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Stock Market Alternatives: Boutique Film Libraries Offer a Personal Touch

By Ron Deutsch

Stephen Parr, founder of Oddball Film & Video. Courtesy of Stephen Parr

Perhaps the most notable changes in film archives and stock footage libraries over the last quarter-century mirror the changes in other retail businesses. The mom-and-pop stores have mostly vanished or consolidated. But there are a host of small "boutique" archives out there that can offer a more personal user experience, with each collection reflecting the personality and personal interests of the archivist.

Oddball Film & Video, as its name suggests, specializes in offbeat, rare and eclectic footage. The San Francisco-based archive, founded by Stephen Parr, opened its doors in the early 1980s. After studying film and video at the Center for Media Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo under avant-garde filmmakers Nam June Paik and Paul Sharits, Parr moved to San Francisco, where he produced abstract video art and created background visual images for nightclubs and specific environments.

As Parr explains about the birth of Oddball, "One day, Ridley Scott was shooting a television commercial in a club where some of my work was playing in the background, and he paid me to use the material. From that, I realized I could make a living licensing footage, and I already had this unusual material. Companies like Sun Microsystems, as well as television producers and documentary makers, started contacting me about certain kinds of materials. I saw that I could continue doing my own work, build up an archive and make a living at it. And, I like to research and provide historical materials and create an aesthetic for a film." Oddball has grown to more than 50,000 films, and Parr still produces regular events of his own.

"Stephen loves film," says producer/director Jessica Wolfson (Radio Unnameable; Crazy Sexy Cancer). "When you make a film like Radio Unnameable, about the 1960s, you end up seeing the same imagery over and over again, and we didn't want that. Stephen has this amazing collection of material that was deeper than the surface stuff you end up seeing."

 "We learned to avoid a lot of archives because it was like a factory, like a machine," adds Wolfson's partner, Paul Lovelace (Radio Unnameable, The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose). "Oddball is very filmmaker-friendly; they'll have a conversation with you: 'What is your film? What is your film about? What are the areas you are looking for? Describe the scenes.' It's like getting a sense of what the movie is before the movie is anything. To find this kind of artist/archivist angle is very rare."

"What makes our company really special is that we really understand the medium," says Parr. "When people call us, they may submit a list of materials, but we're the ones who really supply the visual sensibility that surrounds those materials. So, for instance, somebody says they want a shot of a hippie dancing in the streets. What does he really want? What's it going to be used for? How is it going to be contextualized?

Sometimes people aren't really able to do that, even though they may be good filmmakers," he continues. "They rely on post-production people like colorists to add or subtract color to the picture and editors to give the piece a jolt. We are kind of a cinematic think tank. I work with people as closely as they want to work with me. Sometimes it's just a matter of locating a really rare piece of material. We have a sense of what people want to use in their projects. We may only be a given a concept or emotion like, 'We need something very powerful, but not violent, and it has to be very visually compelling.' So maybe I'll give them a wheat field with the wind blowing, or maybe throwing paint on a canvas."

Parr notes that the biggest challenge small archives face in the ever-changing technology of the 21st century is the migration of data and continually new methods of distribution. "Regarding the quality of the image, because things are changing so quickly, there isn't going to be any one standard anymore," he says. "I spent 25 years transferring film to videotape, and now people don't really use videotape.

"A few years ago, I saw a presentation about a new DVD that can last 100 years," Parr continues. "But nobody is going to be playing DVDs in 100 years—probably not even in five or 10 years. People are being forced to take the old technology and migrate it to a new technology. A lot of material will never make the transfer. The Library of Congress has hundreds of thousands of videotapes; there's no way they're going to be able to transfer all of them."

Caroline Frick of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) concurs that technology and changing formats is a challenge for archives, but at the same time, computers and the Internet help small archives survive and provide an unprecedented level of service. "The real labor comes in documenting the material," she says. "The identification, the cataloging, the meta-data that goes with each file—that's what holds us up. Our goal is to provide as much context as possible to the material that we offer online."

TAMI's mission is "to discover, preserve, provide access to and educate the community about Texas' film heritage," she states. Frick began working on the archive over a decade ago—in her apartment. Today, TAMI has offices, over 10,000 films digitized (but many more thousand still to go), and only a couple of thousand films currently available to view on its website.

After studying film history and preservation in college, Frick spent time working at a regional archive in the UK, then returned to the US and worked at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Warner Bros. Archive and American Movie Classics, before settling in at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches media history and film preservation.

Frick's vision at first was to create a traditional archive with cans of films and tapes stored in a facility. "But by the time I ended up getting to the point of filing papers and enacting all this, my vision had really changed because of technology," she explains. "I thought, ‘Why are we doing this?' The work being done at the Internet Archive was really influential because what we were seeing them do in that early late-'90s-early-2000s stage, we thought, ‘That's the future. That's what we need to be going towards.'" So instead of a traditional model, TAMI jumped straight to digital and onto the Internet.

"We just completed a massive overhaul of our site; you can browse or search for specific things," Frick adds. "We have curated collections. You can do a search by categories or eras, so you can see what we have. I like to say to students at University of Texas that instead of using our material for stock footage or B-roll, I wish that some documentarians would see the material and the stories on our site and want to do a story about a particular film. We have so many amazing stories that have not been told before. One day somebody will say, 'The Snake King of Brownsville? Of course I'm going to make a film about that!'"

If you're looking for amazing stories, how Skip Elsheimer began what would evolve into Raleigh, Virginia-based A/V Geeks is certainly one. "Where did it all start? That's hard to say," he writes on his website. "Was it my childhood experiments with a View-Master projector attempting to make realistic 3-D ghosts like on Scooby Doo? Was it the endless filmstrips I watched in a rural elementary school? Or was it just that I was at the right place at the right time with the right resources?"

In the early 1990s, Elsheimer was working for a software company, and earning enough money that he could "just buy stuff at government surplus auctions" for his own amusement and for performances he describes as "noise and audio-visual projects."

One day, amidst picking up CPR dummies and printing presses, "I ended up getting a bunch of audio-visual equipment, video decks, VCRs and film projectors," he explains. "So the guy at the auction said, 'I have some films for sale,' and I wound up getting 500 films for $50, and that's what got me started. These were films from the Department of Human Services, from the '50s up to the '80s. I was just fascinated by them."

Elsheimer began incorporating the films with his live shows, but soon realized that they stood on their own. "So I started showing the films between the bands, and then began opening for the bands as A/V Geeks because I felt the films themselves were strong enough. At first, I thought they were really corny and silly and funny to watch. But then over a period of time I realized that these are kind of important. We can laugh at them, but then we also realize they are time capsules of our cultural history—what we were afraid of, what our aspirations were."

"At that same time," Elsheimer continues, "schools were beginning to dump their collections, so I ended up getting another 1,000 films for $50, or another 500 films, and so on." He began touring with the best of the films, working with a distributor to package some on DVD, and posting many of them on YouTube.

"My collection is whatever strikes my fancy," he explains. "I still primarily buy a collection because I like it. To me, it's incidental that it can be used for stock footage. The collection is almost 80 percent educational films, primarily from 1940s to the '80s, with a high concentration of the '60s and '70s. The balance of the collection is what I'd call 'promotional films'—educational, but they're really just advertising a product or service, like films from the Meat Advisory Board."

Filmmaker Lisa Thomas first discovered A/V Geeks when she was working on the MTV program Wonder Shozen. "I went to the large stock-footage houses, and then we would get a lot of the more educational films and older stuff from Skip," she says. "And he accommodated us with a lot of footage at a very low cost. At one point in the second season of the show, I went down to Raleigh and spent a week at his archives just looking at footage, because we were licensing so much. Over 50 percent of the footage we used in Wonder Showzen was licensed from Skip. You can never really get the kind of budget you want to license everything your heart desires, but our money was stretched a lot further with him because he was a fan of the show, he loved working with us and we loved working with him."

Then, in 2009, Thomas partnered with Margo Peletier to make Freeing Silvia Baraldini, about an imprisoned 1960s political activist. "When you are making a documentary that has several significant interviews and you do not want your film to be mostly talking heads, it is a tremendous challenge to find B-roll to illustrate your points," Peletier says. "To fill up 30 seconds of film time with compelling footage is not always easy. This is where Skip comes in. His archive is vast and eclectic, and he was prompt in getting footage to us."

In their film, there is a scene in which Baraldini speaks of her struggle to get treatment for cancer while in prison. "Obviously, we didn't have footage for that, and we didn't want to just show her talking the whole time," says Thomas. "So we went looking for some more abstract stuff from Skip. He was great about sending us all kinds of options, like a shot as if the camera was on a stretcher going through a hallway, and another of shadows of people coming into a hospital. So we were able to use that."

But Elsheimer also suffers the same issues of technology and limited resources as other boutique libraries. "In the bigger picture, any time you work with smaller archives, it's going to have the same problem—you're going to have a very limited staff," he admits. "Yes, it's a labor of love, but there's only so much time I can dedicate to footage. There's a lot to be found in these smaller archives, but they just don't have the staff to work like a stock footage house; they're very different."

"As helpful as the Internet can be, film is a collaborative process, and the quickest way to get a film made is to talk to somebody," notes Oddball's Parr. "The further away you get from that, the more complicated it's going to be. It's one thing to deliver something really quickly; it's another to deliver exactly what the person wants. Going online and looking for clips is really great, but it's a lot easier to just call somebody and say, 'Look, this is what I need; find it for me.'

If you type in the words ‘Golden Gate Bridge at Night' and ‘stock footage,' you'll probably get 100,000 hits, but if the meta-data isn't entered into a website somewhere, or even if it is, it might not turn up" Parr continues. "You can watch 100 million things on YouTube, but you need some kind of a filter. Clients don't always have time to spend hours and hours searching for clips online when they can just contact somebody with a list of things. Certainly, you can't work without the Internet, but it still does not replace a really good conversation. And that's what small archives try to give you."


Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor to Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, the San Francisco Weekly, and the Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry, and lives in Austin, Texas, with his trusty cat, Miles.