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The Art of the Business - The Role of a Visual Researcher with Elizabeth Klinck

In our new series The Art of the Business, Hot Docs speaks to prolific visual researcher Elizabeth Klinck. Elizabeth has over 36 years of experience and has worked on over 200 projects as a visual and editorial researcher, a visual archive and music right clearance specialist and a producer. She is also the founding chairperson of The Visual Researchers’ Society of Canada. The Art of the Business series highlights those who have devoted a particular craft to the larger documentary art form, but receive little acknowledgement outside documentary filmmaking communities.

Hot Docs: Can you explain a visual researcher’s role in a film and how you’ve seen the evolution of that role over your long career? How has founding The Visual Researchers’ Society of Canada informed your work?

Elizabeth Klinck: The job has changed dramatically—when I started working in the 80’s we had to physically go to the archives, everything was analogue and everything was done manually. I was lucky enough to have great mentors in the field that took me under their wing, because it's not really an area of expertise addressed in journalism or film school. One of the things I've done in addition to evolving as a visual researcher is make it my life's pursuit to help educate filmmakers about what I do: I bring in anything that you have not shot yourself—from expensive Hollywood or sports footage to satellite imagery, YouTube clips, newspapers, photos, maps, fine art. I find it, source it and negotiate clearances to be able to use it. Some films require little additional materials and others, like the recent Eat that Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016), require 100% archival materials.

HD: In relation to a director or producer, how are you integral to the production of a film?

EK: Now, so much material is available online and that's great for personal consumption, but with ease of access comes the assumption that something is free or its origins are easy to track, and that’s often not the case. People tend to take things from the Internet and then realize too far down the line into post-production that commercial use is different than personal use. That’s why you want to hire someone who has great contacts with gatekeepers and copyright holders—to make sure not only that the best possible material is brought in, but also that the best possible material is cleared perfectly. You don't want anything to get in the way of a festival or broadcast date. That's when you can lose track of your budget as well—because the costs can be prohibitive and onerous when materials clearance is unaccounted for at the start of production.

HD: How closely do you work with lawyers, insurers, and copyright holders when you are trying to attain the material and then justify their cost and use?

EK: At the beginning of production I don't have much contact with the lawyers and E&O insurance, though I am always aware of them and that they have to be consulted and dealt with. I usually like to keep things quite open and bring in as much choice as possible for an editor or director. That’s the hunting and gathering period; for How to Change the World (2015), I think I brought in over 60 hours of archive for a 90 minute film, in order to give lots of options and be aware of which materials might be difficult or expensive to clear. You then work closely with the director or editor when they are in the editing process so they can further communicate with you what they need or what's missing. At the end when everything has been signed off and the picture is locked, my job is to make sure I can deliver all the materials the director decided to include in the film, often quickly and on (or under) budget.

HD: When you're working with a filmmaker and aware the budget and constraints they have, are you responsible for determining exactly what confines you are working under?

EK: I often choose to come in early in development so that I can check and safeguard the budget, because often filmmakers will put a ball park amount for what they think will be archive, and in the end they use more and there is a scramble to find the money. So it’s best to bring in a visual researcher early on, and most of us will come it on a consulting basis, by the hour, early on in the process. Generally we work within a loose budget and try to get as much as possible from free sources, public domain material and from private collections. Then we use the money we absolutely have to spend on expensive editorial or news material as needed. One of the things a visual researcher does is give you a smorgasbord of choices: maybe you don’t have the money for certain clips but I can bring in trailers, posters, production stills, giving you options that give you good bang for your buck, visually.  

HD: Would you recommend having a percentage of the budget allocated?

EK: I worked on a film that was heavy archived and had lots of third party material, and the director brought me in when they were getting their budget organized and asked what it was going to cost the production, and we walked through every possible material choice, how many, what formats, the number of minutes she may want to use, and it meant that there were no surprises. So that's the best position to be in for everyone.

HD: Do you work closely with the editor during post-production?

EK: I work with the editor and director in post-production, but I’m not in the edit suite. I will occasionally come in and screen a cut but I work with filmmakers all over the world and usually now do so remotely. I love the editing process, everything comes together and that’s where the magic really happens.

HD: Is it difficult to find a flow between the original materials and archive materials?

EK: A wonderful synchronicity between the original material and the archival material is quite seamless. I think it's very rewarding when they work well together—those moments are golden.

HD: Have you ever had to dig particular deep for something? I imagine you source material worldwide.

EK: Frank Zappa is a good example; I think we looked at footage from about 60 different countries. On other films I might go into the archives of around 40-50 countries. Sometimes it's a question of going wide and sometimes it's a question of going deep. It's wonderful when you can find treasures in a country you don't expect. The great thing about the archival world is that it is very global and people move so much now, so often private collections will be donated to an archive in a country different from where they were originally shot.

HD: Has a clip ever stumped you before?

EK: There's a section of the Canadian copyright office in Ottawa for orphan works, for material you haven't been able to track down, and there have been have been two times I've had to go there and use that provision.

HD: Do you have go-to sources for visual materials?

EK: Depending on the topic, I have very good performing arts sources, lots of great historical sources; I'm always adding to the list, finding corporate archives, small museums that may have a wonderful stash of some particular subject, or a University department that has specialized in a certain field. Private collections are often wonderful as well. Rights themselves are constantly shifting as well. Getty Images just purchased the Corbis Collection, which is huge, so changes in rights affect new access as well.

That was one of the reasons we started The Visual Researchers' Society of Canada, for which I was the founding chairperson for ten years: to really help our members keep on top of all the resources. It's one of the things I’m proudest of in my career: helping to form that organization. It's elevated the stature of a researcher, but also there is a lot of collegiality and you are getting the benefit of a lot of people’s cumulative knowledge. We've also offered professional development and education, and negotiated preferred rates with rights houses for our members, so that productions can benefit.

HD: I imagine there are a lot of soft skills required in a visual researcher.

EK: Yes, I think curiosity is huge, and being very diligent and not being easily satisfied. I will often go through a lot of material to find that one perfect photo. Attention to detail is also important, and the need to constantly keep digging. Knowing that there might always be something better just around the corner is motivating. Being patient and being able to work well with your director helps; you don’t want to be too inflexible or limiting in regards to outlining what is not possible and what you can’t afford from the outset. 

HD: I imagine it’s also very rewarding because there is a lot of tactile material that you get to handle and physically dig for.

EK: You're kind of investigating the subject of every film: talking to the best people in the field the film is about, hopefully finding corresponding materials that haven't seen much of the light of day, etc. It's also one of the few jobs where getting older is not a liability, because it's a cumulative knowledge and you remember where all the good stuff is! I'm very careful about keeping up to date on technology and doing workshops, because film technology is constantly evolving and you have to be on your game.

HD: Is it difficult to strike a balance between more archival and historical materials, versus using contemporary footage to tell a story?

EK: Each film is unique; and sometimes you don't have a choice. Archives can be destroyed or inaccessible. Sometimes you have to figure out ways to come at it from a different angle, so I would say you’re constantly juggling the age of the archive but also the form, be it film imagery, still imagery, satellite imagery. Cost dictates choice as well: for a long time it was very easy to put an article from The New York Times in your film and now it’s so cost prohibitive that you have to find different ways to do that, you can't just have the "spinning newspaper" anymore. Hollywood clips have third party re-use fees, you have to clear the talent, writer, director, music.

HD: Do you have tips for filmmakers who can’t afford to hire a visual researcher quite yet, but wish to source visual materials in a cost effective way?

EK: There are a couple things: hire a visual researcher at the development stage on a consulting basis, by the hour. Take workshops at co-ops, film schools and film organizations. Read lots and make sure that when you do present your film for E&O insurance that you can back up each and every one of your materials. I joke that my daily rate is the same as a lawyer's hourly rate, so it makes more sense to work with someone who can help you before you have to see a lawyer. Or you may be able to consult a law professor at a University who has an interest in fair dealing.

A good visual researcher will bring a lot to your film. Not just their care and expertise, but materials and components that you may not even have thought about. They provide another way of looking at things. Often a filmmaker has been so focused on how they want their film to look for so long, it's good to bring in someone who can show you other ways of telling a story. It’s a nice, collegial way of working, which is why I love it. It's great fun to be able to help directors. I do love my job, as much as when I first started out.  I've been very fortunate to work with so many fine directors and producers over the course of my career.


 Learn more about Elizabeth Klinck:



Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.

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