What is Stock Footage?

What is stock footage? Like stock photography, stock footage are video clips that can be used for other productions. When you need expensive special effects, location shots, or vintage clips, it often makes sense to use stock footage instead of producing new material. Today, websites like Shutterstock allow indie and pro filmmakers to license stock footage from a massive archive of clips. Think of it as creative recycling on a budget.

A Brief History

Stock footage companies were popularized in the 1980s, helping production teams to complete projects on film and VHS. However, the largest stock footage resource is undoubtedly the U.S. government, which boasts a huge collection of military, NASA, and political clips. This particular footage exists in the public domain, which means the government does not charge a licensing fee to filmmakers.  

Popular Uses of Stock Footage

Stock footage can often be found in TV shows, commercials, news programs, and documentaries. For example, popular shows like Friends will use establishing shots of New York or well-known landmarks to introduce a scene, even though the show is taped on a studio lot in a totally different city. 

Similarly, if a commercial shoot is on a budget, they might pad their main shots with similar stock footage (also known as "B-roll") to save money. Perhaps the most obvious use of stock footage and photography is in documentaries, which rely on historical sources to construct a compelling narrative. Unless you're Steven Spielberg, it's probably easier to use stock WWII footage instead of trying to reenact your own version of Saving Private Ryan.     

Green Screen Magic

By using a green screen, stock footage sites like Shutterstock also make it easy to place stock characters and animals into your productions. For example, if you need an elephant stampede for a pivotal scene in your film, you can employ green screen footage to place an elephant in the crowd, and viewers won't be able to tell the difference. This effect also works well if you want to shoot a crowd scene, but don't have the budget to hire dozens of extras. There are plenty of stock clips with expressive crowds doing a variety of activities, so all you need to do is select the best one for your particular project.  

Special Effects

Finally, if you're lacking the budget to hire actors or a trained menagerie, you probably don't have much for special effects. Luckily, stock footage sites also have a huge archive of explosions, lightning storms, science fiction scenes, and other visual effects for use in your film. 

Stock footage isn't just the domain of amateur filmmakers, either. Plenty of big-budget Hollywood directors use stock clips to save a little money, and classic films like Forrest Gump would feel totally different if Robert Zemeckis didn't place Tom Hanks into stock footage of famous historical events. What is stock footage? A creative solution, when filmmakers are forced to think outside the box. 


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