Now You See It, Now You See It Again


It's because, even in the newest episodes, you may have seen some of it before.

JAG routinely borrows special effects-packed clips from blockbuster action films to beef up its production values and avoid spending money on the flashy aerial combat sequences fans expect.

"We've never flown an F-14 and we've had 100 episodes," said David Bellisario, one of the show's producers. "In almost every episode ... we used some stock footage."

It's actually a technique that's as old as the moving picture itself — and remains more widespread in TV shows and movies than you may think.

"It used to be really common in television, especially in the 40s and 50s," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "You'd have these low-budget westerns — they couldn't afford a buffalo stampede, they'd get the stuff from B-movies."

For action shots as well as establishment shots of buildings and bases, the Paramount-produced JAG raids the vaults of stars n' stripes staples such as The Hunt for Red October, Air Force One and Platoon. Some films, like Top Gun, are regular sources of jet fighter footage. Others are a one-time lifesaver (an elaborate bus rollover scene lifted from Universal Soldier, for example).

Bellisario estimates that JAG has recycled scenes from at least 60 features — usually "outs" and "trims" off the cutting room floor but sometimes from footage used in the final version of films.

Even for TV shows that don't require slick action shots, the use of stock footage is still a common, if little known, production practice. Sitcoms will search for existing footage of a sunset or a city skyline to avoid having to send a camera crew on location.

And it's not limited to TV — plenty of big screen favorites have gone digging through Tinsel Town's archives for celluloid treasures. The list of feature films that have cannibalized their brethren spans from Bambi to Blade Runner.

Stock footage is not limited to leftovers either. An entire industry has evolved to ensure that makers of movies, TV shows and commercials have standard shots, such as "a contemporary-looking business woman running through an airport," said Dana Tower, vice president director of marketing and emerging market development for Getty Images.

Experts say there are advantages to scooping up the industry's byproducts. "It makes perfect sense, we've got over a century now of Hollywood images and probably 30 years of usable images," said Thompson. "If all you're going to do is show a car going off a cliff and blowing up ... you might be able to pat yourself on the back by saving a little money and resources."

Licensing fees often amount to a fraction of what it would cost to film the scenes from scratch. A couple hours of shooting an F-14 could cost $60,000 for the Navy's fuel, mileage and maintenance fees and to rent a second plane from which to shoot, Bellisario said. By comparison, getting clips from a completed movie might run $6,000, he said.

And borrowing shots remains cheaper than creating computer-generated images as well.

Whether more directors and producers will take up the practice — or already do it on the sly — is hard to say. After all, there's an obvious artistic argument against it.

"You wouldn't expect it in a book: Rather than writing the description of a poignant love scene someone just cuts it from another book and drops it in," Thompson noted. "People become very, very familiar with [scenes] — they notice this stuff I think."

That's been the case with some JAG fans according to Bellisario, which is why additional effects work on the footage is often necessary to make pilfered pics less noticeable. "One of the easiest things is to make a scene night instead of day," he said. "We'll do fog. We'll change lights on ships. We'll composite two shots together."

JAG's producer learned the need for subterfuge the hard way: Clear and Present Danger director Phillip Noyce raised a ruckus during the show's first season when they failed to alter a major sequence from his Harrison Ford hit — even though they had permission from Paramount to use it.

What ended up on TV "was almost identical" to the movie, said Bellisario. "We definitely got ourselves burned. It affected our relationship with Paramount and everyone else."

The studio remains protective of its properties, recently telling JAG that it couldn't use Top Gun's cockpit ejection scene for a third time, Bellisario said. "We've had to create ejections now since no one else has done a good one," he said.