Stock Footage 101

If you’ve done any Digital-Tutors courses, you may have worked with a stock video clip from Dissolve. And, apart from learning editing skills on it, you probably haven’t given much thought to how else you might use stock footage, or why. Let’s take a look.

The B-word

What do you think of when you think of stock footage? This?
It’s okay, we get it. But stock footage today will surprise you. Sure, stock video includes all the classics, but it’s also this abstract animation, this gorgeous mama and baby, this man wrastling a bear, and John Glenn in space. Stock includes motion graphics and CGI, green screens, footage from TV productions, archival news footage, and cinematic footage from contemporary filmmakers. By definition, stock footage is video content produced for commercial and editorial licensing. You can license it for marketing and promotional videos, TV programs, advertising, films, websites, video games … pretty much anything you can think of (barring any pornographic, illegal, or otherwise immoral uses, of course). You’re not actually buying the video clip — you’re licensing the right to use it. And there are two kinds of licenses: royalty-free (RF) and rights-managed (RM). RF clips can be used for an unlimited number of projects and mediums, for unlimited duration, worldwide. They’re easy like that. RM clips are licensed on a per-project basis, defined according to medium, usage, scale, and duration. They tend to be more distinctive when it comes to content and style, and you can license them specific to your project. That means you won’t see the same clip in a competitor’s project. Every clip also has a release status. A commercial release means the clip has all the required model and property releases and can be used in virtually any context. If it has an editorial status, it means those releases aren’t in hand and the clip may be used only in an editorial environment (think documentary, non-fiction short, news). If you’re interested in finding out more about licensing, check out The Language of Licensing.

The glue that holds it all together

The beauty of stock footage is that it’s super versatile and adaptable. You can plan to use it from the start, or it can come to the rescue in post-production. Start with a storyboard — it will help you map out each shot and determine what you must shoot yourself and where you can use stock footage. If you need a basic establishing shot of an ocean sunrise, for example, stock is an easy way to get it. Sometimes it’s not a matter of when you can use stock, but when you must. There are shots you simply can’t get yourself — at least not easily or affordably. If you’re shooting in the clutches of winter yet need an establishing shot that oozes summer, that’s where stock comes in. Or if you need a giraffe …

This explainer video helps people get their heads around stock footage and its uses.

And sometimes, right at the end, despite the best-drawn storyboards, stuff happens. In post-production, you may realize you’ve exhausted your own footage, or the lighting in a shot is irreparably bad, or you need a transition shot to smooth out a cut. When there’s no time or money to go back and shoot it yourself, stock can help fill those unexpected holes.

That’s primarily how you’ll use stock footage: it will be a small but mighty part of your video — the glue that holds your primary footage together. Although we do it all the time at Dissolve, you probably won’t be building many videos entirely with stock.

Instead, you can use stock video to fill in gaps in your story, show what you’re talking about, add emotional impact, or turn a boring talking-head video into something people might actually watch. Check out how software creator Red Giant used our footage in its very funny reel, “Old/New”:

Stock footage helps drive home the moral of the story in this montage.

Stock footage can save your …

One of the most compelling reasons to use stock footage is budget. Say you need an aerial of Hawaii. Even if you live there, securing the licenses, crew, equipment, and helicopter would put a substantial dent in your budget. Clips at Dissolve start at $50. It would be challenging to get even the simplest shot for that. Or, by way of an actual example, we’re providing footage for a music video that will show several different couples around the world. The cost of shooting that would have been a budget the size of Kanye West’s ego.

Stock can also save a lot of time and effort, sparing you the pre-production planning, permits and releases, casting, travel, set-up, etc. etc. Someone’s already done all that work for you. Timelapse, for instance, can be powerful (think House of Cards main title), but imagine the time it would take to get a shot like this desert night sky — and with no guarantee you’ll achieve the result you’re hoping for. With stock, you aren’t susceptible to uncooperative weather conditions, faulty equipment, or a petulant cast, and you can see what you’re getting.

Finally, there are times you simply don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Some shots just don’t need to be bespoke. It’s those kinds of shots that stock video is indispensable for. Like nature stuff, the classic cloud timelapse, the busy freeway, or researchers in a lab.


If you ever need help finding footage, give us a shout. We offer free research and would love to help. And because you’re a friend of Digital-Tutors, you’ll get 10% off your next purchase at When you check out, use the code “tutor10.”