Arts alumna Maggie McCaw (`08 BA Honours) spends her days watching visual footage (such as films and documentaries), rifling through photograph archives, and extensively researching the lives of people like celebrities and politicians — all in the pursuit of locating the perfect images to tell a story.
McCaw is a visual researcher, responsible for finding appropriate images and footage for producers to use in documentaries, TV shows and similar visual media. For the past year she’s lent her talents to CBC’s current affair show George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, helping to research and put together visual material to showcase the work of the show’s guests. Recent guests on the show include Miss Piggy, Megan Follows, Jake Gyllenhaal and Donovan Bailey, to name a few.
“You’re looking for a clip or a picture that will help further a story…. You want to pick stuff that will really highlight the quality of work of whoever the guest is,” explains McCaw. “You don’t want to pick the first thing you find, you want to pick something that works in the context. It’s really about finding the right moment.”
Working with one of Canada’s most popular and recognizable media personalities is also a bonus. “[George] is a great boss. He’s invested in the show…. he works long hours and he’s incredibly generous with his time and his help. He knew all our names on the first day.”
Although McCaw hasn’t met any of the show’s guests yet — filming takes place on the 6th floor and the “behind the scenes” team works on the 8th floor — she jokes that it feels as though she has since she reads so much about their lives during her research. “The caliber of the guests [the show] books is phenomenal and you get to look these guests up and…dive into their lives and their work and whatever they’re producing, and really get to know it. That’s really satisfying.”
The path to visual research
McCaw says that she “sort of fell into” the field of visual research. After graduating from the U of A, she started working as the office manager at a documentary production company in Toronto. A few years later, after showing interest in other areas of production, she dipped her toe into editorial research before being taken under the wing of a colleague who worked as a visual researcher. That led to a position working on Museum Secrets, a popular documentary that airs on the History Channel.
McCaw says her BA provided her with vital creative and critical thinking skills that she uses daily.
“I just love it. I thought that the more editorial side would appeal to me more, and it still does, but the visual research is really interesting. It’s an element of TV production that I didn’t really know was even a thing until I started doing [it], and now I see it everywhere. Every time I watch a TV show, I see footage that I’m sure a visual researcher found,” says McCaw.
Off to a great start with a BA
As an English undergrad, McCaw learned about the mechanics of written storytelling, and although she now works with visual media, the principles of good storytelling are the same: “It’s just a different way of expressing a story,” she suggests. “Like if you’re telling a story about a certain era, a lot of times it can help a viewer understand what you’re talking about if you’ve got this visual moment to put in. It can really help to ground a story in a time or a place.”
She also says her BA provided her with vital creative and critical thinking skills that she uses daily. “Having a BA was a major basis of my understanding of how to learn and how to research. Every day I read things on Wikipedia and I’m reminded that research is more than just googling something. You have to analyze it and really think about who said it. Where did it come from? Where does it originate?…. Is it a good quality reliable source? That’s all stuff that I learned at the U of A.”
McCaw likens the search to find the perfect visual to a “detective hunt,” particularly if she’s trying to find something obscure, say a photograph from 1912 of paleontologists digging up dinosaurs in small-town Alberta. However, she says those challenges are the fun part of her job — and when she is able to finally locate what she is looking for, those moments are also the most satisfying.
With a few years as a visual researcher already under her belt, McCaw hopes to continue learning about visual research, and eventually try her hand at producing. She’d also love to work on “one long story,” a feature-length documentary with lots of archive footage.
“The next best thing to being able to travel the world is to be able to sit at your desk and look through pictures of interesting places and fascinating people, getting to read about them and hear them talk in these old interviews. It’s a really phenomenal thing to be able to do every day.”