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Ken Burns Shares 9 Useful Tips for Sourcing Archival Footage

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 26, 2020 • 7 min read

The use of archival footage can elevate your documentary film. Sourcing archival film, photos, letters, newsreels, newspapers, and other sources of archive material can help your viewers connect with the topic and adds integrity to your documentary filmmaking. These visuals help the audience fully realize events that they did not personally witness. Exploring digital film libraries and image archives is a great way to supplement your historical documentary and add context to your movie’s talking heads.

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Ken Burns Teaches Documentary FilmmakingKen Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.

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A Brief Introduction to Ken Burns

Ken Burns has been making documentary films for more than 40 years. Ken’s films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including 15 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and two Oscar nominations. In September of 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Ken was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award. A December 2002 poll conducted by Realscreen magazine listed The Civil War (1990) as second only to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as the “most influential documentary of all time,” and named Ken Burns and Robert Flaherty as the “most influential documentary makers” of all time. Since making his first documentary, the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Ken has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical feature documentaries ever made, including The Statue of Liberty (1985), Huey Long (1985), Baseball (1994), Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The Dust Bowl (2012), Jackie Robinson (2016), and The Vietnam War (2017) His latest documentary for PBS, The Gene: An Intimate History was released in April 2020.

Ken Burns Explains the Importance of Looking for Ordinary Life When Sourcing Footage

Ken Burns’s 9 Tips for Sourcing Archival Footage

Making documentary films involves gathering as much archival footage as possible and using the most relevant materials to enhance the information you have. If you don’t have access to good sources, some documentarians find fair use (in compliance with copyright law) stock footage or make re-enactments for their B-roll. To learn more about sourcing archival footage, check out the following tips from world-class documentarian Ken Burns:

  1. Look at the lives of ordinary people. Ken believes it's essential that history not be distilled to the great men theory, where it's all about presidents and generals and famous people. “The best history is the place where so-called ordinary people live, the bottom-up, meets that top-down,” Ken says. There are a lot of events and truths to uncover in the intersection where normality and greatness meet. “All of those people that are famous don't do the fighting and the dying,” Ken explains. “It's the so-called ordinary people.” Ken and his team focus on sourcing images, home movies, videos, diaries, and letters from “ordinary” people from extraordinary historical events.
  2. Be insatiably curious. The archival vault is full of content that you can draw from to tell your story. Look for archival photographs, still images, moving images, news footage clips, Internet articles, paintings, etchings, sketches, letters, journals, diaries—useable material can be found in many forms, Ken says. Some subjects have more. Some subjects have less. It’s important to be as curious as possible. This curiosity makes you ask questions that can lead you to amazing breakthroughs. Curiosity can deliver you material you never thought you'd get, like previously unreleased news broadcasts, video clips, and recordings.
  3. Be tenacious with your sources. The images that we are trying to find come from a variety of sources, Ken says. Some of them are public domain, in which you pay merely for the copy print if you're taking them away. Some of it is archive footage from commercial archival houses that charge you per picture. Negotiate a rate that allows you to shoot as much as you want, but you’ll have to pay for whatever you use. Sometimes, the footage gets pricey, and you have to decide, "Is that footage worth it?" Then you find people who are reticent to lend images out. Ken has spent months trying to get permission to use footage or photographs. Sometimes, people deny your footage requests, and there’s nothing you can do about it. These setbacks are why documentary filmmakers must possess the will to persevere.
  4. Constantly research and investigate. Limiting yourself to one research period, one writing period, one shooting period, one editing period, or one finishing period prevents you from discovering a great opener deep in the editing process. Making a documentary film requires constant investigation and tenacity from conception to the final cut. Be open to the very end.
  5. Find more footage than you can use. Ken usually needs to collect at least 40 to 50 times what the production team plans to use in the final film to have enough archival material to work with. “It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, and that's pretty much what you want to do,” Ken shares. “Distill the essence of all you have collected down to the images you finally use.” If your documentary is all about the Brooklyn Dodgers, you’ve got to know what Brooklyn, New York looks like. You have to know what getting to Brooklyn looks like. You have to know what the subway looked like. You have to find the subway stop where the players get off to go to Ebbets Field. You have to have it available, even if you don't use it.
  6. Think about aesthetics as well as narrative. During the production of The Civil War (1990), Ken spent about six weeks in the Paper Print Collection at the Library of Congress, finding portraits of people with dark backgrounds and light backgrounds and shooting them all. “At some point, the value of a light background works in your editing sequence, and you don't know that in advance. A darker background makes you feel like you fit into a sequence of life. The white background feels like it's out of life. So these are all the decisions you're going to make,” Ken explains. When you add color to those archives, you understand that even the subtlest variation in the shade of something affects how the image before leads into that image, and how that image will lead out into the next one amidst hundreds, thousands of images you're going to use. That's the kind of supervisory mentality you have to have to make documentaries.
  7. Good detective work takes time. From early research to writing to archival pursuits, documentary filmmaking requires good detective work. You will need to use your sleuthing abilities to find archives for your project, and this will take time. You may have to make thousands of calls. You’ll look at dozens of books. You’ll check the picture credits, search film archives, ask people about the event, and search stock footage libraries and Internet archives for stock shots and videos. If your budget is tight, search for royalty-free photos and videos. You’ll need to be tenacious in your pursuit of writing, pictures, or film footage to supplement the historical events in your non-fiction film. Next, you're going to have to digitize or download the images they send you. Don’t confine your sleuthing to a research period. The research will never stop. Writing will never stop. The search for better images and the archival film will never stop.
  8. Take your research a step further. When you go into the National Archives or the other footage sources, people tend to focus on their greatest hits. Ken and his team take this a step further. They ask, "What was the original story this came from?" Then, there are times when you can’t find the right stock footage, so you have to put together a crew to film the place and make your own video footage.
  9. Pivot with your discoveries. Ken admits that throughout his professional life, he has come across images or footage that has changed his relationship to the subject and reinvigorated his desire to get the story right. The Vietnam War (2017) initially had one sentence about the Kent State shootings in May 1970. After giving a speech at Kent State, Ken was shown an exhibition featuring unreleased audio and home movies revolving around the tragic event. His team paid for the rescue of this historical footage, and now, that scene is no longer one sentence. “It is a full terrifying moment of the war on Vietnam coming home to the United States,” Ken says. “That happens all the time. It's not so much that it completely alters the thing. It permits you to invest the thing with more meaning. That's what you want.”

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