In certain snooty film circles, the term “stock footage” is used with derision, like how some craft beer snobs might sniff disdainfully at the mention of Coors Light. In those circles, there is a perception that using stock media in your project is a cheap, hacky move that a real professional would never make. That is, of course, total nonsense.
It’s certainly true that the thoughtless overuse of stock footage, especially in cheap B-movies, has given stock media a bit of a bad reputation. But it’s unfair to tar and feather all stock with the same brush. Consider this: Almost every professional video project you have ever seen — from Hollywood blockbusters to TV commercials and corporate presentations to wedding videos — has used some form of stock media or another. Far from a hacky crutch, stock media can be to filmmaking what mortar is to a brick wall. It’s an essential structural element that can tie your entire project together.
What is stock media?
Put simply, stock media — be it video footage, music, sound effects, images, titles, visual effects or anything else — is media provided by a third party and not created specifically for your project. There’s no shame in using it, so long as you use it well. Everyone does! Once you know where to look for it, you will find stock media everywhere, from television sitcoms to sci-fi blockbusters to popular hip-hop albums.
Once you know where to look for it, you will find stock media everywhere, from television sitcoms to sci-fi blockbusters to popular hip-hop albums.
So why do so many projects use stock media, and why should you? Acquiring stock media and editing it into your project is very often faster, cheaper and much more convenient than creating that media yourself — or were you planning on hiring an orchestra to record that classical piano piece you want to use in your closing titles? And where do you think you’re going to get that footage you want of a wildebeest stampede or exploding volcano? If you don’t plan to buy it via stock, I hope that you have an unlimited travel budget and excellent health insurance.
Where to look for stock media
The most basic question about stock media is how to find it. You could go direct to the source, find someone that has created the media that you need and convince them to sell it to you. Most often, however, you’ll be buying your stock media from a stock media clearinghouse. They buy hundreds, thousands, even millions of pieces of media from individual sellers all over the world, and then turn around and resell that media to you. Sure, they take a cut of the action, but the service they provide is extremely convenient. After all, how many professional videographers that sell wildebeest stampede footage do you personally know?
Some clearinghouses, like MegaTrax, specialize in one kind of media — music. Others, like Envato, will sell you everything from video clips of softly swaying fields of wheat to the header graphic on your website to the font to put on your poster. What site is best can be an entirely subjective matter, and depends a lot on your own personal style and the kind of project that you are working on. If you do a lot of graphics-heavy corporate training videos, Envato might be right for you. If you are working on a wildebeest-heavy tourism commercial, perhaps Getty Images might work better.
Finding free stock media
There are some artists, usually but not always amateurs, who make their work available on the internet and ask for nothing but a credit in return. These stock clips vary in quality, but it is possible to find just what you need on a site like Pexels, Pixabay or Freesounds.org. By all means, check them out and see what you can find. That said, stock media is like anything else in life: you get what you pay for. Most of the time, the free stuff just won’t cut it.
Clearinghouses can be convenient one-stop shopping, but that’s not the only important service that they provide. They also take care of licensing rights for you. That is a very valuable benefit unless you happen to have a full-time entertainment lawyer on retainer. Speaking broadly, the licensing rights to a piece of stock media determine where and how you can use that media. Can you put it online? What about on broadcast television? How many copies of that DVD can you make with that image on the cover?
Even free stock media usually comes with a license that limits your use of it. The most popular of these is the Creative Commons Share Alike license. Just because the media is free doesn’t mean that it’s license-free. We live in a litigious society. This means that if you buy the wrong license for your project, you could be in a world of hurt.
Clearinghouses might take care of licensing rights for you, but that doesn’t mean you are completely off the hook. Make sure you are very clear on the rights that you’re getting. Always read the fine print! For example, the standard ShutterStock video license will let you use their stock footage online or during live events, but not for television, OTT streaming or theatrical release. However, Shutterstock also has other license types. For example, their Editorial-Only license means that you may not use that media for any commercial purpose. This limits it to non-profit, personal or public interest (news and documentary) purposes. It gets even more complex when you consider that music licensing works differently from image licensing. And that works differently again from video licensing and so on.
Another thing to look for in licensing, especially if you work on high-profile projects, is legal indemnification. If someone files a copyright claim on the stock media you’re using, will the site you bought it from protect you? Some clearinghouse sites offer this service and others don’t. It may not sound like a big deal, but careers and fortunes have been destroyed by using improperly cleared media. You are definitely better safe than sorry.
If you’re going to use the licensed media more than once, make sure that you purchase a royalty-free license. This means you can use it as often as you like without having to pay extra. Otherwise, I hope you have an accounting department prepared to keep track of when and how often your video is viewed and to pay out royalty fees accordingly for the rest of time.
Simplifying the process
This all sounds very complicated, and it certainly can be, but there are ways to simplify the process. If you only use stock media every now and then, it may pay to buy a limited license. These offer a very specific license for a very specific purpose. This minimizes the chance of something going wrong as long as you stick to the terms of the deal. Industry lingo for a one-time or similarly limited license is a “rights-managed” license.
On the other hand, if you find that you need to use stock media on a regular basis, many sites will offer paid plans or bundles. These give you access to some or all of their library for a flat fee. These fees may be in exchange for a certain number of clips and images (a “bundle”), or in the form of a monthly subscription. In some cases, a one-and-done payment opens their library to you forever. These services usually come with a bundle of standard, typically royalty-free rights attached to the media. This saves you the trouble of researching the licensing on every single individual piece of stock media that you use. However, it still doesn’t mean you don’t have to put in your due diligence. Read the license carefully, no matter how sleepy all that legalese might make you!
Using stock media effectively
OK, so let’s assume that you have purchased some stock media and have ensured that the license you bought is right for your project. Now how do you best use it to ensure that your video doesn’t wind up in the “Don’ts” half of a Videomaker Dos and Don’ts compilation? The most important thing is that you integrate your stock media seamlessly into your video. Make sure it’s the best quality available, edited well and, if necessary, graded and filtered so that it looks like the rest of your film. If nobody notices that it’s stock, you have done your job right. If your use of stock media stands out, like the infamous octopus attack scene from schlock filmmaker Ed Wood’s “Bride of the Monster” wherein two men are attacked by blurry footage from someone’s aquarium, then you have done it wrong.
Your audience may never notice
For example, you have probably heard the same four or five stock ricochet sound effects in a thousand different action movies, but you will likely have never noticed their sameness (until now). Another example: the TV show “Criminal Minds” is shot in Los Angeles, but the heroes travel to a different city in almost every episode. To denote a change in setting, there’s usually an establishing aerial shot of the city of the week. For an episode set in Philadelphia, do you think that the producers of that show flew from LA to Philly, then rented a helicopter and hired a camera crew, all for a two-second establishing shot of a sunrise over the Schuylkill? Heck no! They bought the footage from a stock house. Then, they used that footage on their prime-time, major network television show and nobody noticed.
If your editing is good enough, it’s even possible to make an entire project out of nothing but stock media. These filmmakers made a generic branding ad using nothing but stock clips from Dissolve.com. How many times have you seen an ad just like that one. Now, how many times did you think “Wow, that’s a lot of stock footage”? It probably never even crossed your mind. And if it did, it’s probably only because you are the type of person that reads Videomaker.
In summary, stock media is a powerful and versatile tool in your video creation toolbox. Despite the unfortunate reputation it carries in some circles, professionals know how useful and even vital it is to the business of filmmaking. Whether you get it from a clearinghouse or find it free online, the key to using it is to edit it seamlessly into your project — and don’t forget to ensure that you have the correct license for your project!