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SEVEN YEARS AGO I WAS INvolved in developing a spot for Kodak. The storyboard called for baby pictures-cheetah cubs, seal pups, fawns-the sort of endlessly appealing material that's impossible to shoot and stay within any reasonable budget. I looked through reel after reel of stock footage. What I saw was, quite simply, awful. The shots were grainy, badly focused, unevenly lit. Good idea; bad film. We didn't do the spot.

A lot has changed since then. My advertising firm has taken on a stock film house, The Image Bank, as a client. As a result, I have taken another look at stock. While I think it's fair to say that The Image Bank, by anyone's estimation, is an industry leader, what I've found goes far beyond my client. The entire industry has undergone a metamorphosis. It's always been economical-stock can cut production costs by as much as 99 percent. But "stock footage" is losing its epithet status; it's no longer just for those with little money and less time. Large corporations like AT&T, Coors and Chrysler (Jeep) have used stock images not as a last-minute last resort but as a conscious ad strategy. Computers have streamlined the endless searching that once scared many away from stock, and the raw material is just better. Stock libraries are no longer backwaters of forgotten outtakes, or reels from shooters who can't get other work. Stock film widens, rather than narrows, the field of creative opportunities. New technologies have made it possible to edit stock images, to blend them seamlessly with original footage, to create pictures impossible to shoot in real life-a flying moose, a man milking a fish-and yes, even to find broadcast-quality baby chimps and zebra colts.

"A few years ago 'stock' was almost a dirty word," says Frank Burgos, a creative director at Bozell/North, who used stock images of exotic places in spots for Jeep Cherokee. "It's becoming a highly respected thing. I know shooters who are in museums but are also doing work for stock."

The growth in quality has encouraged more photo houses to enter the field, making more stock available than ever before. Energy Productions/Timescape Image Library and Fabulous Footage are among the new-film leaders, while Archive Films and WPA Films specialize in vintage works: newsreels, b&w movies, documentaries, industrial films. The Image Bank, with its recent acquisition of Petrified Films, covers both. These established companies are being joined by niche libraries such as Action Sports Adventure, a specialist in athletic films, and Kesser Stock Library, whose focus is "sun and fun" footage.

Other companies, such as Best Shot or Re:Search, specialize in brokering-matching producers and creative directors with the libraries they need.

Greater accessibility drives much of this growth. Gone are vague index-card descriptions and endless hours spent fast-forwarding through reel after reel to find that perfect Hawaiian sunset. Computers, video discs and CD-ROM have made it easier for libraries to know what they have and to quickly display the image a customer wants. In The Image Bank's Image Index, for instance, footage selected from its immense stock library has been compressed into 162,000 "samples" in storyboard format and transferred to laserdisc. This setup transcends the linear world in which the scenes might be separated by miles of film or videotape that have to be laboriously rewound or fast-forwarded. On a laserdisc, the "perfect sunset" may only be half a second from the "perfect wave sequence." Since this technology makes it easier to jump from image to image, users can "look up" footage much as they would locate a book in an ordinary library.

While this technology remains too expensive for most stock houses, other film libraries have greatly improved their indexing and retrieval systems in other ways. Some, like Energy/Timescape and Budget Films, are transferring descriptions of their holdings onto CD-ROM to allow more efficient cross-referencing. They have also transferred a limited number of stills and video clips, and hope to eventually store all their video on CD-ROM. Even companies that aren't quite as high-tech have taken advantage of more advanced database software. Many stock houses can now conduct keyword searches of their archives and ship sample cassettes to customers in no more than a day or two.

Improved search methods allow for things that one didn't dare dream of a few years ago. A Northeastern ad agency recently undertook a search of stock film libraries to find pictures of animals that looked constipated. After my experience with the baby animal pictures, I would have assumed this goal to be hopelessly time-consuming. But after only a week or so of searching, the agency had amassed a collection of funny animal pictures: chimps with contorted faces, walruses shifting uncomfortably. These formed the core images for a laxative spot.

Those constipated animals looked a lot better than the stock I viewed for Kodak. Stock images are dramatically better than most creative directors might imagine. Some of the improvements in quality came as a response to economic pressures in the industry. Faced with tighter budgets, producers put greater emphasis on the use of relatively inexpensive stock footage. Meanwhile, many top photographers started shooting for stock when changes in copyright laws made it easier for them to profit from their work. Then, too, the rise of cable and multimedia created a huge, ever-growing demand for relatively inexpensive images. The market demanded; shooters and libraries supplied.

This synergy has made the film in stock archives a thousand times better than it was a decade ago. In fact, a film crew shooting a Visa commercial at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer ended up contacting a New York stock film company to get scenic shots of Norway. It's hard to imagine not finding the image you need already in the can in a stock library. The variety is astonishing: everything from the time-lapse blooming of a flower, to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, to campy footage from an industrial film called "The Wonderful World of Wash and Wear."

Technology has complemented these developments of market and economy. Thanks to innovators like Rank Cintel and Bosch, film transferred to videotape no longer looks like scratchy, fuzzy images projected on a wall. The digitization of video in formats like D1 and D2 has made it possible to "separate" all the components of a frame. Color, light, horizon lines-all are laid down one upon the other, like so many pieces of a soundtrack. Each component can be manipulated separately, so stock can be used in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. Light can be adjusted so that stock and original footage blend almost seamlessly; images can be altered to fit a storyline.

To answer a request for a moose that flies, for instance, Steve Garson of Fabulous Footage found stock of a sedated moose being airlifted out of a northern city by helicopter. The harness cradling the animal wasn't obvious, and Garson used computer technology to blot out the cable: voila, an airborne moose.

For a new spot called "Sunny Pueblo," a Bozell/North team used stock footage and computer animation to put consumer information catalogs in the hand of a paperboy, at the end of a fisherman's line and into the bag of a mailman.

Similar technology has Paula Abdul dancing with Gene Kelly, and Olympic bobsledders racing while drinking Diet Coke; it puts Clint Eastwood "In The Line Of Fire" with John F. Kennedy, and the head of the late Brandon Lee on the live bodies of martial artists in "The Crow." With such examples already out there, there is no excuse not to make stock film an integral part of each stage of the creative process; it's no more expensive, it's accessible and it's often better.

"From my perspective, I wish art directors were more aware of the extent of stock footage," says Fred Slobodin, director of broadcast production at Wunderman Cato Johnson, New York. "Every time I see a sample reel a lightbulb goes on in my head because there are so many interesting shots. You can make whole commercials with stock."

From the moment an idea is formed, through the pitch and on to its execution, stock is a valuable alternative resource. In fact, the most effective use of stock footage results when creatives, working with clients from a general concept, can offer a selection of images for a project.

This method of working used to be too expensive, since stock clips can cost as much as $500 for a one-time use. Prices, however, have been coming down. The Image Bank's new Clips for Rips program, for instance, charges only $50 for clips to be used one time for the purposes of a proposal. Other film libraries are developing variations on this theme, offering cassette samples for prices ranging from $50 to about $150.

Putting a pitch together from stock also cuts down on the inevitable backtracking that follows a proposal that's a patchwork of pieces "ripped" from videotapes of movies or television (see related story on page 20). With stock, you know you can have the material in hand. You won't find yourself explaining to the client that yes, there were great jungle scenes in your pitch, but they haven't provided a budget to recreate "Tarzan, The Legend of Greystoke."

During production and shooting, stock can also be a useful tool. And, as always, stock is invaluable in a pinch. If you need to fill a few seconds, most stock libraries have whole reels of cloud shots, sunsets, weddings and the like.

All these good reasons to use stock footage, though, come with a complication: licensing. The most established stock houses will clear all rights and determine whether residuals must be paid to talent for certain clips. However, some less scrupulous companies may not clear everything they should. No federal laws govern this area, so it is left to a complicated network of state laws.

It's important to remember that the fact that a film has passed into the public domain does not guarantee that individual scenes or likenesses in that film are public. Layne Murphy of Budget Films in Hollywood worked with a large CD-ROM producer after they ran into major trouble with this issue. They were about to release a CD-ROM with a clip of Fred Astaire from "The Royal Wedding" in it, according to Murphy, when they found out that Astaire's likeness wasn't public and his estate never released it. "The company lost a considerable investment and missed the release date for its product," says Murphy. "It was a mess."

Even with these complexities, the stock film industry will only get bigger and better. We all understand that multimedia telecommunications are here, but few of us realize that there isn't that much to put out on the information superhighway. Whatever you're putting together, creating original content is difficult and expensive. Stock footage fills the gap between the demand and the supply of high-quality images. If you think this is farfetched, remember it's already happening. Stock footage is a staple of the HBO series "Dream On," in which a baby boomer's inner life and thoughts are represented by stock scenes from countless old movies and network shows like "The Lone Ranger" and "Leave it to Beaver." A current Clarion car stereo commercial cleverly integrates footage from the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, the idea being that the stereo so immerses a driver in music that it would be possible to miss the collapse of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. For a DuPont spot of applauding birds and beasts, only one of the many animal scenes had to be shot. The stock blended so seamlessly with the new footage, you couldn't tell which was which.

I foresee more and more projects like this. And the next time I need a dozen clips of cute animals, even if they require constipated grimaces, the first thing I'll do is get on the phone to the stock libraries.

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