Q: What is your job?
A: I manage a commercial archive of historical footage.
Q: How did you find this job?
A: I had been working at my dad’s pub for a couple of years, which I loved but eventually came to the point where I thought I should get a steadier job and put my film degree to use. I remember hearing about the job of picture researcher, and I then discovered the intriguing world of picture and footage libraries.
Q: So you catalog historical footage? How do you catalog everything?
A: With a lot of patience. And nerdiness.
Sometimes we’ll receive footage that takes a lot of research to figure out what it is. Like it might be in the early 1920s, it might be obvious that it’s a certain place in the world, or it may be way more ambiguous. The cataloging process is either straightforward or it’s research-heavy. I prefer the latter!
Q: So you have a library of footage, and then people make requests for it?
A: Yes, we license it to filmmakers, online magazines or for exhibitions. But I’d say 90% of the requests are probably for footage for historical documentaries.
We’ve got footage from Iraq in the 1920s to interviews with director Nic Roeg, and everything in between!
Q: Who gives you the footage?
A: It’s either nerdy old guys who have collected reels of footage over decades, or galleries and museums that have an archive they want us to manage, or tiny regional archives from around the world… all sorts.
Q: Were you good at history in high school?
A: I was awful at history in school. It was the film side of things that got me into this job. But my interest in history has completely blossomed. I read historical novels and I’ll see stuff that relates to the footage I’ve worked on.
I’ve learned a lot about the 20th century. Once, we got a request for footage of the American Civil War, and it’s completely obvious to me, but maybe not to them, that film has only existed for the last 120 years.
Have you heard of a phenakistoscope?
Q: A what?
A: It’s an early 19th-century motion picture device – possibly the first. It’s a flat paper disk, with the picture repeated in a wheel formation, and there’s a hole in the card. When you stand in front of a mirror, look through the hole, and then spin the disk, you can see the image animate in the mirror. There is a guy who scanned a huge collection of these and animated them in high-def.
Q: What is the subject matter?
A: Sometimes they are trippy patterns, sometimes they’re pictures of a cat chasing a dog, or a housewife chasing her husband, a trapeze artist doing a backflip… It’s a pretty surreal collection.
Q: Is there a certain kind of footage that most people are looking for?
A: We get client requests for projects that can be very specific, like the fall of the Berlin wall. Or more conceptual, like “fatherhood, from the ’40s to the ’60s” or ’footage conveying grief, any era."
We have footage related to innumerable aspects of life.
Q: Are there requests you can’t fill?
A: All the time. There will always be things you don’t have.
At this point I’m super-familiar with the whole archive and know almost immediately whether we have it or we don’t. The biggest challenge is when a project is massive. Like I got a request earlier this week for a documentary about a specific singer-songwriter and they wanted so much history on film. Something like “from the liberation of the concentration camps to Scientology.”
When telling an epic life story, I have to be diligent and disciplined to try to find as much as possible. It can be time-consuming and repetitive, but ultimately very satisfying.
Q: How many hours of footage have you watched?
A: A lot. Unquantifiable. The lion’s share of my time is spent watching history on film.
I’ve had times when I’ve been watching World War I footage for weeks and weeks on end. Some stuff can be quite hard to stomach. I’m regularly reminded of how easy we have it. It can be quite humbling, watching real men, a hundred years ago, try to make it across no-man’s-land alive.
Q: What’s some of your favorite footage in the archive?
A: We’ve got a whole collection of vintage films about the creative arts, like from the 1950s to the 1980s. They’re about dance, fine arts, comic book arts…
I could watch loads of the dance ones. My mom is a former ballerina, and dance was a large part of my upbringing. One film is all about the first Native American ballerina, named Maria Tallchief. It’s just her dancing in a studio in the 1950s. I could watch tons of that.
There are all kinds of joyous, bonkers things in there, like footage of human cannonballs, talking dogs. It’s a treasure trove.
I just like seeing the past – real life past – on film. It’s proof of how things were. It’s important that we are reminded. Especially now, in an era when what’s on ‘film’ can sometimes not necessarily be the truth.
Q: What else do you enjoy about the job?
A: I like learning little unknown facts about the events of history. Like last week, I was looking into aerial warfare in World War I. Aviation was such a new thing, and no one really knew what they were doing. And I came across an interview with this old French veteran. He was drafted into the Air Force, purely based on the fact that he was a member of a kite flying club. Brave is a complete understatement.
Q: And obviously he lived to tell about it.
A: And he lived to tell about it.
Q: I will never join a kite flying club.
A: That’s right, you never know where you’ll end up.