Stock Footage: Definition Division
Does standard-def stock footage still play in a high-def game?
By James Careless
With the over-the-air transition to digital television done and HDTVs becoming commonplace, one would expect SD stock footage to be as marketable as 8-track tape players. But many stock footage houses report that there is still an demand for SD footage, a demand that they expect to continue in the years ahead.
Why is SD footage still viable in an HD age? To find out, DV interviewed a number of stock footage companies across North America. Here’s what they told us.
Pond5 Sees a Specialized Future for SD
New York City-based Pond5 provides downloadable stock video and audio via its Web site (www.pond5.com). “All of our material is licensed under a simple royalty-free license, which allows for global, all media, in perpetuity usage for a flat fee,” says Pond5 co-founder and CEO Tom Bennett. “Prices are set by the contributors, and they tend to be much lower than other footage resources. [A typical HD clip is $30-50.] Our contributors earn 50 percent on all license purchases, which is one of the highest rates in the industry.”
The reason Bennett cites an HD clip price as an example is because “most of our footage is HD or better [2K/4K]. We currently have more than 185,000 HD clips, which represent a little more than two-thirds of our library. The rest is primarily SD NTSC and PAL, with some non-broadcast formats in the mix as well.”
Since launching in 2006, business at Pond5’s has been brisk. “We’ve seen our monthly sales more than double in 2009 alone, mostly on the HD side,” Bennett says. Yet he still sees a market niche for standard-definition video. “SD footage, if it’s high-quality and/or unique, will continue to sell, although HD will become increasingly attractive for most footage buyers,” he notes. “For productions that are destined for Web distribution, however, SD footage is still very useful.”
Shutterstock Sees Limited Future for SD
Shutterstock Footage of New York City (www.shutterstock.com) has more than 150,000 royalty-free clips on its site; a third of which are SD. This said, “Although Shutterstock accepts both SD and HD formats, we recommend that our submitters shoot and submit to us in HD,” says company founder/CEO Jon Oringer. “While we continue to accept new SD material, we recommend that our submitters consider submitting HD clips of the same theme to ensure that they’re meeting the needs of all of our footage customers.”
So where does SD fit into Shutterstock’s stock footage universe? “I think that SD will remain viable for various uses,” Oringer replies. “However, as HD technology becomes better integrated into our daily lives, we foresee decreased demand for SD products in the future.”
“Furthermore, the barriers to become an HD contributor are falling rapidly,” he adds. “For example, today for less than $2,000 — a fraction of what it used to cost for one HD camera — submitters can purchase high-quality cameras that can shoot both HD footage as well as and high-quality still images. [As a result] we see a lot of Shutterstock image submitters now offering HD clips, too, because it has become easier and more affordable to make that transition. In addition, as smaller HD video cameras become more widely adopted, we see that trend growing even faster.”
From Artbeats, an playful image from Rubberball library and a landscape from Greg Voevodsky.
Artbeats Stakes its Future on HD, But Still Offers SD
“There will always be some demand for SD footage, and there is a lot of compelling archival footage available that simply cannot withstand the conversion to HD,” says Artbeats president and founder Philip Bates. However, “we’ve seen a steady decline in SD sales.” In contrast, “Artbeats’ HD footage sales have more than tripled over the past three years.”
Artbeats can rightly claim to be an HD stock footage pioneer. “Our first HD title debuted at IBC in Amsterdam in 1998, well before high-definition footage became the industry norm,” Bates says. “As more HD titles were added to the Artbeats library and interest began to grow, we increased our production of HD footage even further. About eight years ago we began shooting primarily in HD and producing and releasing larger quantities of high-def clips.”
As for SD? Artbeats, based in Myrtle Creek, Ore., still has over 33,000 NTSC and PAL format clips available at its Web site (www.artbeats.com). The company has also posted online tutorials to help video producers seamlessly integrate SD footage into HD productions. Of the many approaches available, “the quickest and most effective tricks are the use of layering and masking techniques that allow the designer to use the footage without the loss of quality caused by stretching it,” Bates notes.
Wrightwood Labs: Banking on HD but Sticking with SD
Wrightwood Labs of Las Vegas sells stock footage online through www.wrightwood.com, www.gotfootage.com and www.gotfootagehd.com. “Wrightwood Labs is the oldest royalty-free stock footage company on the Internet,” declares David Schmerin, the company’s product manager.
Fully 70 percent of Wrightwood Labs’ stock footage library is in SD rather than HD, which poses a problem for the company. “Sales of HD footage have grown exponentially because, while the majority of producers still seem to be in the SD world, more and more produce in HD for future compatibility,” says Schmerin. But he is undaunted by this challenge. The reason: Besides shooting in HD for the past four years, Wrightwood Labs is able to use film-based stock footage to fulfill some of its HD needs. “The goal is to start with high-quality 35mm source and use the right facilities for color and telecine work,” he says.
But won’t the HD revolution relegate Wrightwood Labs’ SD stock footage to obscurity? Not at all, replies Schmerin. “SD footage is not going to go away. Rather, it transcends into ‘archive footage.’ I recall working President Reagan’s funeral. I don’t remember seeing a single HD camera there. So if anyone ever wants footage of Reagan’s funeral, it will have to be SD.”
Getting it right: Re-Enactment shoots a Civil War recreation.
Re-Enactment’s Stock Footage Is Up to Date
Historical re-enactors re-create military conflicts of old, like the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. Kevin Hershberger has been a re-enactor for 24 years, and he is also the owner/manager of Re-Enactment Stock Footage (www.reenactmentstockfootage.com) in Richmond, Va.
Given Hershberger’s two interests, it makes sense that he regularly shoots historical re-enactments featuring accurately costumed enthusiasts. “To date we have collected hundreds of hours of highly accurate, elaborate re-enactment and re-creation footage covering everything from 1607 Jamestown to the Vietnam War,” he says. “A majority of the footage has been shot at large-scale, national re-enactment events featuring tens of thousands of historians.”
When it comes to video technology, Kevin Hershberger is firmly planted in the 21st century. “All re-enactment shoots for the past several years, and all future re-enactments and re-creations we shoot will be in HD,” he says. “Even if a client needs something shot in SD, we’ll capture the event in HD and then bump it down to SD for them.”
As time has passed, Re-Enactment has seen declining demand for SD stock footage. “We get a few requests for SD footage per year,” Hershberger says. “Now I can count on nearly every call to be for full-resolution, 16:9 HD footage for broadcast. I provide a great deal of footage to companies creating in HD and meeting strict networks standards for clients like National Geographic, History, Discovery and PBS. They can only take HD footage, and so we are lucky that this is where our stock footage collections are growing year after year; giving clients greater variety in historical periods and events, scale and scope of those events.”
iStockphoto: Born in the HD Age, It Sells SD Too
Calgary’s iStockphoto.com was launched in fall of 2006, “when HD was becoming the preferred format; so it was never a case of us transitioning from SD to HD,” says Lon Parker, iStockphoto’s lead video Inspector. “We were always aware of the direction the market was going and have actively promoted the quality and selection of our HD content.”
Today, the company offers just over 235,000 unique files offered by independent contributors. But only two-thirds of them are HD, simply because many contributors have elected to sell SD stock footage on the site. Some of this is vintage NTSC/PAL, while the rest is new SD. The reason: “Some of our contributors have been converting their HD footage into NTSC and PAL SD formats and selling it alongside the HD sizes to get better coverage,” Parker says.
As for the future? If the past three years’ sales are any indicator, SD footage will become increasingly less important to iStockphoto as the years go by. “The rate at which our HD sales have outstripped SD is reflective of the growing need of the market for quality stock HD content,” Parker observes. “SD sales have not necessarily dropped off, but rather have not kept pace with HD sales.”
RevoStock: A Continuing Role for SD
RevoStock.com of Frisco, Texas, is an online vendor that gives media professionals a place “to buy and sell stock footage, music, sound effects and Adobe After Effects projects,” says president/CEO Craig Lillard. “We launched in May of 2006 and have over 100,000 pro-quality stock media files.”
A third of RevoStock’s video files are in SD; the rest in HD. The mix is a reflection of what contributors are providing. “Because producers from all over the world upload content to RevoStock, each producer decides which formats they want to upload and sell, either HD or SD or both,” Lillard explains. “When we launched in 2006, HDV was just coming into its own, so the largest portion of our library was initially shot in HD anyway.”
Over time, RevoStock’s HD contributions and footage sales have gone up. “When we launched, we definitely had a large number of SD files, but over the past three years the majority of our producers have moved to HD and upload either an HD version or an HD version with an SD version,” he says. “Many buyers choose the HD version of a file even if they are working in an SD space simply to increase their options when editing with the file.”
Despite this trend, Craig Lillard believes that SD stock footage has a future. “One of the primary places we see a continued use for SD stock footage is on the Web,” he says. “There are many Web applications using video that only need a Web-sized resolution. SD video works fine in this way and can be sized down and even cropped if needed. In this case, SD is to Web-sized video as HD is to SD. It provides a larger canvas to work with and in most cases at lower prices than its HD counterpart, which makes it ideal for Web content.”
AlwaysHD Lives By Its Name
AlwaysHD (www.alwayshd.com) of Mobile, Ala., is serious about its name: “We are 100 percent HD, 2K and 4K,” declares president Carleton Wilkins. “In fact, our entire impetus for creation [in 2006] was built on the belief that SD would have diminishing returns.”
“We receive a number of requests weekly from our body of cinematographers and producers, approximately 700, to expand our scope and accept their SD footage,” Wilkins adds. “And we’ve often re-evaluated our stance. But the fact remains, while there is a place for period-set, unique or archival SD stock footage, its demand is increasingly diminished. And thus the majority of SD stock footage will cease being utilized.”
Even with this hardline stance, Wilkins does see a place for SD footage; namely, when used as “archival footage” of an event from the pre-HD days. In such cases, “The historical answer is to mimic the ESPN method of creating sidebars to frame the 4:3 footage into a 16:9 screen,” he says. But that’s as far as he’s willing to go: “There are software packages that do an increasingly better job of up-resing SD, but it will never look like natively shot HD. Thus, we’ve concluded that incorporating SD into an HD production will never be without sacrifice, although it can be creatively hidden if absolutely necessary.”
An HD shooter on location for Footage Firm.
Footage Firm Sounds Death Knell for SD
Okay, be warned: Of all the stock houses we interviewed for this article, Footage Firm (www.footagefirm.com) of Reston, Va., is the most pessimistic about SD’s future. “HD is so mainstream and commonplace now that even customers who aren’t yet using HD still want our footage in HD format to cover their bases going forward,” explains Footage Firm founder and CEO Joel Holland. “SD is officially dead, and sales will completely dry up very soon if they haven’t already. Why buy a stock footage clip in 720x480 resolution when you can get it at close to the same price in 1920x1080? HD can always be down-converted to SD, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Because of that, nobody wants to buy SD. Therefore, nobody is going to create SD.”
Unfortunately for Footage Firm — which was founded in 2001 — about 70 percent of its current stock footage is in SD. This is why Holland is re-shooting all of his stock in HD.
“The transition is quite challenging because virtually overnight the majority of our archive became outdated and unusable,” he says. “From day one we have shot on video, so we don’t have film to go back to in order to re-master into HD. We literally have to re-shoot everything.”
The only silver lining to this cloud is that Footage Firm now has eight years experience in shooting stock footage. “So the SD footage is not only replaced by higher resolution but also higher quality,” Holland says. He also takes comfort in the fact that “the need to re-shoot in HD is not unique to our company, so it is weeding out a lot of the smaller, low-quality players in the market who can’t afford to change and adapt to keep up.”
Thought Equity Motion: Profiting from HD and SD
Denver-based Thought Equity Motion (www.thoughtequity.com) “maintains the largest HD stock footage collection worldwide,” asserts company founder and CEO Kevin Schaff. But even with its large HD archives, “65 percent of the footage in our library is SD. But that’s a good thing because the company has seen sales growth in both video categories.
“We saw a large spike in HD footage sales in 2007, which slowly tapered off and by 2009 smoothed out to a more steady growth rate,” Schaff explains. “Over the last three years, our SD content sales have also grown as well for two reasons. First, the boom in demand for broadband-ready content has benefited SD footage sales, which we expect to be a big area of growth in the years to come. Secondly, we believe our SD footage sales have grown due to the sheer size of our non-replicable [historical] sports and entertainment content.”
With SD stock footage showing continued sales growth, it clearly makes sense for Thought Equity Motion to keep offering this product. On the other hand, it would be folly for the company to over-invest in SD when the broadcast world is committed to HD. So what is the proper balance, from a business standpoint?
Kevin Schaff has pondered long and hard on this question, and believes that he knows the answer. “We feel strongly that SD footage that captures any specific moment in time will continue to be in demand,” he says. “On the other hand, SD footage that is replicable, such as content from microstock providers, does not have the same moment in time value, so I predict that their SD content will eventually become less valuable and HD video will take over,” he continues. “Also, with more supply of HD footage the licensing prices will lower.”
Shot in HD against greenscreen, stock footage of GlamourKey models offers unique possibilities.
GlamourKey Doesn’t Sell SD, But Has Lots of Ideas for Using It
GlamourKey (www.glamourkey.com) of Port Saint Lucie, Fl., is “unlike other stock sites because we are dealing strictly with glamour,” says VP of production Jon Schellenger. “We are the first to offer pre-keyed 4K HD stock glamour footage. We’re using the RED One for all of the footage we shoot either in the greenscreen studio or on location.”
Because GlamourKey only works in 4K, the company doesn’t have any of its own SD footage. But “if someone has [SD] glamour and footage shots they want to sell, we will certainly help them with building them a unique gallery on the GlamourKey Web site,” Schellenger says.
Moreover, the company does have helpful advice for HD producers who have to integrate SD stock into their productions. “One way that I have been known to use SD footage is to use it in 3D models and animations [that] I build,” says Schellenger. “Ultimately the 3D will be sized for the HD project; however, one can texture models with all sorts of SD video. Think of an old shot of a radar or an old computer screen that was shot in SD. If the shot was locked down, a 3D artist could find that content very valuable. Let’s say we had a 3D model of a computer or TV in our composition; we could actually use the SD video to texture map the screen. The possibilities are endless.”
As for GlamourKey? Not only is the company focused in surpassing HD today, but outdoing 4K in the years to come. “We want to go with quality that is above HD because we want the end users not to be restrained by any limits,” Jon Schellenger says. “Eventually we will move to the RED Epic when it comes out. We feel there are many reasons to move to 5K and even 9K in the future.”
Conclusion: SD Stock Footage Still Has Value
While there are those with doubts, SD stock footage still has plenty of life into the foreseeable future, primarily in historical clips that can’t be replicated. Meanwhile, new SD footage is perfect for Web content, and can be purchased at a lower cost than HD content.
Does this mean that freelance shooters should capture some content in SD? No, but it does make sense to allow customers to choose from native HD or down-converted SD footage, in order to maximize your market.