In recent years, it seems that every aspect of nonfiction filmmaking is ripe for innovation and experimentation, including the use of archival footage. Alongside new strategies for shooting, structuring, narrating, interviewing, dramatizing and advocating, there have been myriad ways of employing archival footage. From films comprised entirely of archival footage or audio (“Senna,” “Listen to Me Marlon”), to archival footage being held in reserve for a crucial and emotional reveal (“Waltz With Bashir”), to turning over the box and constructing a narrative out of the treasures in the pile (“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”), there seems to be no end to the ways in which documentarians can marshal archival material to support, amplify, shape and define their art.
At this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival, three directors spoke
with veteran filmmaker Manfred Becker about how they approached and
incorporated archival material in their festival films. Jessica Edwards talked
about her film “Mavis!,” which brings
the story of soul singer Mavis Staples to rollicking life; Douglas Tirola
recounted the challenges of exhuming the ecstatically bawdy remains of
America’s most notorious and influential comedy magazine with “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon”; and archival documentary veteran Michèle Hozer described how “Sugar Coated,” a penetrating examination of
today’s culture and business of sugar, sent her to back to the archives to
discover uncanny patterns of discourse.
Before the discussion started, Becker offered a working definition for archival elements of nonfiction filmmaking — noting how the process can be both exciting and perilous. “The use of archival in documentary film is the re-appropriation of previously recorded documents, images and sounds from the historical world,” he said, “which comes with all kinds of beautiful possibilities, creatively, but it also has to do with responsibility and is fraught with dangers.” Distilled from the discussion that followed, these five strategies for working with archival footage encompass both creative possibilities as well as ethical and legal quandaries.
Focus on archival material that illustrates your subject in a unique way.
Tirola, however, decided to take a more creative approach to the dilemna. “We decided because the movie is based for a large part on this magazine, The National Lampoon, that we would pretend those archive houses did not exist, and every image in the movie that isn’t either an interview or footage that we found of the actual characters or photos, was going to be from the magazine,” he said, giving an example of a scene where one of the founders freaks out and goes to Martha’s Vineyard, takes a lot of acid and puts mud on his face. “We looked to see if there was anything of a beach that anybody drew or made a photograph of. And then we manipulated the [original magazine] artwork to tell the story. That was the idea all the way through—to use the magazine to get you back into the era. You get more of what their point of view of the world is, which is off kilter,” he explained.
Position archival material within the present tense of the film.
“I think it’s very easy, especially if you’re making a music film and if it’s about one person, to fall into [making] this historical document,” said Edwards. “But the reason I was attracted to Mavis to begin with was her vitality now. I wanted to tell her history but I didn’t want it to appear historical.”
One challenge was how to present Mavis in connection to the civil rights movement of the 1960s without making it feel stale. Mavis “influenced and was influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King, and so we were talking about how to position Mavis in that history. Every time we started to use that black and white footage of the Selma March and things like that, it started to feel like a historical document as opposed to a contemporary piece of the movement,” said Edwards. “For Mavis the movement didn’t end in the ’60s, it’s still going on.”
Edwards said she “made a conscious decision that anything having to do with archival in the film is really included in her [place in the present].” So when the film was telling an MLK story, Edwards said, they would film at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where Mavis and her family first met MLK. Edwards explained, “we shot contemporary footage of the church and used that as she was telling the story. So to me it’s really about keeping her in the now, which was a challenge the whole way through. In documentaries there are cues that archival gives you, and in this context it becomes a time machine. But what ended up happening because we didn’t use this strategy is that we had to be careful about our timeline. We had to position people properly within her history.”
Use archival footage to create a parallel between the past and present.
“Here I was with ‘Sugar Coated’ —a contemporary subject—but archival footage found me again,” joked Hozer before explaining the premise of the documentary. “When we started to research we found old footage that talked about the exact same issue. We found vintage films that could have been made today,” said Hozer. “The old adage that history is repeating itself came to mind. As a filmmaker you want to be part of the debate, but you also want to show patterns of human behavior and in society. I thought the best way is to show the old debate and the new debate. Until we understand where we’ve been we don’t know how to solve the problem today.”
Set aside more money and time for archival work than you think you’ll need. And get a good lawyer.
“The thing with archival footage is once you start working with it it’s extremely labor-intensive,” said Hozer. “It’s not like verité footage where you can let a shot run on for 10 or 20 seconds. Sometimes with archival footage it’s every two or three seconds that you’re cutting to something new.” Also, the budget can easily get out-of-control. “With archival footage you never know what your budget is. You state a number and your producers will tell you ‘no way, you’ll never spend that much,’ and by the time production is over you’ve spent twice as much,” said Hozer. She explained how costs escalate. “For one really important clip they might want thousands of dollars and you just have to pay—it just works too well in the film [to not pay for it]. So it’s very unpredictable.”
Then there are the legal concerns. “Not only are you working with this footage, but you’re working with lawyers to deal with footage in terms of making sure that you’re not discrediting anyone,” said Hozer. “We finished the movie in January and we spent two months with the lawyers, going back and forth. It was as if we were defending a thesis. Everything had to be footnoted, all the archival footage had to be dissected, how we were using it, do we have the proper rights? It was an arduous process.”
Tirola had to deal with legal issues on “Drunk Stoned Dead” as well. He explained, “We had a clip of John Belushi when he was with National Lampoon doing an Off-Broadway show called ‘Lemmings,’ and in the middle of the song they had written, he does a parody of Joe Cocker, and sings about one verse of ‘Get By With a Little Help with My Friends,’ which the Beatles wrote. Not easy to deal with at all. But we were told by our attorney that we could use it because it was part of [the Lemmings performance]. Then when we tried to have a little bit of the song go under some commentary, the lawyers were like, ‘no, you have to re-edit it—you can’t use that music as just background music. It has to be its own piece.”
“They love to edit the film for you. If you get a lawyer who’s a big proponent of fair use, they’ll act as your advocate. It’s not that you’re using it without permission, it’s that you’re using it in a way that you don’t have to pay for it,” said Edwards.
But fair use isn’t a panacea either. “Don’t ever think of fair use as a ‘get out of jail’ card. You could get in trouble,” cautioned Becker. “I’ve known people who’ve made films that are brilliant, and used a clip that wasn’t quite cleared or halfway cleared, and then suddenly festivals want it and yet they couldn’t distribute it because it wasn’t cleared. Better to connect your dots in the first place.”
Utilize YouTube and other direct-access online sources for both research and sourcing, but be aware that it’s not as easy at it seems.
Hozer said she also relied on YouTube for material “because part of the sugar debate gets fought on YouTube. One of our characters is considered to have re-launched the sugar debate within the last four years because he put onto YouTube a dry, 90-minute talk on sugar that went viral. Yes it’s a great research tool—it helps you find a lot of material. But official researchers hate the fact that you use it, because you say go find the original or find me the rights, and they go ‘yeah right.'” Tracking down those rights can be very difficult, she said.
“Today’s visual researchers are a bit like travel agents, because now everything is available online,” said Hozer, who added that she prefers to do her own research. “I know what images I’m looking for. I often do this at night, going to Getty Images or the CBS library, all these archival sites. As a filmmaker it’s like watching rushes—it’s always there.” Even if you employ visual researchers early on in the process, Hozer said, “what you end up doing is ‘hey, I found all these clips that are now in the film—find me the rights.’ Or you give your visual researcher really tough pieces to find, pieces that take way more work. I don’t think it’s a dying craft, but because there’s much more online visual researchers can be used in a different way.”