The Art and Science of Archival Storytelling

May 1, 2020

Sheila Curran Bernard is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer and filmmaker with credits on nearly 50 hours of prime time broadcast and theatrical programming, work that is often leveraged to serve as the centerpiece of public engagement and education efforts. She produced, directed and wrote two films for the acclaimed civil rights history, Eyes on the Prize; was series writer on the six-hour history I’ll Make Me a World; series development writer on the six-hour This Far by Faith; and writer of the four-hour series School: The Story of American Public Education. Bernard also wrote the feature documentary Slavery by Another Name, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas A. Blackmon.

Kenn Rabin is an internationally recognized expert on the use of archival materials in film storytelling. His credits include the dramatic features Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant; Good Night, and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney; and The Good German, directed by Steven Soderbergh, in addition to a number of acclaimed archival television series, including the 13-hour Vietnam: A Television History and the 14-hour Eyes on the Prize, for which he was nominated for an Emmy.

Together, Sheila and Kenn, authored the book Archival Storytelling, which examines the challenges media makers face in finding and licensing third-party visuals and music — with a second edition to be published Spring 2020. On May 7, both filmmakers will be hosting a Filmmakers Collaborative webinar covering an array of issues pertaining to Archival Storytelling. 

We recently chatted with Sheila (SCB) and Kenn (KR) about their work in this vital aspect of filmmaking. 

How did the idea for the book “Archival Storytelling” come about?

SCB: As a filmmaker, I was involved in the production of a number of archival documentaries, and I’d written a different book, Documentary Storytelling, for which I’m now preparing a fifth edition. Kenn and I had both worked at Blackside, which was rigorous in its use of archival materials as evidence of the past, subject to fact checking, and Kenn had previously worked on Vietnam: A Television History (1983). And so it seemed natural to turn to him to see if we could help filmmakers navigate not only the complexity of rights and licenses, but also the creative, ethical, and at times journalistic issues involved in their use. The first edition of our book came out in 2008, and of course a lot has changed since then.

KR: I had been thinking for a long time about writing a book about what I do, partly as a way of “giving back” to young filmmakers all the knowledge and experience that I had acquired over the years. My original concept was more anecdotal, less meant as a textbook and more a general-purpose book for filmmakers. Sheila brought in the (very necessary) academic rigors that make the book valuable in undergraduate and graduate film, history, and sometimes even law school classes. As a result, it covered a wider canvas but in detail, and yet we were still able to retain some of the anecdotal quality I was hoping for.

As you look at the various ways that third-party materials are used by professional and amateur filmmakers, how do you think they might benefit from the insights your book and work as a filmmaker provides?

SCB: There are so many ways that media makers, working in fiction and nonfiction, rely on third-party materials, which simply means images, music, sounds, etc. that they themselves did not create. Sometimes these films or series strive to tell historical stories; sometimes they’re present day stories that just want to use a soundtrack of current hits or rely on contemporary media for verisimilitude. It’s a really, really complicated landscape, and hopefully the book helps people to navigate it.

KR: And not only traditional filmmakers, whether fiction or nonfiction, but also experimental filmmakers, media mash-up makers and others increasingly use pre-existing material, sometimes in a meta-historical or meta-cultural way that probably dates back to David Holtzman’s Diary and other such films. In documentary, it dates back almost to the beginnings of film, with archival users such as Esfir Schub in the Soviet Union. Culture is formed by the culture that came before it, and archival is an increasingly important part of that, in our digital, audiovisual age.

Can you share a bit about how the process of researching and obtaining rights to archival visuals and music has changed throughout your filmmaking careers?

KR: So much has changed that it’s almost an overwhelming question. When researching the Vietnam series, of course, there was no internet, so no searching online for material. The internet has changed the lives of every filmmaker, every researcher– everyone.

Another big change is that archival materials are now considered “assets,” with big corporations buying up archives as an investment. It used to be that archives were run by people (usually middle-aged men, in fact!) who knew their collection intimately and loved old film. Researchers like me would visit an archive in person, screen reels and reels of film on a Moviola or Steenbeck, and “cord off” in and out cues for sections of a film to be duplicated by an optical film lab. Those long-gone archivists were essential; often they would say, “How about this?” and pull some long-lost gem off the shelves. They taught me everything I know about film stocks, winds, sound elements—all those film-based things that have become irrelevant now, except to the actual archives that are digitizing their collections.

As assets, with prices and contracts often driven by practices more common in the advertising industry, licensing has also become a great deal more complicated. In the past, these old-school archivists would make handshake deals for rights. There would be a piece of paper–usually only one–and prices were always negotiable based on the filmmaker’s budget and even how engaged the archivist became in a film’s subject. Archival materials, then, wouldn’t bust people’s budgets. Today, they’re a big part of a project’s overall cost.

Technological changes, however, have favored filmmakers. In the past, the whole process of getting workprints and masters, synching things, going through answer prints, etc. was much slower and much more expensive. In a chemical process, things like color and gamma correction means making a whole new print, waiting three days to see how it came out, and then maybe making adjustments and waiting another three days to see the results. This “answer print” process alone would add about $5,000 (in 1980s dollars) to a film’s budget. Nowadays, you can sit in the editing room, tweak a joystick, and get instant color correction. The first time I ever saw that done, I was flabbergasted.

SCB: And of course, with film budgets and schedules shrinking over the past several years, a lot of filmmakers are choosing NOT to use authentic archival materials, especially music, because licensing can be so time-consuming and expensive. Either they use cheaper generic alternatives or–and this is ethically problematic–they create what appears to be actual archival material without making the audience aware that it’s not. With that said, of course the existence of archival materials alone doesn’t mandate its use. There are lots of creative alternatives, including animation and reenactments. It’s a real issue, though, when filmmakers want to access materials but realistically can’t.

In addition to filmmakers, what audiences do you hope this book reaches?

SCB: As someone who has taught in a department of history for the past decade, with a focus on public history, I hope the information contained in this book will be of interest to those creating content for museums and historic sites. I also hope that it will help to inform the growing number of academics (at all levels) who use audiovisual materials in their teaching and scholarship. What you see and hear is not always what actually happened–media literacy is more important than ever, in this age of deep-fakes–but it’s always been important. Whether material is from 1906 or 2016, it’s important to know who created it, for what purpose, to reach what audience? Does it line up with other authoritative research on this person or event?

KR: Yes, we’ve greatly expanded our sections about provenance, deep-fakes, and the importance of knowing the context in which the film was made or distributed. My hope is that this book is also able to reach nonfiction and fiction writers as well: the historians and biographers who need to know how to find and clear still images to illustrate their books, the historical novelists who want to examine photos or film or music from an era as background research to get details right in their stories. Of course the book is meant for film researchers as well, and to promote the art and craft of film research and to promote activism in the arena of copyright reform.