Free stock footage is hard to find

I am trying to make a video using free stock footage from the internet. It is very difficult! For some reason I thought it would be easy, because I frequently use free stock photographs from e.g. Flickr when putting together presentations, and I have no trouble finding high-quality, Creative Commons-licensed photos. Video is clearly different, unfortunately.

Here are my requirements/preferences for stock footage:
(1) Downloadable in high resolution/quality – This is problematic, because most video on the internet is in low-resolution Flash formats. Even when it is possible to download the flash file (which frequently takes some hacking), the video is too low-resolution to use for serious video-editing. Ideally I would like the video to have a resolution of 640×480 or higher.
(2) Freely licensed – Ideally I would like to use public domain or CC-licensed footage, with a license that permits me to make derivative works. This basically reduces my options to the Internet Archive and a few video-sharing sites such as Revver, most of the stuff on YouTube and its ilk is not freely-licensed.
(3) Actually relevant to the topic I am covering – It is actually rather difficult to find footage illustrating a particular concept/idea… the current state of video search is pathetic.

Does anyone have any ideas for websites / sources that meet these criteria?

I’ve had some success with the Internet Archive, but it has been a long and painful process, and I wish I could find some other options as well.

The Internet Archive

Internet Archive logoThe Internet Archive’s Moving Image Archive has zillions of videos in high-resolution, high-quality formats, and many of them are in the public domain or under a CC license. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

* The Internet Archive also has many low-resolution, low-quality videos – For every excellent public domain movie lovingly preserved, there are 4 clips of an incoherent vlogger ranting at the camera, or several promising-looking clips available only in a compressed, low-resolution format. One thing that I would like to be able to sort by is popularity, i.e. how often a video has been downloaded/viewed, but IA doesn’t appear to allow that. They only let you sort by “rating”, which is much less useful because most people do not rate movies, and sometimes the few ratings are by the person who posted the video and their friends. Of course, popular videos are not always high-resolution, but they do tend to be higher resolution on IA, and it would at least get rid of boring useless crap.

* To find a 6-second clip, you must watch an hour-long video – There is no good way to skim through video to find a clip that you want. This is more of a limitation of the medium than IA’s fault, but someone needs to solve this problem.

Although the Internet Archive has high-quality video, much of it is in full-length movie format. For instance, while looking for footage illustrating “research”, I figured I would find *something* relevant in an edutainment film about genetics, but it is 53 minutes long! Fortunately, the footage I wanted showed up right in the beginning, before the opening credits, otherwise it would have been a long hour of learning outdated genetics. I did actually have to watch almost the entirety of a Cold War cartoon defending the profit motive to get a shot illustrating “taxes”, but fortunately that was only 8.5 minutes long.

A thumbnail of a library, apparentlyThe Internet Archive *does* offer thumbnails of each minute of a video, which gives you a vague idea of what the video contains without actually watching it or downloading it. This is an invaluable tool, but it is not adequate for my purposes. For instance, I swore I saw a shot of a library in the thumbnails for this excellent video of Brewster Kahle speaking at the Library of Congress, but I watched the entire video and didn’t see the shot from the thumbnail at all. My dream would be clicking on the thumbnail to be taken to the corresponding place in the video, but couldn’t they at least put a time code next to each image? If they are really taken every minute, you should just be able to count the thumbnails to find the relevant minute, but clearly I can’t count or something.

* It takes a really long time to download high quality video – It seems really hard to get a good internet connection in the DC area. I certainly don’t have one in the office, and Comcast in my apartment sucks. Downloading a 2 GB video file takes forever. Even if I figure out which clip I want from an hour long movie, perhaps by watching a low-quality verison, there is no way to download just that clip and not the entire movie. That seems really inefficient and a waste of my time.

* iMovie won’t open any of the files – I used Linux exclusively for about 2-3 years in college, but I finally threw in the towel and bought a Mac when I couldn’t find any functional video editing software in Linux. I was very impressed by iMovie, and I used it for several school projects. However, I was very frustrated to find that (1) iMovie ’08 is a complete rewrite of iMovie that shares nothing in common with the old iMovie, and (2) iMovie ’08 will not open any of the files I download from the Internet Archive. Apple claims that “iMovie supports standard and high definition video, as well as the most popular formats, including DV, HDV, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and even AVCHD.” However, I had a very hard time finding any MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 files that would open in iMovie ’08, 99% of all MPEGs give me an error saying “The file will not be imported. It is not compatible with iMovie.” It turns out that transcoding the files to DV format would let me open the files in iMovie, but although I was able to do that with MPEG-4 files, even Quicktime *Pro* does not support MPEG-2 files! It won’t even play them, let alone transcode them! To get MPEG-2 support on a Mac, you either have to buy this MPEG-2 Playback plugin, or get a copy of Final Cut which includes the plugin. To be perfectly clear, these files were not corrupted, they played fine in VLC as well as in Quicktime once I got the MPEG-2 plugin, iMovie just wouldn’t open them.

This is not the Internet Archive’s fault, this is iMovie’s fault, but I do wish I could just download the file in a format that iMovie could edit, instead of transcoding. For the record, iMovie HD 6 was able to open some MPEG files that iMovie ’08 could not, but it was also picky. I am tempted to try video editing in Linux again, since it’s been about 3 years since my last attempt, but I am not terribly optimistic.

UPDATE: In addition,
* Tagging on the Internet Archive is deficient – It seems that only the person who uploaded a video can add tags to the video. This is a sad waste of the crowdsourcing capabilities of the internet. Perhaps there should be some social networking built into the Internet Archive so that your friends and acquaintances can also add tags to your videos, like on Flickr. Or perhaps there should be some labeling game like the Google Image labeler to encourage people to label movies while avoiding bias or spam. However, I recognize that it is harder / more time consuming to provide relevant tags for videos than it is for pictures. Really what we need is more metadata, e.g. transcripts, or some other way to search through video directly. Hopefully Google or someone is working on that 😛

* The Internet Archive actually has a stock footage collection, but it is too small / basic – The Internet Archive’s stock footage collection only has 1,208 items at the moment. This does not provide enough depth/breadth to cover the subjects that I need. The real question is, how can we build a system that could turn all of the high quality public domain footage out there into stock footage clips that are easy to search through and use?

3 thoughts on “Free stock footage is hard to find

  1. You might be asking too much here… movie editing is a lot of tedious work, and probably always will be. Except for the iMovie thing- encoding/decoding is a tricky business.

    • What I was trying to criticize here was the difficulty of finding stock footage online, and using the example of the Internet Archive to show the inadequacy. Did that not come through? I feel like there are a number of things that could be done to make a service that served up free stock footage in an intelligent manner.

      • I feel like the internet archive isn’t set up to be a stock footage service. Unless someone figures out a way to chop up and tag stock footage automatically (crowd-sourcing maybe?) it’s sort of a huge task. Creating metadata for archives (especially for something as ethereal as video) is usually labor intensive 🙂

        I also have some opinions on whether that kind of collection is a good thing… it seems to me that it wouldn’t inspire creativity and would encourage laziness in artists and filmmakers. Why try to re-invent shots and perspectives when you can just download a clip?

        One can definitely artistically remix things, but for me, video is different. Recorded video is a certain perspective of the world, and maybe we shouldn’t encourage people to re-use the same perspectives over and over.

Leave a Reply