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Factual Filmmaking: How to Use News Archives to Research Your Film

Films help us bring the past to life. We can step into a theater and see a perfectly recreated 1950s New York City street, or watch a historically accurate representation of an 1800s courtroom brawl, and be absorbed into those eras. But behind the scenes, the seamless transitions from past to present take a lot of work. 

Historical research is pivotal in film for the same reason it was important to hide Starbucks cups on the Game of Thrones set. When a movie has a line or prop that’s historically inaccurate, the in-the-know audience is immediately pulled out of the magic of filmmaking. So, how can you avoid simple mistakes like having a character reference a book that was released a year after when your film is set? The answer is research. It’s crucial to dive into a film’s topic and era using archival footage.

In this article, we’ll break down the types of news archive research that will level up your filmmaking, how you can find content, the best ways to leverage that material, and how Nexis® can help you meet your storytelling goals.  

Types of news archives 

From a simple Google search, you’re likely able to find news sources that have recently talked about the topic at hand. But, Google News will showcase articles written as far back as 2003. Furthermore, trusting the most recent renditions of the event is likely to result in some inaccuracy and an incomplete understanding of the full picture.  

Printed collections

Libraries and special collections often offer archives of printed publications that can help fill in what Google can’t. Your local library will likely have old copies of local news, and the Library of Congress has a digital site called Chronicling America with scanned copies of newspapers from 1777-1963. On Chronicling America, you can search by keyword and see every entry that contains that word — for instance, the term “Babe Ruth” has over 59,000 results of times the baseball player was mentioned in a newspaper. 

Broadcast archives

Written news won’t cover everything, though. The United States has leaned on radio and television broadcasts as major news sources for decades–you’d be excluding major archival sources by only looking into print records. 

Television and radio news reporters also tend to interview people who were present for the event and paint a broader stroke of the news story than a published article. Radio and television news broadcasts have been recorded and maintained by specific libraries, archives and specialized organizations. Nexis, for instance, has over 45 years’ worth of these recordings for domestic and international news companies.

If your project needs work dated before the 1950s, another useful online collection is the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. AAPB is a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the public radio station GBH. This site has 60 years worth of public radio and television broadcasts, and special collections like “The Woman Series” and “The Evolution of Jazz.”

MOREThree Helpful Tips on How to Research Newspaper Archives

Finding news archives

Not every aspect of your film will have been covered in these super-public broadcasts, though. And many of the current archives are limited to the United States, which could mean you’re lacking an important global perspective. Digging deeper, filmmakers can find more detailed archives by contacting local news organizations directly. There might be specific materials that are held locally compared to the massive national sites. 

Another crucial research method is by connecting with historians, experts, and other filmmakers. Working directly with someone who has spent time researching and understanding the historical event or era your film pertains to is a key way to enmesh yourself in your topic. 

If these steps are beyond your scope, you can also begin the research process by using an online database like Nexis, which allows you to search through catalogs for news articles and broadcast news archives. A Nexis search will also help you get an overview of all of the niche spaces you can dive into so that you aren’t missing something important, and it will include international sources like BBC and Le Monde.  

How to use news archives in film production research 

How do you apply these search findings to your film? The most obvious way is through ensuring that the script is accurate, by checking on key facts that will be relayed in the news and broadcast archives. You can even use your findings to check that the vernacular used in the dialogue matches the way people spoke in the era, which will help your characters sound like they’re truly from that time period. 

You can also use archives to enhance your film’s coverage of the culture — i.e. the social and political climate — of that period. Were people stressed about an upcoming election, or were international politics of bigger concern that year? Was unemployment at an all-time high, or was consumerism soaring alongside higher rates of disposable incomes? This will help you get your audience into the overall film setting. 

Beyond simply research, you can use clips, footage, and photographs in the film itself. Ken Burns shared with Master Class that archival footage “adds integrity” to filmmaking because of its ability to show a more comprehensive, realistic understanding of the event. “These visuals help the audience fully realize events that they did not personally witness,” he said. 

From a non-documentary perspective, fictional films can be improved with archival footage by incorporating real events and headlines into the plot and having characters refer to current events as a way to show they’re well-read and clued into the cultural conversations. 

MORE: Three times LexisNexis saved the day in Hollywood

Challenges of using news archives for historical film production

With such a high reward comes a high cost. Using news archives is certainly not always easy. It can be incredibly hard to know where to start when you’re wading through dozens of search engines and decades of footage. Plus, concepts like Boolean search (which would allow you to streamline your search) are hard to grasp without a strong research background. 

For more local events, the challenges increase. Some primary, smaller-known sources may not tell the full story, making it important to fact check information by finding similar reports from multiple other sources. You might also need to make lists of the key figures and dates mentioned in each piece of archival footage to ensure that they line up. Finding accurate information is incredibly difficult if you’re searching for something that wasn’t discussed on a national level. 

There’s also a struggle to balance facts and fiction. A film that’s simply reciting historical facts might read more like a school project than a pleasurable experience, so filmmakers should balance the research with creativity and storytelling. In order to tell the story, though, you need to overcome the challenge of grasping the local and national vernacular of the time period. 

MORESearch Nexis with these optimizing commands

The best source for news archives for film production research

One of the challenges with archival research stems from an inability to see a thorough search of the topic. When searching through dozens of sites and collections, which all have their own limitations and formats, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, causing a lot of key details to slip through the cracks. 

Nexis solves this issue by providing thousands of international and national news archives; the database contains over 45,000 resources from 45+ years of news history. It’s also easily searchable with SmartIndexing® technology so you don’t need to learn the ins and outs of Boolean.

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