The American Historian
An image of Kenn Rabin

 Photo by John Sarran

A Conversation with Selma Archive Producer Kenn Rabin

Sheila Curran Bernard

Kenn Rabin is an internationally recognized expert on the use of archival materials in film storytelling. His credits include the dramatic features Milk (2008), The Good German (2006), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and archival series including Vietnam: A Television History (1983), Eyes on the Prize (1987, 1990), American Experience, and American Masters. With Sheila Curran Bernard, he is the author of Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker's Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music (2008), now going into its second edition.

Selma was directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by Christian Colson (Cloud Eight), Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Films), and Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (Plan B Entertainment). The film was released on January 9 and has been nominated for a 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Bernard: At what point were you called in on Selma?

Rabin: I was contacted by Jeremy Kleiner, who is one of the co-presidents of Plan B, Brad Pitt's company, on Martin Luther King Day 2011.They were set to go. Jeremy knew my work. Lee Daniels was going to direct. But soon after, Jeremy called me back to say the project was on hold. A few years later, in April 2014, I got a very happy e-mail from Jeremy saying we're moving forward, Oprah's on board as producer, and Ava DuVernay is now directing, which is very exciting, and she has some really interesting ideas about using the archival [footage]. And the next day, we all had a conference call.

The original concept for Selma had been that archival footage would be spread throughout, including the now-traditional technique of using archival when characters are watching the news on TV. But Ava had a very different idea, which was not doing the archival throughout, and instead saving it up for the last reel. She and I talked a lot about Eyes on the Prize [a 14-hour archival history of the modern civil rights movement, broadcast in two parts]. Ava was a huge admirer and felt I was the guy to do Selma because of my experience as the archivist on Eyes; I'd know where all the material was.

Bernard: And what was she looking for?

Rabin: Ava's archival focus was on the third march, when thousands finally made their way over the bridge from Selma and on to Montgomery, traveling about 54 miles over five days. She really wanted to show the march's process, and not just have a few shots of people walking down the highway, so she asked me to find evening footage, setting up the tents, settling down for the night. Handing out food. Singing each other to sleep.

That meant that "Bloody Sunday" and "Turnaround Tuesday," the first two attempts, were filmed by Ava in color. And when I saw a screening of the fine cut [an almost-final picture edit], I liked that. Seeing the actors that we'd gotten to know throughout the film take on that devastating punishment, rather than their historical counterparts in black and white archival, struck me as exactly the right way to handle that very emotional and galvanizing sequence.

And then when the film reaches that last, triumphant march, Ava and her editor, Spencer Averick, chose to do the whole sequence with archival film, without any natural sound. Instead, they ran the haunting song "Yesterday Was Hard on All of Us," by Fink, over the footage. This completely transformed the sequence from a stark documentary presentation to a much more lyrical one.

Bernard: Tell me about the process of finding these visuals.

Rabin: The filmmakers and I wanted to find material that hadn't been used in Eyes, and so I looked at outtakes from some of the same sources. Filming in 16mm in the 1960s, as news crews generally did, typically meant loading the camera with magazines of film that each ran about 11 minutes. The exposed footage was then developed in a lab. For syncing and storage, some archives would splice three processed reels (from a single news story) together into about 33 minutes of footage. So for Eyes, we might have used a few seconds from each of those half-hour rolls, but there was a lot more, and some of it offered the kind of coverage Ava wanted.

Bernard: Were you doing all of this research online, or were you visiting archives?

Rabin: On this project, I didn't visit any of the archives. I still had detailed notes from Eyes and a number of other projects, so I knew specific archives, reels, and dates that helped me find and watch things online, including European footage, such as material from BBC, ITN, and Reuters.

Bernard: How had the archives changed since the 1980s?

Rabin: Many of the collections had been bought and sold. Hearst and MGM newsreels were now owned by UCLA. ABC News, which we'd gotten from Sherman Grinberg Film Libraries back in the 1980s, was now being distributed by ABC itself, and ABC had become part of Disney. Access to CBS News material had gone first to BBC, then to T3 Media. It's about to go to Getty. Big archives had swallowed up smaller ones, and now, with a few exceptions, expensive archives control most of what's out there.

And there were other challenges. For example, normally, if a client requests, say, an HD master or a digital file master, the archive then keeps a copy of that for future use. It turned out that ABC News hadn't transferred their 16mm film to any other format, nor had they kept whatever they duplicated for previous clients, so obtaining screeners and masters would have been prohibitively expensive. [Screeners are watermarked copies of archival materials used for evaluation and rough editing; masters are high-quality copies of selected materials to be used and licensed in the final project.] Taking Selma's relatively small budget into account, I regretfully ended up bypassing ABC News completely.

I ordered everything I could pull from NBC and CBS, Worldwide Television News (WTN), Hearst, Associated Press, and various collections at the National Archives. And of course because we ordered a tremendous number of screeners, a lot of the footage we didn't ultimately use was also getting transferred and digitized. And so our production was paying for new, high-resolution digital transfers of material that would likely be requested by news outlets and others as we hit the fiftieth anniversary of the march. I feel good that one byproduct of our film was to help migrate some of that footage to a more accessible form for future users.

Probably the biggest challenge involved CBS, because they had to do a lot of film cleaning and repair before scanning was even possible. Over the years, they had cut and spliced their original footage, and a lot of it had been lost or damaged, or it was so dirty or scratched that it needed special attention. It was weeks before CBS could even scan the footage. So their material got to the edit room last.

Bernard: How much footage did you end up ordering screeners of, to be tried out in the edit room?

Rabin: This is a rough guess, but I would say about 10–12 hours.

Bernard: And how much archival footage is in the final film?

Rabin: One minute and fifty-four seconds.

Bernard: So that's the footage for which you'd order masters. Did their decision not to use natural sound change that process?

Rabin: Yes. Not having to worry about finding, restoring, or transferring audio meant the labs and I could focus on how best to convert the original 16mm picture, all black-and-white, into high-definition digital files that would work with Selma's origination footage, the material directed by DuVernay on set. For the most part, we scanned to 2K, which has double the detail of consumer HD and therefore is better for theatrical projection. For 16mm, there's not a lot of benefit in scanning to an even higher resolution; for 35mm archival, 4K is preferred.

One of the things we discovered is that the number of independent labs that can do these kinds of scans is rapidly diminishing. Most of the studios have their own restoration departments now, so if they see commercial potential for Blu-ray sales, they can convert material in-house. But for obscure and indie films, television news from before 1976, home movies, newsreels, and outtakes that don't have market value—but incredible historical value—it's getting harder and more expensive to migrate to twenty-first century formats. Some of that content could be lost forever.

Bernard: Were you responsible for clearing the rights?

Rabin: I cleared all the material and negotiated the contracts with the archives. I vetted the contracts for the lawyers at Pathé [the European distributor of Selma] and made recommendations to them and they came back with marching orders. I was the go-between, bouncing between the archives and the lawyers, which is not unusual during the negotiating phase.

At the last minute, we ran into a clearance issue when CBS wanted to disallow some of the footage. I've run into this over the last few years with ABC as well—not so much with NBC—where archives decide that they're now going to pull footage from the marketplace that I've used repeatedly in the past without a problem. In this case, CBS had instituted a rule—which we weren't informed about in advance—that they would sell no archival shots that included children. Ava and I really fought to keep the footage. There were children on the march and cheering on the sidelines; children were involved in the civil rights movement very extensively and importantly. So to not show them would have been changing the historical record. But CBS basically said, "We're the copyright holder, we own the footage, and we can sell or not sell anything we want."

On Good Night, and Good Luck, I had a similar issue with CBS, and it had to do with using CBS branding (the eye logo, the opening titles of See It Now, etc.), which we couldn't avoid in a film about Edward R. Murrow. It was resolved when the director, George Clooney, called the president of CBS. So I suggested that the producers on Selma call the president of CBS News, and it was resolved in one phone call, on the day before picture lock [the stage at which all picture edits are final, so that the film can move forward to final packaging for release].

Bernard: That doesn't bode well for people who can't get network presidents on the phone.

Rabin: It would be unresolvable. Maybe you get a congressperson to write on your behalf. We did that at one point on Eyes, and that solved a similar problem with some Attica footage. What's really frustrating for me is that some of these rules seem so arbitrary, or motivated by other agendas. A few years ago, I wanted to reuse a shot that we'd used in Vietnam: A Television History (1983), which shows American soldiers on a hillside in South Vietnam during their free time, smoking pot. But ABC News refused to sell me the shot. They said to me, "While we're at war, we don't want our American soldiers shown in a bad light." That's verbatim. And that's really scary, that copyright holders can have that power to erase pieces of history by taking them out of circulation.

Bernard: On the other hand, archives are preserving these materials.

Rabin: Absolutely. Indie producers often see the archives as the bad guys, the greedy people who are asking for these exorbitant fees and blocking them from accessing materials, and the archives see filmmakers who are claiming fair use as the bad guys because they don't pay. But the truth is that the cost that archives incur to vault, maintain, and hopefully restore the material is astronomical. Add to that the expense of hiring people to log the hours of footage that are coming in every day, so that it's catalogued and therefore accessible—it's a lot of money. Filmmakers take it for granted that the footage they need will be there when they want it.

Bernard: For a feature film like Selma, what kind of rights do you need to clear, and was any of the material in the public domain?

Rabin: You have to clear all rights, all media, in perpetuity, worldwide. In other words, everything. We reviewed a certain amount of public-domain material. It was shot either by the government or, in most cases on Selma, it was from newsreels and newsreel outtakes that had gone into the public domain, either because they were donated to the public domain (at the time a tax write-off, although it's still a very generous act), or because copyright protection had timed out. But we didn't use any of the public-domain material, as I recall. We had to clear everything commercially.

Prices to clear various markets vary widely among the archives. An archive that's associated with a university, historical society, or museum might be less expensive; those archives may also set pricing based on for-profit or not-for-profit use. With a commercial archive, you're paying based on the market that you're clearing. The average cost to clear rights for Selma was somewhere between $100 and $150 per second, and in most cases the minimum is 30 seconds. In some cases it's actually a minute, and in one case it was two minutes, which was really excessive, as were some per-shot minimums. It killed our budget. So we ended up spending about $33,000 on rights for less than two minutes of footage in the final film. Audiovisual historical storytelling can be very expensive.

Sheila Curran Bernard received an Emmy for her work as a producer/director/writer on Eyes on the Prize (1987, 1990). More recently, she wrote the PBS special Slavery by Another Name (2012), based on the book by Douglas A. Blackmon. The author of Documentary Storytelling (2004) and co-author of Archival Storytelling (2008), she is an associate professor at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is currently developing a series based on David Levering Lewis's book When Harlem Was in Vogue.