What is stock footage?
Stock footage, also called archive, library or, the ever popular, file footage is film or video footage, usually from one source, that can be used again in other films. Sometimes it is random footage of just about anything that is available for filmmakers to use as needed. Stock footage is beneficial to filmmakers since it saves both time and money so filmmakers don’t have to shoot new material. A single piece of stock footage is called a "stock shot" or a "library shot". Sometimes stock footage is outtakes from previous productions that were never used. Sometimes it is real life events on film such as the Tacoma Bridge collapse or the Hindenburg disaster or newsreels. Any event that is on film that fits what is needed for the movie.
It can be used to integrate images into films such as was done in the movie “Forrest Gump”. Stock footage was used extensively in that film to incorporate Forrest into situations where he either meets historical figures or is a part of a historical event. Sometimes it is used as part of a montage to give the impression of time passing. Jungle movies with animals running around give the impression of trekking through a wilderness even though all the characters did was walk into and out of a jungle set.
There are other areas where stock footage is used. News programs use stock or file footage when real life film is not available to illustrate what the reporter is describing. Since people have no imagination they need to look at something. If you see the words “file footage” in the bottom corner of your TV. What you are looking at is not real.
Commercials also use stock footage, a lot. Cost is a big factor when all you have is 30 or 60 seconds to sell something. Another big user of stock footage is documentaries. This allows filmmakers to tell a narrative of either historical events, or actual events, with specific examples that help illustrate their story.
There are different kinds of stock footage. Movies and television shows will use either file footage or recycled footage from a previous episode as flashback images. This is also good for the continuity of a film or television episode. Why recreate what people wore when you have film of it. Sometimes it is also used to give an impression of a place. When you are making a movie about New York City on a sound stage a shot of the statue of liberty will add to the impression that the movie is actually being filmed in New York. This saves a lot of money for filmmakers who are trying to depict exotic locations.
Stock footage can be either rights managed or in the public domain. One of the largest producers of public domain stock footage is the United States government. All videos produced by the United States military, NASA, and other agencies are available for use as stock footage. Movie producers like Universal and MGM have their own libraries as do news outlets. Other sources are companies that own the copyrights to large libraries of stock footage. They will usually charge filmmakers a fee for using it. There are also free sources of stock footage such as the Internet Archive and there are some sites that can be researched on YouTube.
Whether it is used as fill in or as backdrop stock footage is everywhere.
I had a lot of trouble trying to narrow it down but here are examples of films that either contain stock footage or were used as stock footage (Warning, much of the following images are graphic):
German propaganda film
Graf Zeppelin footage
Horse drawn fire engine
Nazi Germany film
USS Franklin footage