Footage: Taking Stock

My earliest recollections of the use of stock footage conjure up three descriptions: expensive, difficult, ugly.
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My earliest recollections of the use of stock footage conjure up three descriptions: expensive, difficult, ugly.

Today, stock footage is everywhere, whether we notice it or not. It's often beautiful, and properly used, it can also be very cost-effective. Moreover, in an age in which projects are saddled with unworkable deadlines and impossible budgets, it has become invaluable to production folks. Stock-footage houses instantly provide you with pictures you could only dream of shooting, and stock footage doesn't get time-and-a-half after eight.

Some of my earliest production memories involve ordering footage from venerable old libraries like the Sherman Grinberg collection, usually to illustrate some historical script passage. Even in 1978 dollars, $1,000 per minute--plus search, dub and stock costs--was hard to swallow for the kind of nasty old footage I'd often wind up with. Thankfully, that ancient business model has been replaced, and producers everywhere are reaping the benefits.


My own use of stock footage over the intervening years has been sporadic, usually driven by a specific scripted call-out, not because I'd seen an opportunity to add visual interest, let alone to save a few dollars. I've had opportunities to use footage from broadcast news organizations such as CNN and NBC, and those images have usually done a good job of telling the story.

ABC News has reinvented its stock footage services over the years, and it now boasts a well-run, user-friendly operation. Originally, old ABC News camera reels were made available through the Sherman Grinberg library; today, ABC News VideoSource researchers catalog and prepare footage from several sources, including the Grinberg collection, which ABC now owns; reels from international news organizations; and, perhaps most interestingly, ABC crews' raw news footage, from the 1950s black-and-white film up to and including today's most current stories.

News footage has always served me well, usually providing exactly what was requested. It's not cheap, but because it's usually licensed by the second (above a minimum charge), it becomes a reasonable expense for productions that require it.


Last year, I saw something that really made me stop and rethink my notions about stock footage.

A public relations client of ours asked us to print a QuickTime file to tape for a pitch the company was about to give. Seems the client had created a few demo spots, pitching a campaign to promote a new, revitalized urban downtown near us.

I'll confess that when I watched the spots, I got a little red in the face. I'd expected a canned PowerPoint show, a storyboard animatic or even a "rip-o-matic" made up of pirated footage, but here were finished spots, already shot and edited... and we were never even asked to bid.

Moreover, they were beautifully filmed, with smiling faces and wonderful locations--the train station, a row of downtown shops, several restaurants and jazz clubs. I was sure I'd been on that block.

It was then that I noticed the telltale watermark across the screen... "Corbis." This was demo footage from the Corbis Motion collection, strung together and accompanied by a ripped track. My face was red once more, but for a different reason. Yes, you really can create an entire project from stock footage, quickly and inexpensively, and without apologies.

At this year's NAB show, I could have spent an entire afternoon visiting stock-footage booths. And I'd wager a guess that for every stock house big enough to pay for a tradeshow booth, there are two more selling specialized footage from tiny Web sites. One recent favorite of mine offers time-lapse footage almost exclusively.

The business has grown substantially, thanks not only to decreased budgets and increased shooting costs, but to increasing sophistication on the part of our viewing audiences as well. Remember when a rolling star field or time-lapse cloudscape was an exotic bit of fluff? Footage like this is standard fare now, and even small-time producers are expected to have a royalty-free collection or two on the shelf at all times.


And don't forget stock still photos. One recent project had us pasting pictures of the client's product into "lifestyles" shots purchased from two of the major stock photography houses. Seems the company never got around to taking "in-use" shots of this particular product line. Dragging the cameras out for the needed location shots was never an option for us. Stock shots filled the bill.

Completing the circle, this renewed interest in stock footage--as well as the cash it generates--has prompted the major stock houses to create ever more exotic and appealing shots and footage. A visit with the Artbeats team in Las Vegas, for instance, introduced me to several new collections of high-definition footage shot by and for the Artbeats collection, and it is available in a variety of resolutions and formats.

Stock footage has come a long way from its humble beginnings as leftovers and castoffs. And while it's true that reselling the footage over and over has paid off for its owners, here's the real secret--that same footage can make money for you, too. n

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at