Have you ever wondered how low-budget productions manage to come up with feature films that so effectively create a bygone age? Do you ever stop to think, how did they manage to make an entire scene, with era-specific cars, fashions, shops, and architecture, doing it so precisely as to make you feel as if you were in a different world?
The key to a good or even great historical drama is the way the world is presented to you and how believable it feels. Some films and tv shows will deliberately shoot as many interiors as possible to cut back on the need to put together large-scale reproductions of a past decade.
Others will go out of their way to give you set piece after set piece, showing off the scale and majesty of their work. This doesn’t come cheap, but there are ways to ‘cheat’ a little when it comes to these recreations.
Some recent films have done a masterful job of showing a period of time expertly, one being Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the golden age of Hollywood in his recent movie Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.
The Oscar-winning director puts in some truly incredible sequences, one that stands out, particularly is where one of his leads, Cliff Booth, takes a speedy drive through the late 60s streets of Los Angeles. The way the scene is shot shows off the streets of the area as they would’ve been in 1969; this isn’t high-quality stock footage; it’s a fantastic result of expert production design and some camera trickery and done so in such a convincing way that you are left in awe of the creation playing out of the big screen.
Often when considering the merits of period dramas, you’ll be met with the terms of archive footage and stock footage, which are two entirely different branches of the same art form, and we take a closer look at the merits of each below.
What is Archive Footage?
Archive footage almost always refers to footage literally belonging to an archive, and these can be both private or public. This is a key distinction in terms of the relevant costs that may be associated with the use of either. It’s historical footage from the relevant era and, as such, is a documented video of the time period in question.
For instance, a World War II feature may look to intersperse smaller scale shoot footage that is wholly original with archive footage of soldiers walking into an occupied town or city. This would help the filmmaker set their film firmly in the right context and give their project that added scale, and it is possible to use this in such a way that it looks like a seamless part of the overall film.
Similarly, documentary programs may look to almost solely using archive footage, such as in a documentary about the Vietnam War. This is a widespread way to use archive material, news channels also use it if they don’t have footage of their own to draw upon, and they’ll then do so with the appropriate credit.
What is Stock Footage?
Stock footage tends to be more generic in nature and isn’t always historically relevant. It’s commonly used in low-budget film and commercial projects. It usually includes footage used for scene-setting and transitions.
For example, a tv series or film may be set in a mountain retreat but is almost entirely shot on sets. The filmmaker may then look to use stock footage of a mountain pass or a mountain range to help set the scene and give the viewer the right context, thus offering a director and producer additional scale.
Similarly if someone is shooting an advert pushing a company and wants to shoot a busy office scene, they may look to stock footage as a more accessible option as it could be of a higher quality than what they might shoot themselves.
Stock footage is more accessible and is offered by specific providers who host vast amounts of it, making it an easily used and accessed resource. That is different from archival footage that is specific to a time and place.
Both Have Specific Invaluable Uses
Both archive and stock footage are of great use, and they pretty much cover entirely different needs. They are both used to supplement and compliment an original production, either by putting that production in a time or place or by offering scale and scope.
Stock footage is best secured via royalty-free providers, where there are no additional costs and issues related to copyright and licensing. This has become a prevalent mode of visual content used by social media influencers and filmmakers working on tight budgets.
The quality of the content is far beyond simply being ‘generic’ and is shot by professionals and often more than just additions for commercials and advertisements.
Now you can get longer form clips and scenes that are narratively complex and very professional in nature, both in terms of the quality of camera equipment but also in terms of the storytelling.
Archive footage quality by its very nature won’t usually be great quality as it’s usually footage shot at the time and therefore if you want archive footage of London in the swinging 60s, it may not be in great condition, though often that’s is actually the look and feel that someone might be wanting to capture anyway.
The use of archive and stock footage is growing ever more prevalent as the amount of content we create and consume increases dramatically year on year; therefore, both still have a great deal of use for filmmakers, producers, and editors.
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