Sometimes during an initial discussion about a legacy video I just know I’m going to pitch my potential client on incorporating archival stock footage. Maybe the storyteller’s life intertwined with some seminal events in history that vintage newsreels can help visualize. Perhaps the family has little in the way of visuals like photos and memorabilia and I know I can instead use stock footage to lend context, interest, and “entertainment value” to the stories being told.

My most recent legacy video was a case in point. During our initial phone call, my client sketched in the life of her 95-year old father-in-law, whose stories we’d be documenting: Shanghai’d from New Orleans at eleven years old and forced to shovel coal in a steamer for months; hopping freight trains during the Great Depression; joining the Army underage when he was fifteen, then signing on to the Merchant Marine after Pearl Harbor; surviving being torpedoed; landing on Utah Beach during D-Day; hitching a ride with Bedouins in order to visit Cairo, Egypt – the list went on and on. I knew that archival footage could really make this video sing.

Stock footage in a personal video biography you might ask? Isn’t that kind of stuff reserved for big budget productions? Where would I find the shots I need? How can I afford it? All good questions and I’ll address them here.


Just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking about film and video from years past: newsreels, documentaries, government propaganda and training films, commercials, cartoons, television shows, etc. There’s a ton of great, vintage film and video available. The trick is figuring out what you need, finding the right source for it, and then licensing and yes – paying for it.


Before your start your search, it helps to have an idea of what it is you’re looking for, and how much in terms of running time you might need. Let’s say you need footage of the D-Day landings in France. At the outset, if you haven’t screened or even shot your family storyteller yet, you might have to just ballpark the number of shots/seconds of footage you think could fit your needs. If you already have an interview you can screen, or even a rough cut of the sequence where you’d like to insert the archival shots, you can use them to get more accurate timings for the amount of footage you’d like.

Make a “wish list” of the subjects and estimated running times and use then start exploring.


There are many firms offering stock footage. Here are three to get you started:

Companies differ when it comes to pricing and final deliverables. Some provide precut clips for a fixed cost. Others charge by the second and require minimum orders. Offerings may be royalty-free or licensed for one production. You may be able to choose the cropping, frame rate, and codec you’d like – or you may need to just take what’s provided.


Searching for the perfect clips can take some time, but it’s also fun. Luckily, most stock footage providers have preview clips online. So it’s a matter of going to a site, entering search terms, and seeing what pops up.

When you find something you like, make notes about it – site, clip number, and time code (most clips have visible time code, allowing you to pick in and out points, crucial for determining running time and cost). Many sites also allow you to store lists of your searches – if you create an account first, or course.

Consider downloading screener or preview clips, if possible. These can be low-resolution versions of the clips, or even high-res, but with watermarks to guard against theft. Import the clips into your editing timeline to get precise in and out points; even edit them into your program to see if they meet your needs. You’ll also get a better idea of quality (which can vary widely) from a larger preview file than from the postage stamp-sized clips online.

Don’t hesitate to contact a company directly if you don’t see what you’re looking for on their site. They may be able to direct you to some hidden nugget that didn’t show up in your search.


Stock footage companies generally have different pricing tiers. For example, footage purchased for a big-budget TV documentary is going to cost more than the same footage for a legacy video production that might have an audience of a handful. Productions like personal video biographies can usually qualify for lower-cost “personal use” pricing. It’s best to get a handle on what a firm charges when you first visit their site, so you don’t waste time searching through footage you later find you can’t afford.


Seconds (and hence your cost) can add up quickly, so do your best to order only as much footage as you think you can use, plus maybe just a smidge more. I always order just a few seconds more here and there, just so I know I’m covered (and I almost always use it) – but not enough to bust the budget.

One final note: Be aware of duplication! It’s not unusual to find the same shots repurposed in a number of newsreels and documentaries – and sometimes even altered a bit within the same film to make them look different. I once made the mistake of purchasing two different shots of a WWII U-boat launching a torpedo, one from the right side of the sub and the other from the left, only to find that they were the same shot – just horizontally flipped. So, some money wasted but a lesson learned.

Ordering footage online is pretty easy. Some clips are available for immediate download, while others may need extra time for transferring to the format you require and then uploading.


Your family and clients will be amazed when they see their stories dramatically enhanced with historical stock shots, perhaps supplemented with music and/or sound effects. If you think archival stock footage is permanently beyond your grasp, guess again. With a little research, you may find you can incorporate some of those great vintage scenes in your next family video.

Source by Steve Pender