Blog Home Video Production Tips on Using Archival Footage for Your Next Film Project

Add historical relevance to your next documentary project by learning how to resize, transcode, and manipulate archival footage.

If you’re making a documentary based on historical events, or at least referencing moments of the past, nothing will add greater value to the documentary than archival footage. Whether it’s from the 1930s or late 1980s, archival footage will instantly transport the viewer back to that moment in time, far greater than narration or still images.

Since footage from the inception of moving pictures up to the 21st century has a varying degree of looks, resolutions, and colors, you may need to tweak the archival footage so it fits your project correctly. Let’s look at a few methods you can employ to use archival footage in your documentary.

What Is Editorial Content?

However, before doing so, we should first specify that archival footage falls under the editorial area of licensing.

You’ll see many of Shutterstock‘s images, vectors, and footage marked as “Editorial Use Only.” These content items are not cleared for commercial use. Instead, they’re created for news media and other non-commercial purposes. Editorial use is generally defined as use made for descriptive or illustrative purposes in a newsworthy context or of human interest. In our case, a common way to permissibly use editorial content is in a documentary. 

Compositing onto Screen: After Effects

The issue with some archival footage is that because it was filmed on yesterday’s technology, sometimes the quality may be less than adequate. If you find that when you increase the resolution to a larger size the quality starts to dip too much, you can look at keeping the resolution small by compositing the documentary footage onto an old TV set/computer monitor. Not only does it keep the archival footage sharp, it also adds an element of technical production value.

To do this, first acquire an image of an old television set (we have plenty here). Bring both your image and archival footage into After Effects, create a new composition, and base the composition on the settings of your edit timeline, not the resolution of either the TV image or archival footage. 

TV Example
Grab an image from our Shutterstock collection. Image via PitukTV.

In my example, the new composition will be 1920 x 1080 at 24fps

I’ll first add the television image to the composition and scale it so it proportionately fits into the composition. Next, we need to remove the TV screen. Some of our stock images have TV screens with a green matte, making them easy to key. However, if it’s an image like the one I’m using, we’ll have to mask out the screen. As this TV is slightly convex, I’ll need to use the pen tool (G) instead of creating a square mask around the screen. 

Mask out Screen
Use the pen tool to mask the screen.

You’ll need to change the mask mode to subtract and maybe give it a feather of five pixels

We’re then going to add the archival footage to the composition, place it beneath the TV image, and size the footage to fit nicely within the TV screen. While it looks okay, it doesn’t entirely look like it’s projecting from the TV. It feels like it’s just an image within the screen (I know, technically it is). Thankfully, After Effects has several TV effects that are already installed within the software. 

Add Archival Footage
Now, add your archival footage.

Therefore, go to the Effects Panel, and type TV. You’re then going to add Bad TV 2 – Old to the archival footage.

However, we now have a problem. The image has maybe become more distorted than it was when enhanced to fit the width of the entire composition. That’s okay, we don’t intend on using many of the effects applied within this preset—we only want to use two. Therefore, we can head to the Layer Effects panel and remove Wave Warp, Box Blur, and Color Balance, leaving just the Noise and Venetian Blinds effect active. This won’t distort the footage heavily, but it will integrate the footage into the TV composite better.

Finally, we’re going to turn both layers to 3D and add a new camera. Open the camera’s position and click the stopwatch to add a keyframe. Then, move a few seconds forward and bring the camera closer to the TV. Not so it fully engulfs the screen, but enough so the footage is larger than where we started. This is the result.

Archival TV GIF

This not only makes this specific shot more engaging, but when working with archival footage at a lower resolution, it allows you to keep the media clip at a smaller size without filling the screen with a black solid.

Matching Archival Footage: Premiere Pro

With modern technology (to some extent), it’s easy enough to match most cameras to an entirely different brand and sensor. Of course, it’s not going to be entirely practical to match a $70,000 cinema camera to that of an iPhone, but the technology is there. We can also use this to match archival footage from different sources, to make it appear as if it was shot from not only the same camera, but the same film stock.

This is more predominant when looking at archival footage from the 50s onward, when color film was more widely used. There can be a considerable disparity between the color tones, contrast, and warmth of the image between two different clips, even if the footage is from the exact location and time period.

For example, in the GIF below, there are two clips from a rock festival in the 70s. For the sake of your documentary, you may wish to piece the footage together to create a narrative. However, the second clip has an extreme red tint to it. As a result, the cut is disorientating and noticeable.

70s Rock Concert GIF

Yet, if we were to color correct the second clip to match the first clip, it edits seamlessly.

70s Rock Concert GIF

Thankfully, you’re not going to have to follow written instructions on matching two pieces of archival footage together. We have a tutorial for that (below), so you can visually follow the information step-by-step. While the tutorial is centered around matching footage from two digital cameras, the information shared remains the same for matching archival footage.

Additionally, suppose there’s a slight color tweak within the footage that needs adjusting to match proceeding shots. In that case, we also have a separate tool that focuses more specifically on that cause.

Mixed Formats

Another common issue when working with archival footage is the use of mixed formats. Perhaps you’re using footage that has a frame rate different from your project timeline, or using archival footage that has an excessively different resolution. In short, it’s no straightforward path when using footage from yesteryear. When using 4:3 footage in a 16:9 timeline, you’re (of course) going to get the black bars added to each side of the footage because it’s not wide enough to fill the frame. Additionally, you’re not going to want to crop into the 4:3 clip to fill the frame, as it will decimate the composition and likely be of poor quality.

Framed Compositions
You can see the differences in quality per frame.

We already have a writeup on this where Mike Maher helpfully demonstrates how to use 4:3 archival footage in your timeline, without having to zoom in or work with the output blanking.

Mike states:

This technique has become a standard in television broadcasts, especially on sports channels featuring archival game footage. Rather than leaving the sides of the frame black or filling the canvas with cropped footage, editors create a duplicate layer, scale it up, and soften it to work as a moving background. It’s much less jarring for viewers to see this intermixed with regular 16:9 footage.

– Mike Maher

Increasing Clarity: DaVinci Resolve

Thanks to modern-day software, historic footage is being restored to levels that were once unimaginable—from coloring WW1 footage to constructing never-before-seen 1960s NASA footage to 4K. If you happen to have a mix of restored archival footage and SD footage, or simply intend on delivering your project at 4K, and your archival footage is of SD quality, you may initially find that your archival content doesn’t look good upon rendering.

You may see the pixelation, noise, and a loss of sharpness. This is common throughout all types of digital media when you try to make the image or video significantly larger than its original size. Images, however, are slightly more forgiving when you enlarge them. Fortunately, a few years back, DaVinci Resolve introduced a new feature called Super Scale.

This feature in DaVinci Resolve uses an advanced algorithm that improves detail upon enlarging (so it’s a processor-intensive operation and may slow your computer down). If you don’t use DaVinci Resolve, you can follow our basics tutorial series. If you do use DaVinci Resolve, let me show you where you can find Super Scale.

On your project timeline or in the media pool, right-click your media and select Clip Attributes. From there, you’ll find the Super Scale menu at the bottom of the video tab with three settings to work with: Super Scale, Sharpness, and Noise Reduction. The first setting changes the size of the file. You can choose from 2x, 4x, and 6x. The Sharpness and Noise Reduction settings will then help you fine-tune the resize.

Super Scale
Use the Sharpness and Noise Reduction settings to help fine-tune the resize.

Now, let me state that this isn’t going to turn your SD archival footage into glorious, sharp 4K, but it will give the media slightly better clarity.

Super Scale Example
Original on the left. Upscaled on the right.

In the example above using archival footage from the 1960s, we can see the super-scaled footage (on the right) is sharper, has greater clarity, and is ever-slightly more saturated. Again, it’s not going to turn archival SD footage into modern HD quality, but it’s perfect for matching archival media with slightly better quality.

Additionally, with so much resizing, transcoding, and manipulating archival footage, you may find yourself getting lost within your library of media. Keep your archival footage organized with a few tried-and-true tricks for maintaining your collection.

For more tips on creating and editing documentaries, check out the articles below:

Top image via A+E Networks/​Shutterstock.