STOCK FOOTAGE: SHERPAS ON THE EVEREST OF IMAGERY

By Published on .

Most Popular
Stock footage has been the poor relative of the commercial film production world for a long time. But the maligned stepchild is a little more like Cinderella these days, all dressed up for the ball. Imaginative use of stock film is on the rise. Recent spots, like Banana Republic's "Holiday" and "Suede," show an adept mixing of stock and original film to achieve its creative mission. Apple Computer's "Think Different" campaign, from TBWA/Chiat/Day, has also boosted the image of stock footage through its use of archival film, formerly the mainstay of the stock business. And stock is being used more and more as a palette of imagery that can be used with special effects to create exciting visuals (see sidebar on photomosaics). Cringing from the negative perception of stock film as shlock film, most of the high-end companies that license film footage now like to refer to their stock imagery in more sophisticated terms, such as "library," "collection" or "archives," with rarely a reference to the old "stock film" term. Whatever you call the images, the trend is that they are being consolidated into a few large and sophisticated operations, including Image Bank (owned by Kodak), Energy Film Library (owned by Getty Images), and WPA (owned by MPI Media), although there are still dozens of smaller independent stock agencies around. All have something to offer, but stock still hasn't reached its full potential in advertising. Some in the agency and stock business think the product continues to be used as an afterthought, or because of budgetary necessity or short deadlines. Those are perfectly good reasons to go to the film files, but you probably won't end up with the most spellbinding results. How to use stock footage? If it were up to the stock companies, they'd define their ideal role as Sherpas. They help you navigate the treacherous terrain, allow you to explore the imagination; they can guide clients through an exciting range of imagery, not to mention the sheer mountainous volume of the stuff. They'd like to help spotmakers avoid the avalanche of possibilities that can lead to muddled conceptual expression.

Jennifer Golub, TBWA/Chiat/Day executive producer and director of the "Think Different" campaign, says she rarely resorts to stock in her commercials. She also doesn't think the often- seen "Around The World in 30 Seconds" kind of stock montage creates very compelling advertising. But she agrees that if the concept calls out for stock film, there's a large amount of top-quality material available.

Golub explains that 'Think Different' came out of a desire to re-launch Apple "into the collective consciousness, because we needed to hoist a flag and make a rallying cry. It's an interesting thing about stock footage; it had a bad name, but in this case we were searching for pearls." And she found them. With the help of footage researcher Susan Nickerson and several of the stock companies, Golub fulfilled creative director Lee Clow's vision of presenting some of this century's cultural movers and shakers. Golub says the idea was to give people an "authentic feeling" thanks to footage of twentieth-century celebrities who really made a difference -- Einstein, Gandhi, Maria Callas, Bob Dylan, Muhammed Ali, Picasso and so forth. "The integrity of the archival material creates a piece that invigorates with an affirming message. It's rare for a client to sponsor such a campaign. After all, we make the important statement that individuals can affect our culture." She notes it was an exhausting task to rework the material in order to find the clips that work together -- such as seeing Maria Callas blow a kiss, coupled with Gandhi raising his head as if to catch it.

Banana Republic's in-house creative director Brian Leich, who uses stock film as an integral creative element in hiscommercials, explains his use of existing footage: "We can all think of a million examples of stock footage campaigns that are terrible, and that's what gives stock footage a bad rep. But for me, it was a huge creative undertaking because I started with a concept that I got emotionally connected to and excited about. I had a strategy of marrying the diverse images to the product by making the connection between things in the world -- sensual things, and things that inspire an association with what we have at Banana Republic."

Leich says that because his ideas for imagery were so varied, "it became impossible to think about who was going to shoot all this and how could we possibly capture all the things I want to say about suede, or all the things I want to say about love and affection." He knows that "there's a whole world of imagery out there that already exists, that has been shot for me. So it's a question of, how am I going to be shrewd about making my choices."

The Banana Republic project is just the sort of example the stock houses are suggesting is the wave of the future. According to Image Bank's Cody Alexander, "We are seeing more clients involve us early in the concept especially when their ideas are broad or abstract. 'Suede,' is our favorite kind of job, since we play a more creative role. They approached me looking for imagery that conveyed the idea and feeland texture of suede. Having a visual database like our Image Index CD allowed me to brainstorm on the fly, through thousands of shots, in a matter of minutes. I used whatever keyword description came to mind. The fuzzy veneer of reindeer antlers, the ridges of the Grand Canyon, the ripples of the Sahara Desert, those are just a few that made the final cut. Our shots helped emphasize the aesthetic of the creative team's vision that matched HSI director Peggy Sirota's original film."

Impossible deadlines can also be a motivation to visit stock shops. According to Ron Burkhardt, the creative director at Burkhardt Hillman in New York, the stock libraries "let you pull off miracles for clients you couldn't pull off without access to this technology." He admits that he was "forced" into using stock footage because of time constraints on a spot for Hickory Farms, but he had already learned from last year's award-winning Bulova watch spots -- which interestingly blend historical stock with contemporary original film -- that stock offerings are nothing to sneeze at anymore.

"What we discovered in the stock agencies was astounding," says Burkhardt. "We were thrilled with the advances in quality and variety." With only two weeks to get the Hickory Farms spot on the air for the holiday shopping season, Burkhardt says "we knew the only way to do it was to edit stock images, so we found amazing farm imagery, and the film was as lush as if we'd been on a million-dollar shoot."

He advises however, that the success in such an undertaking is heavily dependent on "having a great editor, like we did with Tim Cahill at 89 Greene." Burkhardt also cautions that stock can be used as a Band-Aid to cover up less-than-stellar, unfocused creative thinking. "It's pretty tenuous to use odd footage in an attempt to seem hip, trendy or edgy. [That won't work] unless the use of stock is really grounded in the strategy and has some relevance to the

In this article: