Editing with an Archive / by KirstenStudio

Recently I've had the first time experience of working on a project that required heavy use of historical imagery, such as still photographs, news clippings and memorabilia. Shot footage consisted of 95% talking head and the rest, general location b-roll. The wealth of still imagery has been overwhelming and fantastic at the same time (thus the lack of blogging as of late).  Having almost no sync scene footage to work with has been a learning experience since even with the numerous stills and nice ample b-roll, there weren't always enough story telling elements for particular sections the director definitely wanted kept in the cut.  After working on documentaries where the primarily footage had been shot in a more verite manner, this brought about different story construction and problem solving considerations I hadn't encountered before. Enter archive.org, the non-profit internet library which includes texts, audio, moving images, software and archived web pages. This site and it's contents helped me out more than once on this job. I have found Rick Prelinger's collection (a sub-collection within the Internet Archive), particularly helpful.  The Prelinger Archives consists of a vast assortment of 60,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films. A little over 2,000 are available on Internet Archives. Mr. Prelinger and Internet Archives offers this selection as free downloads. Mr. Prelinger has been collecting "ephemeral" films (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) and home movies since the early 80's. In 2000 the majority of it was acquired by  The Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

A person interested in these types of historical moving images can get completely lost on archive.org just poking around the site. From Coronet Instructional films, a company owned by Esquire and shown in schools across the country starting in the 1940's, to military promotional films from World War II, to vocational guidance films, to travel logs, to news and magazine reels.  The list goes on and the editing possibilities with this material are endless.  Check out the Internet ArchivesPrelinger index here.

Mr. Prelinger and the Internet Archives generously encourages use of their public domain material for multiple uses.  As their site reads, "By providing near-unrestricted access to these films, we hope to encourage widespread use of moving images in new contexts by people who might not have used them before."

So I took their suggestion. For example I was able to illustrate a story of a car accident where the vehicle was totaled but the driver amazingly survived with nothing but a few scratches. I did this by using the film's subject's interview audio and by way of a Christian made industrial on the sins of drunk driving off archive.org.  An animated short done in great hip, 50's style graphics and a terrific jazz track with horns (a still from the video above). It was a perfect fit. The accident even occurred during the 1950's, so that only made it better.  I just cut around the original narration and it appears as a cartoon of a gentleman falling asleep at the wheel due to fatigue, rather than intoxication.  I didn't need much of it, just a few shots. Without it, I might have been faced with the talking head interview (which would make for the long, less interesting version of the story) or weak cutaways.  The fact, that in the end the subject isn't injured in the crash works well with a goofy cartoon version of his mishap. I think the tone of the subject's voice can make a difference too.  You can sometimes use an animation for a more sober discussion.  It really depends on the tone of the person(s) speaking and the tone of the scene itself. Another aspect of using a cartoon to illustrate is that no one (or at least let's hope not) is going to mistake it for being actual footage of the accident. Using it doesn't mislead the audience about the person or story.  I only mention this because it's always something to look at when you're using outside source imagery.

But the Internet Archives are much more than an interest for editors. There is a whole sub-culture of ephemeral films and home movie enthusiasts out there, including myself that just visit archives.org and home movie organizations for the pure joy of it.  It is also a cultural history lesson, from early suburban and highway planning, to influences of consumerism and military propaganda. One can really get an idea of how, especially Americans, have been shaped into who we are today.

I realize that using archival and stock footage to enhance story telling is nothing new. This has been my first crack at it in any sort of extensive way and because of that, I've really been noticing all the more ways in which filmmakers use these kinds of resources very creatively.  Of course there are the obvious film examples such as Atomic Cafe (1982), which makes incredible use of frightening 1940's and 50's U.S. government funded films and newsreels on nuclear development. Another is a lesser known, but a favorite of mine, Must Read After My Death (2007), which makes effective and emotional use of a family's 8mm home movies, audio recordings and written accounts.  The Filmmaker Morgan Dews crafts a mysterious and spooky telling of his 1960's family's unraveling, told through audio recordings of his Grandmother, Allis.

Although the above "for instances" are directly related to the subject matter of those films, other docs pair archival audio and/or visual material with their own footage that might not normally ever  be associated with one another and it really creates some magic (I'll skip the disasters).  Try Errol MorrisFast Cheap & Out of Control (1997) as a great example of this (Screening at STF in a couple weeks)

Of course there is a certain responsibility the filmmaker must adhere to.  You can't go throwing things in willy-nilly without thinking through the implications. Editing can convey so many different meanings in a story and people who work in film have to take that responsibility seriously.  We have to uphold ethical standards, so even if what you've put together plays great, it's important to be reflective by thinking through whether the combination of elements you've just stirred together remains within the purpose of the scene and subjects and it's possible impacts. I think that all goes without saying for most of us. There are tons of films using archival material in inventive ways without compromising the intent of the story.

The cool thing about working with archival material is that is great fun to explore and find different pieces that can make something work.  It's even better if your budget allows for an experienced archival researcher who gets what you're looking for. But just like any editing, figuring out how the puzzle fits together in efficient, emotional AND entertaining ways is hard work. But oh so satisfying when it happens, especially upon first laying something in the timeline and realizing it plays well. Then you get to try again many times over, because your first cut is never your last.

There is much discussion about the use of archival material and in light of this project I've been on, I did check out Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker's Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music, by Sheila Curran Bernard and Kenn Rabin.  Another great reference is a book I've been reading again on the subway, entitled, Documentary Storytelling for Video and Filmmakers, also by Ms. Bernard.