How to spice up your film for free

Hours of fascinating online footage are waiting to be spliced into your video – you just need to know where to look, writes Ben Frain

This article was originally posted on The Guardian.

Regardless of a project’s existing merits, there are times when you’ll want to splice (and spice) up your footage with a little something extra. Well, you can. Be it a sequence from a classic silent movie or footage of an Arctic icesheet breaking apart, the internet boasts achives full of wonderful (and weird) footage just crying out to be in your film.

Sadly, but obviously, you can’t just take your pick of footage from any TV or film, as almost all video (and music too) is subject to a strict licence agreement. Making use of such footage, even for personal use, is illegal without the consent of the copyright owner. However, help is at hand in the form of “royalty-free” footage, of which plenty is available for download on the web.

Free, or not so free

However, royalty-free simply means that additional fees are not due to the originator every time the item is used. This kind of footage has either been shot with the express intention of being royalty-free, or for other reasons has passed into the public domain (as part of a national archive, say).

But before you type in “free footage” on Google and go download crazy, note the word “additional” is in italics. That’s because most royalty-free stock footage still costs money to use – it’s just that you only have to pay for it once, with a simple flat fee. This is known as “payable” stock footage: once the fee is paid, you can use it in any setting, from personal movies to a cinematic blockbuster, and never have to pay another penny. But given that payable royalty-free footage ranges in cost from £50 to £1,000, as an amateur film-maker you have to be pretty certain you can’t live without that shot.

Thankfully, there are also plenty of absolutely free stock footage sources, and many of them boast incredible footage. In the UK, the Creative Artists Licence Group (CALG) – which includes Channel 4, the BBC, Open University and the British Film Institute – makes a wide variety of exceptional footage available for download for creative, non-commercial use (for this and similar sites, see below).

Download differences

Most stock footage websites make their content available for immediate download. Downloading footage requires a couple of considerations: format and download speed.

Video around the world is recorded to differing broadcasting standards. As such, the camcorders we use here in the UK (Pal format) create footage that is slightly different to those in the United States (NTSC format). This discrepancy is largely transparent when editing, as programs like iMovie are smart enough to know the difference. However, these programs can get a little unstuck if different formats are inadvertently mixed in the same project. In short, if you shoot footage with an everyday MiniDV camcorder, look for clips marked as “standard definition Pal” (sometimes also described as 720 x 576). If your project is in HD resolution, look for footage that matches your HD settings (“1080i”, for example).

Be aware that any lengthy sections of full-resolution footage may download at glacial pace, even on a fast broadband connection. Therefore, it is worth considering the destination and the audience for your project. For example, if you only ever intend to show your video project online, don’t remortgage your house for a slice of footage in HD resolution that will take three years to download, as all the extra detail contained in the footage will be lost when viewed online.

Get your Nasa rockets and black holes here

Free stock footage


Splice some rare archive black-and-white into your project


Everything from marines raising the US flag over Iwo Jima to footage of Nasa test rockets


Heaps of free documentary footage


How about an aerial shot of cooling towers? Or lorries being x-rayed at customs?


Need a doctor’s explanation of particle physics? This is the place


Does your sci-fi epic lack shots of Andromeda or black holes?


The place to go for footage of a turn-of-the-century striptease, and other equally vital stuff

Payable stock footage


Endless cartoon graphics for title sequences and DVD menus


How about a breathtaking pan around Yosemite falls or El Capitan?


Everything from cowboy rodeos to reindeer feeding


Has some incredible footage from China Central Television


Intercut shots of your own football match with footage of the pros