12 free platforms to watch archival TV, film and advertising collections
If you’re looking for a spark of inspiration or a creative reference from a specific era, what better way than to immerse yourself in historical films, TV shows and advertising? Here, we’ve rounded up 12 online archives and platforms where you can watch a curated range of visual content – all for free. From vintage Super Bowl ads and public information films to historical footage and music videos, you’re sure to find endless content to scroll through and be fascinated by, regardless of your creative discipline.
1. Black Film Archive
Good for: Black films
Created by Library of Congress scholar-in-residence Maya Cade, the Black Film Archive showcases a wide range of Black films released between 1898 to 1989, from silent shorts such as A Black Sherlock Holmes, to feature-length films like Mahogany and Fame.
2. BFI National Archive
Good for: UK-specific historical film footage
The BFI National Archive boasts a large collection of free historical videos which are categorised and curated by in-house archivists. Collections include Queer Britain, UK television and film ads from the last century and even a collection of short films about exercise made in the 20th century. If you’re based in London, head down to the BFI in South Bank and you can watch these in-person at their Mediatheque.
3. Internet Archive’s Movie Archive
Good for: Film and TV
A continually expanding crowdsourced library, you’ll be able to find almost anything and everything here – from feature films like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and George Miller’s Mad Max 2, to almost every episode of Saturday Night Live. Other notable collections in the library include a trove of Australian TV content from famed archivist FlemishDog, as well as an section entirely dedicated to MTV and adjacent channels.
4. The National Archives’ Public Information Films
Good for: Historical public information footage
Jointly digitised by the National Archives and the BFI, the Public Information Films was released to celebrate the Central Office of Information‘s 60th anniversary. Featuring some of the most memorable and influential public information films released by the government office in the post-World War Two period up until 2006, the library includes everything from explainer videos on how to use the then-newly invented zebra crossings to early anti-smoking campaigns.
See more of the National Archives’ Public Information Films here
5. Open Culture
Good for: Films
Known for its online courses, Open Culture has an extensive section dedicated to databases for historical films of various genres. The list includes legendary 1930s silent feature Battleship Potemkin, British post-war film A Matter of Life and Death and Plan 9 From Outer Space – considered a cult favourite due to its humorously low production value.
6. BBC Archive
Good for: UK-specific historical footage
The extensive BBC Archive is a one-stop shop for all historical footage and programmes aired on the broadcaster in its storied history. Various collections are curated and featured on their homepage – such as a recent collection of clips celebrating 100 years of BBC broadcasting in Wales – and you can expect different explainer films and slice-of-life commentary on topics that were novel way back when, such as Atari gaming consoles and the internet.
Good for: Advertising and film shooting and creative techniques
Interested in expanding your knowledge of filming and directing techniques? Creative Jacobi Mehringer of Wieden+Kennedy has collected different examples of visual techniques as utilised in film, television and video art and stored them on one handy website, Eyecandyy.
8. British Library’s Sound Collection
Good for: UK-specific historical film and audio recordings
The British Library’s Sound Collection has a trove of audio-visual recordings from historical and contemporary dramatic interpretations to the wide variety of English accents and dialects. If you have a specific reference in mind, you can use their extensive catalogue to have a dig around.
9. International Federation of Film Archives
Good for: Global historical film footage
The International Federation of Film Archives is a large database of different worldwide national archives of moving image. Get transported into different historical film libraries and spend a few hours watching important moments unfold.
See more from the International Federation of Film Archives here
10. Library of Congress Archives
Good for: US historical film footage
One of the largest libraries in the world, the US Library of Congress also hosts a mammoth historical film collection. With a curated homepage that rotates various collections housed in the library, expect to get a vast flavour of US cultural and political history through short films collections such as the origins of American animation and skyscrapers of New York as they were under construction.
11. Adland’s Super Bowl Commercials
Good for: Super Bowl ads, advertising references
Advertising creatives, this one’s for you. If you ever wanted to browse (nearly all) the Super Bowl ads in one place, Adland has an archive dedicated to just that. The team have meticulously gathered 51 out of 57 years of Super Bowl ads in one handy site, from the first time they were aired in 1969 to the latest series. See how consumer tastes have changed throughout the years – no more scouring YouTube!
12. BBC Computer Literacy Project
Good for: Retro digital art references
Seeking old-school digital and computer-related references for a project? Check out the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project. Featuring videos and information programmes aired by the broadcaster from 1980 to 1989, the archive’s videos showcase retro designs of electronics and programming as well as various software from the era.
This is not an exhaustive list. Got an archive to suggest? Drop us an email at [email protected]!
Written by Creative Lives in Progress