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Guerrilla Documentary: Using Newspaper Clippings

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/4/2011

Newspapers are a great way to show context and generate B-roll.

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    Pasting Together a Film

    Documentary film is often a collage of different media elements that play together to make a whole film. This can be in the form of direct cinema, video interviews, stock footage, photos, and music that are assembled to focus on certain elements in real life stories. Newspapers act as the public record in a way that other media forms do not. They are a free observer that is able to look over public and private entities and are compelled to display events factually and accurately. Because of this they are a great way to give a larger context to an issue by showing how the media responded to it and to give a temporal context.

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    The Morning Paper

    Using newspapers is an easy proposition for most documentarians. Since they are often used in the preliminary research on a topic many of them should already be available to the producers. Their purpose is not to act as a character section but to show the response to a given situation. Therefore they are best used in montage sequences and other image series that show less about the primary actors and more about how they fit in the larger world. For example, if you are documenting a particular court case or even you may want to have a section that discussed the fear or outrage a community had. To do this you may want to show a series of newspaper headlines, along with photos, that will show this response.

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    Legal Concerns

    It is not usually advisable to show the photos from the newspaper without the accompanying text. You have the legal right in most cases to show the newspaper article, but the photo lifted from the article is copyrighted and usually cannot be shown on its own. The image is supposed to be of the newspaper not of an event that was captured by the newspaper. The way this is differentiated is by looking at exactly what the purpose of the image is, and if it is to use a photo that was not legally appropriated by the filmmaker then you may be liable. Removing all authorship from the credits will protect you in some cases, as will its use in academia. In certain cases you do not have the right to show the name of the newspaper, which may be trademarked.

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    Free Footage

    One of the great things about using newspaper clippings is that it is a free and easy way to get B-roll. Since you can use these images at will they can fill gaps quite well, as long as they are covering a spot that talks about the issue in a context that is somewhat impersonal. The best way to do this is to just scan them using an average computer image scanner. When doing this you may want to flatten the image as much as possible, which may be difficult if it is an old paper. Most public and university libraries keep extensive back stock on major and some alternative papers. When getting the newspapers from these locations you may want to just have one of their available services do the digital scan. Many larger libraries and historical societies, especially if they have special or rare collection areas, will do high resolution scans for a fee. These will often give you a very high quality image that can be zoomed in without clarity loss.

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    Keep it To a Minimum

    Just like anything, it is important to not overuse these images. They are not exceptionally dynamic and if used too repeatedly they will slow the pace of your film and reduce urgency.