The Joys of Stock Footage

I was channel-surfing last night and stumbled on SUBMERGED,  a schlocky Fred Olen Ray movie from 2000 about a hijacked plane that crashes into the ocean, and the attempts to rescue the passengers. If the plot sounds identical to Universal’s cheesy AIRPORT  ’77, that’s not surprising. SUBMERGED was built entirely around AIRPORT ’77 stock footage. There’s nothing illegal about it… Fred simply bought/licensed the footage from Universal. What’s surprising is that Universal sees so little value now in their AIRPORT franchise that they’d allow a virtual remake to be made by another studio using their footage.

Stock footage is a wonderful thing, especially if you’re working on a tight budget.  I’ve certainly used my share of stock footage over the years, particularly on a  low-budget  syndicated action series called COBRA, starring Michael Dudikoff, that we wrote & produced for Steve Cannell up in Canada. We had virtually no money… so we relied on stock footage from the vast Cannell library to make our show look bigger than it was.  For example, we took an action sequence from the WISEGUY episode…used the same Vancouver location, matched the cars and the wardrobe, and crafted a new sequence using the same footage.  To make our scene a bit fresher, we used alternate takes not used in the WISEGUY episode.  The new footage and the stock matched perfectly.  The trickery was unnoticeable to the untrained eye, or someone unfamiliar with the WISEGUY episode.

For another episode, our hero’s car was trashed…so he drove a Corvette Stingray…which allowed us to use lift several action sequences from Cannell’s series STINGRAY.  That was probably our least creative use of stock…on the same level as SUBMERGED. But we saved a huge amount of money and it made us heroes around the Cannell building.

In still another COBRA  episode, we used stock footage from an action sequence in RIPTIDE, which used stock footage from an episode of HARDCASTLE AND MCCORMICK, which used stock footage from a STINGRAY. So our sequence was created from footage patched together from three other series.  I remember Steve Cannell watching the sequence in the screening room with a huge grin on his face… he’d never seen stock footage used so well. We looked at it as a challenge…and had a wonderful time.

My favorite use of stock footage was for a two-hour sweeps episode of  DIAGNOSIS MURDER about a plane crash in a corn field. We used stock footage of a plane crash, and sweeping, overhead shots of the wreckage, from the movie FEARLESS. We then bought out a cornfield in Oxnard, set it aflame, and  filled it with scorched airplane wreckage.  We also put our actors in the cornfield.  Our original footage matched seamlessly with the stock.  It gave our episode a scope we never could have managed on our tight budget…and I doubt the average viewer was the least bit aware of our trickery, even if they were among the few who’d seen FEARLESS.

I see stock footage used all the time in feature films and TV shows…mainly because the best stock (mostly explosions, battle sequences, car chases, establishing shots, etc.) gets used over and over again.  When it’s used well, the viewer rarely notices. When it’s used badly, it makes whatever you’re watching look like hack work… which, of course, it probably is or they wouldn’t have needed the stock footage in the first place!

4 thoughts on “The Joys of Stock Footage”

  1. Lee,
    I was in that plane crash episode, but not in the capacity I would have liked. I went on to be a regular extra on the program and even earned my SAG card there. I have fond memories of very nice treatment from Dick, the cast and crew. A top-flight production in my view.

  2. Lee, you’re being kind of rough on my buddy, Fred. I don’t think SUBMERGED was any worse than most of the TV shows you mentioned (and it was an entire feature that was probably shot on the budget of a low end one hour TV show – or less). But the whole stock footage thing has really become an epidemic in the low budget world. The last two or three indie flicks I worked on depended quite a bit on the stock shots. A few of them so much so that it dominated the creation of the script. Not a fun way to work (which is a big reason I don’t do it anymore). And the results were often even less fun. A couple of those films made Fred’s movies look like masterpieces. He does a pretty good job matching the stuff. Other directors do not always fare so well.
    The Other Lee

  3. I’ve never noticed it for action scenes, but I have certainly noticed it for establishing shots. Which is fairly obvious to anyone with half a brain, I know. 🙂
    My favorite is probably the Wonder Woman season 1 set from last year. The episodes looked fine, but the stock footage of DC had all kinds of grain. I’m guessing because they used shots from the forties so it was older, but I could be way off base.


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