Did you know that we used some stock footage in the making of Ren: The Girl with the Mark Season One? In this article I’ll go through some examples of how we used stock footage not just to plug holes but to enhance our production values. You can do the same, and it needn’t be expensive. In fact, we signed up for a free trial of a popular stock footage library, and downloaded everything we needed before cancelling the account!
Here are a few examples of how stock footage could enhance your next production as it did ours.
The most obvious use of stock footage is to illustrate scenes that are too difficult or too expensive to shoot yourself, perhaps because the location is too far away or maybe because it’s the wrong time of year.
I was the postproduction supervisor on Season One, and one of my first duties as such was to assess what was missing from each episode: pick-ups that needed to be shot, visual effects that needed to be executed. One hole in Ren: The Girl with the Mark came early in the first episode, where the script called for the title character (Sophie Skelton) to sketch the deer. We had the wide and mid shots of Ren drawing, but no reverse of what she was looking at.
Director Kate Madison and I looked up local forests where deer were known to live. None of them were particularly close, and we both knew that there was no guarantee of success. We could easily spend a day in a forest without catching one of the notoriously skittish animals on camera. Furthermore, with the many other demands of postproduction filling our time, we soon realised we had missed our seasonal window and the trees were losing their leaves, which would create a continuity mismatch with principal photography.
So we turned to stock footage. It didn’t take very long at all to find a suitable shot and cut it into the episode. We had one of our VFX team add some extra foliage to help it match, but it was much easier than trying to film a deer ourselves would have been. We ticked off one our missing shots and were able to spend our time and energy more effectively on those pick-ups that really did need shooting – like the insert of Ren’s hand sketching the deer, which we recorded in the back garden with Kate drawing a copy of the stock shot!
Any image you can imagine can be computer-generated with today’s technology, but even the biggest movies still struggle to do this convincingly sometimes. On a low budget, CGI shots can be a complete gamble, with the potential to ruin your film if they are unconvincing.
Instead, it is often wise to consider layering real filmed elements, with filters and transformations as necessary, to create a visual effect. This way you get something much more organic and convincing, and it becomes a compositing job rather than a CG modelling/animation job. In my experience it’s much easier to find a skilled compositor than a modeller/animator who can deliver photo-realistic results. You can shoot the elements yourself, but more often than not you can find what you need in stock footage libraries.
A royalty-free stock particle explosion, for example, was layered into Ren’s eyes by Alessandro Neri to create the dramatic cliffhanger for Episode Two. (Look out for a future blog post where we’ll discover how Chris Taylor created the show’s signature visual effect using a similar technique.) Elsewhere in the series, digital matte painter Markus Lovadina manipulated stock photos of landscapes to create the establishing shots of Ren’s village, Lyngarth.
A great title sequence can do a tremendous amount to establish the setting and mood of a film or series. Stock footage can be very useful here to expand the canvas of your existing material.
When the premiere of Ren was just weeks away, we still hadn’t got a satisfactory title sequence. Several versions had been attempted by different people, but none had the right tone along with the high production values we needed.
While searching for references to send to a motion graphics designer, to convey the look she wanted, Kate came across some stock footage of spreading ink blots. With – by now – only a day or two before the digital cinema package had to be rendered, she used After Effects to wrangle these videos, in combination with choice shots from the show itself, into an eye-catching title sequence. To avoid it looking generic, we worked in graphical elements from Ren like custom fonts, the Kah’Nath and Mahri Rai symbols, and the eponymous Mark itself.
Remember, just because you are using stock footage, it doesn’t mean you can’t put your stamp on it, that you can’t customise it with filters or grading or visual effects to make it match the look of your production. That is the real power of stock footage, when it is a piece of the puzzle, helping to make the sum greater than the whole of its parts.