A foot in footage past and present


Kenn Rabin

Archival researcher

Current assignment: “Goodnight, and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s film about CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953-54.

Previous credits: “Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks,” “Ralph Ellison: An American Journey,” “Eyes on the Prize” and “Vietnam: A Television History.”

Going to the source: “Very often [the archival footage comes from] the television networks -- the material that was originally shot for NBC, CBS and ABC nightly news. Sometimes it is from newsreels that were used in the movie theaters from the 1920s through 1967. The different studios produced the newsreels. Those newsreel collections still exist. UCLA has all of the Hearst newsreels and the National Archives have all the Universal newsreels.”


But not without permission: “Most of [the archival footage] is under copyright and under license. Most of them are quite expensive, and that is a whole other thing -- the copyright issues have gotten quite complex, and there are underlying copyright issues. You have to deal with questions like do you have to clear the faces of people who appear in the footage, or music that appears in footage.

“Generally speaking, I am responsible for clearing the footage.”

Good luck: “In the case of ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ we had a big head start because we wanted to mostly use the stuff that came from Murrow’s shows. So that sent us to CBS immediately; CBS News is actually now represented by BBC. The BBC has offices in Burbank, New York and London.

“Early on, I got George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who is the producer and the co-writer with George, screening tapes of all the relevant ‘See it Now’ shows and picked a bunch of ‘Person to Person’ shows. We pulled all the relevant shows so that they could transcribe them into the script.

“This is how it almost always works. I get the producer and director a lot of screening tapes, which are VHS tapes with the time code burned in. They say ‘We like this,’ and ‘Get us more of that,’ and I get them more tapes. They can actually edit with those tapes, and when they lock picture, I will get them a clean master, and that is when they license materials.”

Where the work comes from: “Usually the producer hires me, or the production company. In the last few years, I have been lucky enough that it has been mostly word of mouth.”

War stories: “A lot of us in film research have kind of a list of funny stories or famous stories about footage every producer has thought they have seen but doesn’t exist. Perhaps the most famous one is Khrushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations. There is [only] a still photo of that.”

Hands off: “Less and less archives are letting people in [to do research]. It is a bad trend. A lot of these archives are selling off to larger entities. So instead of letting you, the researcher, or producer of a film who knows their subject matter, go into an archive and look through the footage, the staff wants to do it for you, and usually by computer keyword. You are kind of out of the loop, so you are not so free to discover by happenstance that little strange piece that might work for you, or notice some character in your film who the staff at the archive may not know to look for or identify.”

Age: 52

Resides: San Anselmo in Marin County

Union or guild: No

Salary: “Most of us get paid by the day, sometimes by the hour.... Right now I am juggling three features and four documentaries, but this is a hugely busy moment for me. There are other times I have been waiting for the phone to ring. I would say generally speaking, one can’t make a lot of money.”