Something Old, Something New: Archival Research Online

In the olden days (three or four years ago) producers in search of film footage of a particular subject–say, Alfred Hitchcock–would call a series of archives to find out if they had any. If so, the producer/researcher would go to the archive to look through hours of videotape. If the project was about, say, the influence of Hitchcock’s films, this research might expand exponentially to include clips by other filmmakers and generic horror scenes. Archival research was a complicated, time-consuming affair, one that involved a producer/researcher working closely with an archivist to find the best possible footage. For an additional cost, the archivist could do the research and send a videotape of the found footage.

Today, I can log onto a web site called search for "Hitchcock," and find out–in literally two seconds–that Passport to Hollywood has 264 records containing that name, the WPA Film Library has 168 records, British Pathe News has 58, Conus Communications 54, and so on, for 16 stock footage houses that collectively have 749 film clips. Then I can click on WPA and read a detailed description of each of the 168 records. At the Image Bank site (12 Hitchcock records), I can actually watch a clip of the great director getting off an airplane or shaking hands with the 1966 Mayor of New York.

In a very short period, the Internet has made archival research much more cost- and time-effective. But it also has its limitations. In fact, the rapid changes the Internet has wrought have been bittersweet for many professional researchers. "The classic craft of film research is in crisis," says Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archive. "It’s a profession that’s getting de-skilled. Producers will have interns or PAs do research rather than hiring a researcher." While researchers might have mixed feelings about being replaced by PAs, they also applaud the newfound ability to do a good portion of work from their home computers.

From the archives’ perspective, these technological advances offer much to be happy about. "Just the ability to get a database into our clients’ hands over the web is a good thing," says Matthew White, president of the WPA Film Library. "It’s changing the dynamic between the archive and the producer. They’re no longer so dependent on us, but can do a lot of the research themselves." He estimates that "60-70 percent of the clients are doing some kind of research on the web." Larger, well-funded archives like WPA and Historic Films have indexed almost their entire collections on their web sites, with every still photo and film clip described in great detail. For moving images, some archives time-code text descriptions, "so you can’see’ the action described moment by moment or second by second," explains Nancy Mulinelli, advertising director for Historic Films.

The archives’ indices paint the most accurate picture possible through words, creating an invaluable tool for researchers who may not have the time or money to travel to the archive. Archival researcher Rosemary Rotondi, who has worked with videomakers Daniel Reeves, Mary Lucier, and Rita Myers, among others, has been surprised by the effectiveness of Internet research. While recently looking for clips of former Senator Alan Simpson, she visited the Vanderbilt Television Archives‘ site and found written descriptions of 87 news broadcasts in which he had spoken, including complete transcripts. "Not only did I not think it would be so easy," says Rotondi, "I didn’t think there would be so much detail available."

But no matter how precise or detailed the description, showing actual photos or film clips online is a better option–and the obvious next step. The Image Bank, one of the more technologically advanced stock footage houses, already does this. "You have instant access to film material," says Darryl Morrison, manager of data operations. "You immediately see the shot you’re interested in." While the popular archival house used to have a text indexing system, they recognized its limitations. "If I were to try to describe the picture on my wall," Morrison explains, "it would take a long time to let you know what it looks like.’A picture’s worth a thousand words,’ they say. So, our current system gives you a thumbnail [image], so you can see what it is: a sepia-toned photo of people walking in shadows."

For moving images, The Image Bank’s site also shows thumbnails, that is, single frames from the requested footage. When you click on a thumbnail, you actually see a low resolution version of the footage. It is necessary to have QuickTime, but the program is easily downloaded off the web. Just click on the image and a message box pops up, telling you to download the necessary plug-in.

While The Image Bank’s low-res moving images are only available (or desirable) for preview purposes, purchasing downloaded still photos is becoming standard procedure. "On the film side of things, we’re ahead of the wave," says Morrison. "On the stills side, it’s the norm. You can actually have your entire transaction take place over the web. There’s something very clean about selling images over the Internet–you can download a decent image, and more and more clients want a digital file." It logically follows that such a system could exist for the sale and delivery of moving image footage.

For the moment, the amount of storage space and the sophisticated modem connections necessary to download video files have kept the archival footage business from catching up to still photo sales. The current technology dictates that moving images online be used primarily as a reference tool "for sales offices to show material to clients more quickly," says Morrison. "QuickTime files aren’t the best to look at it." He adds that there are "clients who place orders directly from the clipboard, because they don’t have a lot of time." Besides the rare rush job, however, most researchers still tend to request a video cassette of a clip before placing an order. The archivist ships a tape, and if it fits the bill, the order proceeds as it always has– with the negotiation of licensing fees, delivery, etc. happening by fax, phone, or (now) email between the client and the archive.

"There’s seemingly a lot of accessibility through the web," says archival researcher Lewanne Jones (Eyes on the Prize, The Millennium Pope), "in the sense that you can search a database. But most of the procedures after you contact the web site are pretty much as they’ve always been." Footage delivery, for example, still happens as it did before the digital revolution: by FedEx, messenger, or the US Postal Service. But Morrison predicts that the whole archival footage business will be digitally run in the next five to six years.

Other online resources include, the "one stop shopping" site that provides hyperlinks to archive clients, including the ABC and NBC News Archives, Archive Films/Archive Photos, CNN Image Source, Historic Films, Paramount Pictures, The Image Bank, and the WPA Film Library, among others. In addition to "Global Searches," like that described for the Hitchcock project, offers a "zap request," which is characterized on the site as "your free, instant email pipeline to companies, archives, and footage researchers who can help you find your exact shot." A user fills out an order form specifying the footage needed (some recent examples include "exterior shots of the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin" and "startled chickens against a blue screen"), the desired format, contact information, and priority (normal or urgent, with deadline). The request gets instantaneously "zapped" to participating sites, and anyone receiving it who has the requested shot responds directly to the client. This kind of efficiency was unheard of just a few years ago. Previously, a researcher would have to contact each of those sources separately and then wait to receive a tape or, in the most cost-effective scenario, make an appointment, go to the archive, and personally comb through tapes. In addition to these free, time-saving services, electronic licensing and footage delivery are upcoming at

While Internet research is a valuable first step, researchers and archivists agree that it has its limitations. For one, web sites don’t generally announce what percentage of the archive’s collection is represented online. Even in cases where the archive has logged its entire collection on its site, recent acquisitions may not have been added. "It’s a constant process," admits John McQuaid, vice president of sales and marketing at Archive Films, who advocates making a follow-up call to the archive following an Internet search. "A customer will come to us and say,’I’m doing a show on World War II and the Pacific,’ and we’ll know we just recently got some new footage that hasn’t been added to the database yet."

Some archives only have a portion of their libraries entered into their databases. Matthew White of WPA says, "30 percent of the library isn’t represented in the database, so if [clients] can’t find something they’re looking for, it makes sense to talk with a researcher." Experts on both sides feel that while preliminary research can be done online, the ideal situation is a collaborative process. McQuaid says, "We generally have to help people dig out the gems that are in there."

Even the speed of the Internet has its drawbacks. Researcher Lewanne Jones feels that the availability of information through easily accessible web sites "makes people think you don’t need any previous experience. Research tends to be discounted as a skill–ŒWe’ll put the intern on this.’ " The ease and accessibility of the Internet can also distort peoples’ expectations. Because materials and precise reference numbers can be located quickly online, Jones thinks producers often forget that time and energy are necessary components of effective research. "There’s a pressure on the researcher to provide at the speed of the Internet without a commensurate ability on the part of many archives to provide material," she says. "Everyone thinks you can just get what you desire instantaneously. It still requires a fair amount of time."

Jones stresses that while some of the houses with advanced web sites can quickly respond to footage requests, others are understaffed and underfunded, with a large amount of the business of stock footage happening the old fashioned way. "A few places have entered the digital age," she says, "but those are the Corbises, the Gettys, some of the networks. There’s a discrepancy between the hype and the manpower, the expense, and the funding to actualize it." Another limitation of the web is that the user has to know how to navigate it. "There are tricks to searching," says McQuaid. "Do you say FDR or do you say Roosevelt?"

"The problem with the web," says Prelinger, "is you’re very specific with your requests, so you don’t get anything that jogs the mind in different directions. I’ve learned never to undervalue serendipity." Effective research is a skill that is meant to lead to the discovery of the perfect image to suit the project. That perfect image might not necessarily be the one the researcher originally had in mind, and web sites can only give you what you ask for. "You can look under’sunset’ or’baseball’, but that only gives you the content," Prelinger says. "When you’re making a film, you’re not looking for a particular image to fill a hole." He gives the example of searching for fighting shots. "You can search for’bully’, for’boxing.’ You can search’fight.’ You can search’aggression,’ I don’t know;’testosterone’? It’s hard to search an image conceptually online."

Beyond altering the mechanics of buying, selling, licensing, and delivering digital images via the Internet, a more revolutionary possibility for change lies in the potential consequences for documentary production in general. Prelinger hypothesizes that "production isn’t going to matter as much." He explains: "Right now, people only have the option to view completed materials. Old men who want to see war footage watch the History Channel. As more of that footage comes up online, they’ll be able to look at primary records." By making original source material available to the public, the Internet could decrease the demand for documentaries, or at least the bad ones. Why watch a mediocre documentary (made by "slapping together cheap historical footage and adding a narration," according to Prelinger), when you can see history in the raw, without a filmmaker’s agenda thrown in? "Right now, if you make a film and put stock footage in it, the viewer doesn’t know where the footage has come from and doesn’t care, but in the future, it might just say,’click here for footage.’ " In order to hold an audience that has access to historical footage online, movies will have to be pretty good.

Whether or not movies are changed by the availability of archival footage remains to be seen. What is clear is that the professionals working in the industry today are experiencing change at a dramatic rate. Among them, there will be people who applaud the advances and others who mourn an old-fashioned system, one that was all about combing through the footage they love all day long. Those people will insist on the many advantages of that messy, old system. As Prelinger puts it, "If you want something easy, you’ll find it. But you still have to look at reels. You still have to go on site. There is no substitute for elbow grease."

About :

Andrea Meyer covers film for Interview, Time Out New York, indieWIRE, and the New York Post. She also reports on relationships and celebrities for Glamour.