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IDFA Industry Session: From Archive to Storytelling

This past November, the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) hosted the panel discussion Industry Session: From Archive to Storytelling. The guests were archive-researcher James McDonald (All This Mayhem, 2014) and producer Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck, 2015; Jane, 2017). They were interviewed by Melanie Rozencwajg, CEO of the company Archive Valley. Archive Valley aims to support and stimulate the (re)use of unique collections worldwide by personally connecting content-makers with archive-specialists in over sixty countries and by simplifying the process of licensing material. [1] Unfortunately, Rozencwajg did not get around to further expounding on her work at Archive Valley. Instead, she moderated the interview, during which Morgen and McDonald discussed both practical and creative aspects of their work with archival footage.

The inception of a story

In 2007, Morgen began the daunting task of sorting through a storage space filled with, amongst others, audio-recordings, videotapes, diaries, objects and paintings. The items had once belonged to Kurt Cobain, and were to become the foundation of his film Cobain: Montage of Heck. In 2014, National Geographic approached Morgen and asked him if he wanted to make a movie using a collection of footage which they had just rediscovered in their archives. It consisted of 140 hours of 16mm film, shot by Hugo van Lawick in 1960, documenting Jane Goodall’s expedition to Gombe, Tanzania. Morgen would eventually transform this footage into his newest film Jane. For both movies, the archival material at Morgen’s disposal was limited and came from a single source. Although this may seem restrictive, Morgen emphasised that these constraints are a blessing in disguise: the gaps in a story and the missing shots force you to apply your creativity. For example, in Cobain: Montage of Heck, Morgen used animations to bring drawings, photos and objects to life, as well as to portray Cobain himself. When making a documentary out of archival material the goal is to find the story in the footage, rather than find footage to go with a story. Thus, what is important is not what material you do (or do not) have, but how you handle the raw material that is available to you.

Having a predetermined and limited archive to work with complements Morgen’s personal work (and creative) process. Morgen explained that he collects all the material he intends to use in a film before starting the editing process and, once the editing has begun, no new footage should be added. He then sits down to view all the material from beginning to end. (In the case of Cobain: Montage of Heck, he also listened to all of Cobain’s music chronologically, with the lyrics in front of him.) At that moment, Morgen said, the narrative unfolds and the story almost seems to write itself. Subsequently, he writes the entire script of the movie and only then does he begin editing the footage. [2] Other filmmakers might continue searching for material while they are editing, and allow new material (or the editing process) to influence the script or storyline.

For archive-researcher McDonald, the making of the movie All This Mayhem followed an entirely different process. By the time McDonald was approached the movie was already in the editing-phase. All This Mayhem is a documentary about the tumultuous lives of skaters Tas and Ben Pappas in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Filming is inherent to the skate-subculture, so there was an abundance of available footage. The problem, however, lay with finding and selecting the material. This turned out to be quite a challenge: contacts were spread out across San Diego and Australia and hard to track down. Additionally, there were unresolved personal conflicts and many people could not remember details about events that occurred at the time.

Research & Licensing

So what do you do when there is so much (potential) material at hand, but you have no idea where (or what) it all is? You conduct research, a lot of it. McDonald explained that reading about the subject and the people involved, listening to stories, and learning who’s-who and who-did-what makes up ninety percent of his work. Only after collecting this metadata he can critically decide who to approach for material, and which material is relevant to the movie. It was McDonald’s responsibility to provide the editor with only the best material, so that the editor did not have to sift through irrelevant footage. McDonald described a non-linear process of doing research, tracking people down, talking with people (and helping them remember things), finding out about the existence of (possibly) relevant footage, figuring out who might have the footage, and then looking for that person and the material. Only then did the second part of the process commence: negotiating for their approval to use to footage.

To do so, McDonald spent a lot of time gaining people’s trust, particularly because of the complex and fragmented nature of the community. People tended to be protective over their material, and every contact required a tailored and personal approach. Morgen and McDonald explained that negotiating material requires a good balance between determination and humbleness: you must be utterly (almost arrogantly) convinced that you will get the material, yet you have to approach people with humility. Nonetheless, they emphasized that people are generally willing to help you, as long as you are open and honest, and you help them understand the relevance of the material. Taking the time to invest in this trust and understanding is essential because, as soon as they hand over their material, they have to let it go and completely trust you with it.

Sometimes the problem does not lie in finding footage, but in finding the owner of some footage. In some cases reusing the footage falls under fair use, but Morgen, as well as McDonald, emphasise that they prefer not to take the risk. Even though laws concerning fair use seem to be easing up, usually it is financially too risky to take the chance: even if won, a court case can easily lead to bankruptcy. When they do choose to take the risk they put aside a few hundred euros and save evidence (such as emails) that may prove that they made (reasonable) endeavours to find and contact the owner.

Selection & Editing

Morgen and McDonald explained that when you are selecting and editing footage, you are always searching for the discarded moments, or the “moment after the moment”. For example, in Jane, right before the camera turns away, Goodall sticks out her tongue to the camera. These unguarded moments and shots are the most valuable to a film, but unfortunately they are also very rare. McDonald explained how he had to sift through an hour of skateboarding-footage to get just five minutes of useful footage, of a meaningful glance, a talking head, or a conversation.

Morgen, on the other hand, had more than enough material to select from while making Jane, despite the limited nature of the archive. The problems he encountered were of a different nature: all the shots were pasted together on film reels in a random order, without audio or annotations to make sense of them. The material was also endlessly repetitive: the chimpanzees slept, walked, mated or ate and that was about it. Nevertheless, Morgen had to learn to distinguish between 160 individual chimpanzees and, as he put it, facial recognition is a lot tougher with chimpanzees than with people. [2] As he said in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine: “to make sense of this footage was hell.” [3] After eight months of cataloguing, eight chimpanzees were selected as main characters and Morgen began writing the script [2].

For sound montage, Morgen and his team sifted through fifty years of field recordings of chimpanzee sounds. They also used recordings of Goodall reading her own book aloud, as well as fragments of their interviews together. [2] The latter took place very late in the process: Morgen only met Goodall after the first cut of the film. [4] Because the script was already finished at that point, Morgen knew exactly what he wanted to hear from Goodall for his audio. By studying interviews she had given in the past, Morgen was able to predict and steer Goodall’s answers. [2] Once Goodall’s recordings and the chimpanzee sounds were processed into the movie, composer Philip Glass was approached to create a soundtrack, since Morgen wanted Jane to be a docu-opera. Once Glass supplied Morgen with the music, Morgen went back and re edited all the footage in order to synchronize the visual rhythm of each scene with the music. [3]

Originally, Van Lawick’s footage was intended to be a scientific documentation of Goodall’s expedition. Despite the outstanding quality of the material, it was mostly tinted a somber brown, which stood in stark contrast with Goodall’s colourful descriptions of Gombe. In order to portray Gombe through Goodall’s eyes, Morgen spent 250 hours on colour-grading, and in doing so did not hesitate to create an entirely new reality. For example, by adjusting the contrast dramatically, he made it seem like a scene took place in the morning or evening, when in reality the footage was shot on one and the same grey afternoon. By drastically editing the original film material, Morgen was able to capture Gombe in a way that more closely resembled Goodall’s experiences and memories than the original, unedited footage.

McDonald added that certain technical variations in footage, such as a subtle change in quality or colour, can also have a narrative function. A sudden change in quality can indicate a jump in the film’s timeline, like a flashback to a moment in someone’s childhood. At a certain point in All This Mayhem, viewers can deduce that Tas and Ben became famous because the quality of the footage suddenly drastically improves as a result of professional filming (as opposed to all the home-videos from the years before).

Throughout this panel discussion, Morgen and McDonald described two very different approaches to making documentaries using archival footage. What stood out the most was the complete appropriation of the material: the process of separating the footage from its original context, taking ownership of it, and creating something entirely new and unseen using montage, sound editing and colour grading. As such, both McDonald and Morgen emphasized, it does not matter whether the material is ‘never-before-seen’ or not: what you make of it and create will always be ‘never-before-experienced’. And whether you make a film using a pre-existing archive, or have to source the material yourself, the process of finding, selecting and ‘reeling in’ footage is unique to every filmmaker, film, and contact. In the coming years it will be particularly interesting to see how technical advances influence the process of sourcing footage. McDonald predicts that with the rise of user-generated footage, more and more material will become available, yet it will also be increasingly hard to find as it will be spread out, unorganized and unannotated, across a multiplicity of people and devices.

[1] Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from

[2] Huls, A. (2017). How Brett Morgen Made ‘Jane’ with Lost National Geographic Footage. Retrieved from

[3] Pritchard, T. (2017). Brett Morgen on Jane, Syncing Philip Glass’s Score to Chimp Sounds and Organizing 140 Hours of Archival Footage. Retrieved from

[4] Radish, C. (2017). Director Brett Morgen on ‘Jane’ and Directing the Pilot of Marvel’s ‘Runaways’. Retrieved from