms of purchasing and managing rights. “
B&W or colour: reaching younger audiences
Using archive footage is a great way of reaching younger audiences and opening their eyes, especially in a world governed by fake news. Many archives are now colourized – provoking various reactions on the notion of preservation and/or denaturation. The North American company West Wings Studios believes the story is “neither black nor white but in colour“.
While 50% of their colourisation activity concerns documentary, Vivek Rao and Stanton Rutledge’s credo goes beyond the aforementioned slogan. They believe that the impact of a colourized historical image will be greater on younger audiences, who have always experienced audiovisual imagery in colour. “It will inevitably have more resonance and will reflect today’s news more.”