When a director has a vision for how they want to use archive footage, it’s the job of archive producers like Katharine Waldrum to make that happen. Katharine is currently working for Nitrate Films with renowned director Julien Temple but I first met Katharine when we both worked in production at the BBC nearly (say it quietly) 20 years ago.
Since leaving the Beeb she has worked on a range of feature documentaries, most recently Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, a documentary about the Pogues’ front man which has just been completed.
Katharine and her husband George, a documentary producer, have worked on both TV productions and features. Both have a wealth of experience in the wide spectrum of skills needed in documentary production. From the risks of working in incredibly hostile environments to the complexities and intricacies of archive clearance.
As an experienced archive researcher/producer in both TV and film I was able to pick Katharine's brains about the potential and the pit-falls of using found footage.
We first met in production at the BBC working on the marketing and promo campaigns. How did your work there prepare you for what you do now?
The work we did together on the BBC trainee Production Co-ordinator scheme gave me a real grounding in all aspects of TV production from budgets to talent booking. When I moved into a Researcher role within that department I worked on archive research and clearance for the BBC’s biggest campaigns and launches. No one told me what to do or how to do it and I went into it assuming it would be easy. I couldn’t believe how complex it was and fell down lots of rabbit holes. You clear one layer only to find out you often have to clear the actors, writers, musicians for every single clip.
One of the first archive jobs I did was an April Fool’s stunt where we persuaded David Attenborough to talk about a discovery of a new species of flying penguin. I trawled the BBC Natural History archive to find the most stunning footage but when I tried to clear it all, I realised just because it went out on the BBC didn’t mean you automatically had the rights to re-use it. I discovered that most of the selected footage was embargoed and many of the sequences were shot by specific camera people who were due residuals. It was a huge learning curve.
How did you make the jump from the Beeb to working on feature documentaries?
I left the BBC in 2015 and worked across various ad campaigns and a couple of documentaries. Then, in 2017, a friend introduced me to Julien Temple and I have been working with him ever since on features including Habaneros, and Ibiza: The Silent Movie.
Working at this level and with so much archive was a huge jump for me and often terrifying, but I have always been a big fan of Julien’s films since seeing his Glastonbury movie, and seeing the end result on the big screen is always satisfying.
How does your current role differ from working as staff for a big media company?
The downfalls of working in a big organisation is that you have to do the work you are given, whereas if you are freelance (and lucky) you have the freedom to seek out interesting projects and have more of a chance to stand out. The key to sanity is having a good team and strong producer who actually understand the archive process.
I sometimes miss the safety net of working for a bigger company as you are quite exposed as a freelancer and have to be tough. I also miss the atmosphere of a busy production office as I work from home most of the time.
What’s been the hardest project for you to clear?
It’s surprisingly hard to clear certain material, never underestimate how complex and involved the job of archive producer can be! The process can also take months to negotiate.
On the Ibiza film, a large proportion of the material was from Spanish archives or libraries where they simply didn’t respond to me for weeks at a time. We had to secure permission by writing to individual copyright holders (in Spanish) with no guarantee of a response or that they would grant permission. When you’re working to a deadline, on a budget and the director has fallen in love with certain things then this can be very stressful trying to get it through.
Feature films are often tricky as they can have multiple rights holders, excessive licensing fees and 3rd party to consider. If you’re clearing through a big studio, they have very strict rules and have to approve the use of their material in context and charge you per cut rather than per minute. The list is endless, I could go on!
It sounds like it can be a bit of a minefield! As well as allowing for time for clearance, costs could easily be forgotten when production start budgeting for a film. What advice would you give film-makers at the pre-production stage?
I have been booked on archive heavy jobs before for just a few weeks where in reality it has taken months of long days to research, clear and master the material and do all the paperwork. I think you have to be realistic and understand that archive isn’t always a quick, easy or cheap replacement for filming.
Also, don’t assume there are good footage options for that thing in your head you are convinced you have seen on film somewhere! You should also factor in that sometimes you can look for days and come up with very little and there is no “magic cupboard” you can open to quickly grab that elusive shot.
And despite all the hard work what is most satisfying about your role?
It’s really great when you are doing the research for a film and you have a list of sequences you need to recreate and you stumble across the exact thing you know will work. I also love seeing what happens when you send over hundreds of potential options and seeing what magic that Julien and incredible editor, Caroline Richards, will come up with.
My favourite project has to be the recent Shane MacGowan film as I’ve always been a fan and Shane has such an interesting story. There was a wealth of incredible Irish material and a lot of good old-fashioned research involved. Since Shane has been a bit elusive on film over the years, we didn’t have much interview material of him and therefore I had to track down every journalist, director or author that had ever interviewed him to see if they had kept any audio or rushes that they would be prepared to share with us. Every single person had the most bizarre and crazy story about their time interviewing Shane – you couldn’t make it up. I did my final checks yesterday viewing the film frame by frame and don’t think I will ever tire of watching it.
With filming opportunities so limited in the current global situation, many more short filmmakers may be looking to use pre-existing content to create their films. Are there any sources would you recommend for short filmmakers on a budget?
There are a few good go-to places for general stock such a Pond 5 and Shutterstock or from places that supply public domain films and clips. And, if you have the time, you can always do a trawl of YouTube or Vimeo and try and track down a rights holder and make them an offer.
If a director does want to use footage they’ve found online. What’s the process for finding the owner of the clip and negotiating fees?
It’s often quite easy to track someone down on social media these days as everyone has a footprint. I sometimes use Twitter/Facebook to start a conversation with a copyright holder. Always make sure they do own what you’re trying to license and draw up a basic agreement. Get a signature or pay a small fee to make it official as when you’re dealing with non-commercial archives, “real people” do change their minds which can leave you in a tight spot and give you sleepless nights.
What are the consequences if filmmakers decide to wing it, using clips they have ripped from the web in the hope they won’t get caught?
At the end of the day it’s not the archive producer’s decision whether something should ultimately go into a film and the programme lawyer should make that decision. You just have to outline the risks if they do decide to go ahead.
I’m not as brave or experienced yet as some out there so probably tend to be a bit cautious. If someone does knowingly use someone else’s material without their permission or without any attempt to contact them with a clear paper trail and there is no case for fair-dealing, then you can be on very shaky ground and your project can be pulled or they can catch up with you claiming financial compensation so you’d better have put some money aside.
It’s so good to be reminded of the importance of what researchers and archive producers like you do. Can you tell us about what you are up to next?
I’ve been helping Julien develop some ideas for a new archive project. There has been a definite surge in archive documentaries being made due to restrictions on filming so there is huge demand for archive producers at the moment. You will definitely notice the difference if you hire a good one!
You can follow Katharine on Twitter: @KathWaldrum