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Forget the simple notion of stock film. It's so varied and abundant these days, we might as well call it, uh, postmodern footage of moving imagery.

As the vogue for schmaltzy home videos and camcorder cop footage continues, there's another more aesthetically heartwarming trend taking place in the stock footage industry. Subtly, over the last five years, more cinematographers have begun shooting original footage for libraries, raising the overall quality of the stock market to impressive heights.

"I was stunned," say Gad Romann, creative director at New York's The Romann Group, when he reviewed reels for a recent Tower Air campaign. With film from the Image Bank, the Tower spots show us the pathetic lodging, car rental and entertainment options tourists have to resort to when they spend all their money on airfare. At Tower, of course, they could have flown for less.

The "stock" moniker doesn't even seem appropriate anymore, Romann says, suggesting "postmodern footage of moving imagery" as a better, if slightly cumbersome, tag. Five years ago, he says, the lifestyle footage "all looked like it was shot in 1970," and it was difficult to match up colors and lighting. But now, with advanced post techniques available, "stock is every bit as sophisticated" as original footage, he believes.

"Clients are demanding it in 35mm," adds Carol Martin, an account executive at Film Bank, a stock film and video library in Burbank. "Recycling doesn't work well anymore." Even if a client is looking for something gritty, she says that she probably wouldn't show them anything shot on videotape. "If they're going for the gritty look, they'll manipulate it to look that way or use archival footage shot on film."

"As the need for moving images has gone up, the number of cinematographers who are aware that this is a viable revenue stream has also increased," says Paula Lumbard, president of Film Bank. Filmmaker Richard Arp, for example, who shoots for Film Bank among other stock houses, makes his living perpetually driving between Los Angeles and New York, shooting Americana -- from kitschy roadside statues to state welcome signs.

Stock is also showing off the same special effects and film techniques as TV and movies, according to Jan Ross, CEO at Energy Film Library, Studio City, Calif., who says she's noticed an increase in b&w film and techniques like the use of wide-angle lenses. For example, a Canon copier shot from DCA Advertising, New York, uses a fish-eye lens to offer a startling low-angle view of a city skyline. A spot created in-house for Priamerica Financial Services, she adds, uses imagery of office workers hustling, a technique achieved by shooting film and then transferring it at a slower speed to "give it a smeared" appearance. The technique "makes for an edgier, more cinematic look," Ross says.

She credits some of the more creative filmmaking to the fact that Energy recently brought on several photographers from its new sister company, Tony Stone Images, who are experimenting with cinematography for the first time. The demand for quality stock, driven by everything from cable programming to the Internet, has prompted some of the major stock companies to shoot their own footage, or more aggressively buy up footage from production companies. Film Bank recently staged a shoot of contemporary office scenes in Seattle, for instance, and Action Sports Adventure, New York, formed ASA Productions and recently won the project to create and shoot a campaign for the American Basketball League, footage which it can sell to interested third parties. Rick Gell, president at Second Line Search, which owns ASA, said it's adding about 100 hours of original footage a year to its library.

According to Rick Wysocki, Image Bank's Film Division manager, his company is beefing up its robust collection too. "The contemporary side of the business is growing like crazy," he says. Another reason for the demand is a change in commercials art direction, with more art directors treating stock as moving clip art, which they can manipulate with graphics and text. A spot for Erols Internet Service from Rockey & Rockwell Advertising, Vienna, Va., produced by Ehrens Motion & Music, Bethesda, Md., features a split-screen technique that weaves together historical vignettes with stock images, cut to a hip percussion track and arranged next to computer text. To make the commercial, creative director Art Ehrens says he looked through literally thousands of shots from the Image Bank. "It's extremely tedious," he says. "At least if you're shooting it yourself you know what you're going to get."

But for creatives saddled with low budgets, like Ehrens, stock can make an inexpensive spot look as good as a big-bucks production. "We were trying to give Erols a high-quality image," he says, so that its $9.95 monthly service would have a greater perceived value than the more expensive America Online.

Ultimately, stock footage can be all things to all people, it seems. Not only is it affordable -- Romann claims it can do the work of a $500,000 budget with $20,000 -- but it's so plentiful "there's no need to be redundant," he says. "We don't have to worry about cloning in the ad business."

The Mobile Guide

The decision to use stock imagery in a commercial often turns into a frantic search for fresh footage, never before seen in the Western World. An impossible quest? Not at all. There are plenty of places off the beaten track where commercially virgin film is stashed in dusty cans, waiting to be harvested for a spot.

Enter Footage: The Worldwide Moving Sourcebook, released late last year by New York's Second Line Search. The book may be your best shot at finding such morsels. Second Line Search bought the rights to the previous edition, known as Footage 89/91, and spent the last 18 months combing the globe for footage, then cataloging it with descriptions and licensing and film rights. Heavier than a Manhattan phone book, this $195 (plus shipping) tome contains information from more than 3,000 film and video collections spanning about 40 countries -- and this is the first time the book includes international listings.

Here's a quick taste: In Japan, Nippon TV offers scenes of wildlife that's flourished in a human vacuum known as the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Want a campy sitcom? Try India's ABCL production company, which features its local TV stars. There are government films from almost every country in Africa, South America and beyond. Or on the cheap, pick up a piece of vintage Russian propaganda film from the Stalin era.

"One questionnaire came back not fastened with a paper clip but tied together with rope," Second Line president Rick Gell, publisher of Footage, says of a reply from a film archive company in India. "We're dealing with a situation where leading archives are digitizing images," he says, while many libraries across the globe "have film cans on the floor and are still using index cards for tracking information."

Nonetheless, Gell says, this is quality stock -- top film researchers from each country helped compile the listings. But it's obvious that a search outside major U.S. stock houses will require more work and patience. While all the listings are in English, the language skills of some of the respondents leave something to be desired, which can hamper efficient research.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. has the strongest showing in this book, with more than 600 sources, ranging from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety to Exotic Dancers of America. The book also steers novices through a labyrinth-like ABC, which, with all of its subsidiary companies, has nine different footage libraries.

The plan is to put Footage on a CD-ROM, and eventually on the Web, where it can be updated constantly.

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