National Geographic Opens the Vault

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This summer the National Geographic Film Library will open its digital vault to stock users, granting creatives unparalleled access to what is billed as the world's largest and most sophisticated library of documentary footage. Per the society's mission to capture "the world and everything in it," the archive reaches far beyond Nat Geo's signature animal kingdom collection, encompassing vast catalogues of historical, scientific and cultural imagery, much of it recorded for research, not editorial, purposes. More than 100,000 clips (2,000 hours of footage) are already online, with more being captured daily.

This footage has always been available through the Library's research departments in Washington D.C., London, Paris, Munich and Sydney, and has been used frequently in advertising for products from cars to soda to lottery tickets. One famous example is the recent Mountain Dew "Ram" spot, from BBDO/New York, in which a Dew dude wins a head-butting contest with a huge ruminant, compliments of the effects experts at Method Studios. Nevertheless, what this service represents for creatives is carte blanche access to an unmitigated world of little-seen footage. For the first time, creatives will be able to search Nat Geo's massive library without relying on researchers, who tend to choose the standard over the obscure, as even the company's execs will admit. "When creatives have access to this much footage, they're going to discover a different world," says the Library's VP, Matthew Whyte. "Most of our material was created for scientific purposes, not for TV. By exploring the archive, creatives will get away from the standard shots our researchers default to and find stuff that has never appeared on the air."

The online archive, which was designed by Convera (authors of Britannica.com), can be accessed at ngtlibrary.com and will be available for creatives to browse free of charge. It was originally designed for producers of the newly-launched National Geographic cable channel. The more conceptual "advertising-friendly" categories (such as labeling a tree in the distance "lonely") were added later, inspired by the growing demand among creatives for more unusual, surprising images. "Creatives are getting away from subjects that have become stereotypes," says Whyte, acknowledging the waddling penguin as one such animal. "They're becoming more demanding. There's less of a desire to connect with expectations." He says the current pop culture attraction to the natural world, evidenced in such shows as Survivor, is also driving the requests. A new Xbox spot (seen above, right), from BBH/London, is a good example of this trend. The spot follows a History of Man-like timeline, narrated by the complicated trajectory of the mosquito from swamp to crowded kitchen, edited by Steve Gandolfi of Cut n' Run. Staring roles were given to the Library's creatures, including cobras and a Komodo dragon. Seen above at left, a bird hitches a ride on an elk in a New Zealand Telecom ad, from Saatchi & Saatchi.

Whyte knows that the vast archive may be daunting for some ad people. " There's a type of creative who will have a ball going through it," he says, "and everyone else should just call us and we'll walk them through it. This is not meant to replace the dialogue with our researchers." Whyte says the lesson learned from the recent demise of the mega search site Footage.net is that online research must be supplemented by human attention. "It's a mistake for an organization to push creatives to a site and make them work there," he says. "It's got to be a give and take."

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