Everything old is new again

The golden age of old film and other archival assets

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Old film

We are living in a golden-age of new uses for old film.

The growing appearance of old film in new media has prompted interest in its uses and effects. In fact, CBS Sunday Morning recently featured a story on the “golden age of documentary filmmaking” that discusses the growth of this genre, driven in no small part by Netflix along with greater creativity in nonfiction storytelling.

Netflix doesn’t usually share its ratings publicly but, after 50 million people watched the Sandra Bullock-starring film Bird Box within days of its release, the company rightfully let the world know. And although it’s a notorious example, Bird Box has generated huge headlines for a number of reasons, including its use of a very controversial piece of stock footage from a 2013 rail disaster in the Canadian province of Quebec that killed 47 people.

Archival stock footage in documentaries

Stock footage in scripted entertainment is common but less frequent than its use in documentaries. And there are a lot of documentaries showing up on cable, in theaters and, especially, streaming. On Netflix, shows such as Making of a Murderer, Wild, Wild Country and Evil Genius are huge hits, with Murderer even getting a second season this year. Both Making of a Murderer and Wild, Wild Country currently have 98% approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. All of these shows feature stock footage. Lots of it. Following on their heels is The Ted Bundy Tapes and Abducted in Plain Sight. Netflix’s Ted Bundy docuseries is built almost entirely from stock footage and Abducted actually has new scenes that use special effects to create the look of old home movies, designed to blend seamlessly with actual home movies.

In 2018 alone, four documentaries were among the top 30 highest grossing documentaries of all time. According to Box Office Mojo, the Mr. Rogers documentary,  Won’t You Be My Neighbor, has grossed almost $24 million and Three Identical Strangers, the story of identical triplets separated from birth as part of a “nature versus nurture” experiment and later reunited, has grossed $13 million. Both of these films are currently still playing.

Surging interest in genealogy

On PBS, the sixth season of Finding Your Roots has recently begun; this popular show currently has seasons 1-5 available on Amazon Prime. Genealogy Roadshow on PBS is in its third season and both of these shows fit in with wider cultural trends of personal discovery and a desire to excavate our pasts. And besides using stock footage created by corporations or movie studios, all of this new media also relies heavily on people’s home movies and other records to fill in the storylines. With Facebook a near-universal platform for sharing our current ‘home movies’ and selfies, we are a society that values self-reflective media. And the market is serving it in many ways.  

Use of stock footage more than a trend

It’s an exciting trend to see stock footage so front and center, but it’s really only an evolution in a very established practice. For example, what could possibly connect the two legendary but very different Hollywood films of The Shining and Blade Runner? They share the same piece of photography. The image is of beautiful mountains with towering forests and rolling green hills. It’s the creepy shot you see in the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The camera, filming from a helicopter, soars over forests and cliffs, following the characters’ car below as they drive a winding mountain road.

This same photograph was used during the finale of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. It’s the rolling green hills you see as the characters drive their car toward a sort of happy ending. Two movies made by different filmmakers, but one, Blade Runner, purchased the rights to use a shot from the other, The Shining. And that’s a common practice.     

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Re-using and licensing motion picture footage

Movie studios generate thousands of hours of footage that are just ingredients in a larger recipe, ‘elements’ of a more elaborate or special effects heavy scene. They will only use a few seconds or minutes out of the hours filmed. A smart producer or rightsholder will make this footage available as stock footage. It shouldn’t get tossed in the trash. As the years go by, this footage often increases in value and meaning, eventually becoming a historical record.

Many major film studios know this and have been saving these special effects elements to reuse and license to others. There can be many uses for footage like this. Either as backgrounds for another special effects scene, or as parts of documentaries or other scripted and non-scripted media.

That kind of work has been going on for as long as there has been a film industry. Moving images of every kind are being transferred to digital formats. They will feed a pipeline as old as the movie business, finding new life as either stock footage or historical records.

But now, the current hunger for “new” old moving images is insatiable. Docuseries and documentaries occupy a massive block of programming for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, PBS, the ID Network, Bravo, Lifetime and dozens of other channels. The ease of access provided by sites such as YouTube, Reddit, Buzzfeed, Vimeo and others helps deepen the churn of images we are consuming. So stock footage is more alive than ever and it comes from diverse sources.

Value of moving images outside the commercial movie industry

Besides movie studios and commercial filmmakers, many companies that don’t make movies as their core business still generate lots of moving images. They can be retailers or manufacturers that have created films for internal use, like employee training. Aerospace companies that filmed aircraft tests. Companies that filmed innovations and progress in their products or manufacturing processes. Company picnics caught on video or a cellphone camera. Safety films for operating industrial equipment.

Let’s not forget home movies—countless millions of hours of home movies have been created since the advent of moving image filming. These have also entered the public sphere and become valuable parts of stock footage libraries. And museums and historical societies everywhere have placed great value on locally created movies. In the UK, the British Film Institute (BFI) helps support a network of small, regional film archives that are scattered across the country. They work with local residents and businesses to bring in their old films and create new digital transfers, helping to build a historical database rich in moving images.

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One of these BFI-affiliated regional archives, the Yorkshire Film Archive, describes the reasons they are interested in all films:

The films we hold are largely non-fiction, or ‘film as record’.  Made by amateurs and professionals alike – the collections include industrial collections – shipbuilding, mining, steel, textiles, farming and fishing, the Yorkshire and Tyne Tees Television news and regional programmes, alongside the astonishing outputs of local cine clubs recording events in their communities, and home movie enthusiasts capturing their families on holidays, or at home, and in doing so also recording a fascinating social history of life in the regions over the decades.”

Inside museums, libraries, historical and educational institutions, there is growing awareness of the need to convert all photographs and transfer moving images, both to create richer media in-house as well as spreading beyond, by sharing images and media online.

Home movies and industrial/commercial/training films can pop up all over newer films and commercials. In the recent documentary about early UFO culture in America, Calling All Earthlings (available on Amazon Prime), filmmaker, Jonathan Berman used footage from dozens of sources. Simple shots of a car speeding along a road were taken from old home movies now available for use in many stock footage libraries, like the Prelinger Archives, along with old industrial footage of businessmen in dark suits and government-training films featuring nuclear explosions. In one of Berman’s earlier films; Commune (2005), he traced the lives of several families over many years starting in 1968.

According to the filmmaker,

“Home movies are key… the before and after. The poignancy of seeing the subjects as young in Commune help enormously with the audience identifying emotionally with the people in the film.”

A series of comedy short films called SUCCE$$, available on YouTube, has been created entirely from corporate stock footage films—simple images like a group of people clapping their hands. Edited and repurposed into new films, it shows how non-commercial industrial films are finding new life.

So the next time you binge watch a true crime doc or see a TV commercial for pickup trucks, ask yourself where they got that shot of the kids waving flags at a small town parade. Or that establishing shot of a Florida courthouse on 1977. Or that cool shot of a giant metal stamper flattening an old car. Chances are it’s a new life for an old image.

Old films and images will continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers, historians, storytellers and the curious. And the creative life of any image may never, ever, truly be over.

Do you have a collection of moving images and other archival assets in need of professional restoration and preservation? Contact the content and archive professionals at LAC Group.

Danny Kuchuck

Danny Kuchuck

Danny Kuchuck is a filmmaker, writer and archivist living in New York. He is a former film technician and project manager for LAC Group, and prior to that, PRO-TEK Vaults.
Danny Kuchuck

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