Golden Tips From the Trenches: the Best Practices to Handle Data Management Solo from Sandra Alvarez-Smith & Eve M. Cohen
If you’re ever planning to shoot anything digitally and alone, whatever the end story (documentary, institutional, fiction etc.), do yourself a favor and read this brilliant guest post by one-woman band/non-fiction television producer Sandra Alvarez-Smith and cinematographer Eve M. Cohen.
In this entertaining and packed with very practical information piece, Alvarez-Smith shares the go-to workflow she’s crafted and been using over the years, while Cohen interjects when necessary to point out flaws or missing key procedures.
It’s rare to have access to such knowledge from the comfort of your couch -as opposed to the chaos of the trenches, when it might be too late to apologize.
Read, enjoy, share and don’t hesitate to connect with these two inspiring storytellers:
BABY GOT BACK(UP): Digital Footage Workflow
a Guest Post by Sandra Alvarez-Smith & Eve M. Cohen
Sandra Alvarez-Smith: In the past 10 years of working as a non-fiction television producer, I have dealt with a wide range of subjects: from heroin addicts to US Marshals; from martial arts masters to makeover mavens; from gang members to Iraq-war veterans.
My career has allowed me the rare opportunity to peer into the window of these worlds, and understand individuals as a more beautiful gray, instead of a simple black and white. The pressure of being a one-woman band in the field comes with many challenges: producing, directing, dealing with logistics, all while I’m trying to make sure my framing looks decent and my audio isn’t scratchy!
However, I can honestly say the most stressful part of being a one-woman band is collecting, transferring and storing my precious, precious footage. When I’m not working alone, I have been lucky enough to work with Director of Photography Eve M. Cohen, who has taught me some best practices while transferring.
Eve M. Cohen: Transferring? I think we should call it data management, you know I’m selective about word choice.
Sandra: Yes, yes exactly. Data management. Thanks Eve. I started to write this blog by myself, and then I realized that my data transferring, I mean, data management, protocol has been a patchwork of learning on the job, painful mistakes, tears, and one broken apple box. I asked Eve to help take a look at my protocol and set me straight. Eve is probably the most trustworthy person I know on this subject, and G-Technology certainly seems to think so too, since she is now a G-Tech ambassador.
Eve: I would like to add that my background is in narrative fiction filmmaking as well as documentaries and I adapt my data management best practices for any environment—from a sound stage to hotel room to moving-car workstation or airplanes. Just because you’re running around out there ingesting your footage during lunch at a bar doesn’t mean you can’t ensure it’s safe. Ok, Sandra, that’s enough about me. Tell me what you do with your footage….
Below is the digital footage workflow that I use for my documentary: A Secret Legacy. Currently in post-production, A Secret Legacy is a documentary that follows my family’s journey as we uncover the truth about my Cuban grandfather’s participation in a top-secret CIA operation in the Congo during the 1960’s.
PART 1 – PREP
BUYING AND LABELING THE DRIVES
Sandra: After much research, I purchased two 4TB G-Technology external hard drives for storage, and three 1TB LaCie Rugged external hard drives for the field. (Note: At the time, G-Tech did not have 8TB. If I had to do it again, I would buy two 8TB G-Raid drives instead of the 4TB, which are already full).
Eve: When buying drives you want to make sure they are compatible with the computer system you are using—don’t buy Thunderbolt if you don’t have the Thunderbolt port! For your office backups, try to get a drive that is fast and raided if possible!
Sandra: Buying drives is a huge financial commitment but very worth it! I promptly labeled each drive by putting a physical label on the drive, then also plugging it in and renaming the drive in the finder to match the same exact name on the physical label.
GTech- “1 ASL Storage” and “2 ASL Storage”, etc.
(Note: I put the number first, so it’s viewable in the finder window)
Lacie- “1 ASL Field”, “2 ALS Field,” “3 ASL Field”
BUYING AND LABELING THE CARDS
Not all of us have this luxury, but ideally I wanted to have enough cards so that I could shoot through the whole day without having to ingest any of the footage. The last thing I want to do is have to stop down shooting because I have to sit and wait to ingest a card, especially by myself.
When I go on shoots by myself I usually shoot with a Sony EX3 (A Camera) or a Canon 7D (B Camera), so I prep four SXS cards, and two to three 64GB CF cards. I take a small piece of white paper tape, and label them numerically.
SXS Cards: “A1,” “A2,” “A3,” “A4”, etc.
CF Cards- “B1,” B2,” “B3”
The night before each shoot, I make sure to format each card to ensure they are wiped clean so there is no confusion during the shoot day (of course, I double-triple check that the footage on the card has been ingested into to the drives before formatting!).
CREATING THE FOLDER STRUCTURE IN THE DRIVES
Sandra: I take the three LaCie hard drives with me into the field each day. The G-Tech storage folders stay safe at home. Two of the LaCie drives are for ingestion and one is a backup, just in case one of the other drives fail.
Before the shoot, I create an IDENTICAL folder structure in each of the two LaCie drives.
(Note: as for the naming convention of the actual card, I put the year first, before the month and day, since my documentary has been shot over several years. If the year doesn’t go first, it’s a nightmare to order the folders chronologically. So April 5, 2015 would be “150405”).
I also add a short description of the day’s footage so that when I go back it’s easy to find what I need. For audio I add an AUDIO folder for each day and ingest any of the audio I recorded separately
(When I shoot on the Canon 7D, it doesn’t have an audio input, so I record audio separately on my Zoom recorder, onto a small SD card).
Here is an example of what it would look like if I shot two cards on two cameras for three days, on February 5th, 6th and 7th of 2015:
PART 2 – IN THE FIELD
SHOOTING ON THE CARDS
Sandra: Once a card is shot, I take the piece of paper tape that I used to label the card and tape over the connection point of the card, which prevents me from inserting the card back into the camera once it is shot. This is a pretty good system that works for me, since I would have to physically peel the tape off of the card in order to even get it in the camera…
Eve: Wait, you do what???
Eve: Never tape over the slot of the card. I know it’s dummy proof and will prevent you from putting the card back in the camera, but that connection point is the only part of the card that you shouldn’t touch and needs to work 100% of the time. Don’t give it any chance to get tape stickiness anywhere near it.
Lots of people do this, but it doesn’t fly in my world. Once the card is shot, take RED PAPER TAPE and wrap the card in the red (around, not over the connection point), labeled: SHOT A01, but ideally you put the shot card in it’s case and tape over the opening of the case with red tape labeling SHOT A01. (or hot pink, something bright!)
Sandra: Ok. Got it. Thanks!
FOCUSING (My brain, and the camera!)
Sandra: As I said earlier (as much as humanly possible) I try not to ingest during the actual shoot, but sometimes it happens. If I absolutely have to ingest a card in the middle of the shoot I stop every single other thing I am doing. I turn my multi-tasking brain off and just focus on that card, that ingest, that drive. I accept it as my Zen moment in the field.
If I can wait until after the shoot, I always try to ingest the drives the night of the shoot. However, there are times I am so exhausted that I leave it until morning so that my sleepiness doesn’t cause me to skip a crucial step in my ingestion process. If this is the case I keep the cards in a very safe place…if I could put them under my pillow, I would!
DATA MANAGEMENT PROTOCOL
Sandra: There are certain software programs that allow you to ingest and drop one card into two drives at once and I have used those on other shoots before (like Adobe Prelude, etc.)
If you choose to use one of these programs I would recommend doing multiple, multiple field tests before the actual shoot. The ingestion process I use during my documentary shoots is the simplest, which is literally dragging and dropping the data from the card into the folder structure I created on the drive (in the “Finder” window on a Mac).
Eve: Oh, my! What??
Sandra: Eve? Is there something you would like to add?
Eve: Well, the “drag and drop” method of transfer shouldn’t be a method at all. It’s used, but it’s exactly how footage gets messed up, or user error kicks in and you have no verification method. Learning how to use a data management program like Adobe Prelude or ShotPut Pro is essential.
After some recent tears of my own when working with someone who uploaded via “drag and drop,” I’m forcing people to use a data management program. IF you are going to “drag and drop” make sure that you don’t erase and shoot over your cards until you’ve opened each file in a NLE system (Final Cut, Adobe Premiere etc) and physically see and hear all the clips with your own eyes and ears, before you wipe the cards and start again.
That’s the only acceptable addition to the drag and drop method. But please, I beg of you, don’t do it.
Sandra: Well, I guess that makes sense. A couple of years ago I had a card-wipe disaster of my own with the drag-and-drop system, and I will painfully re-tell the story here as a cautionary tale (If Eve’s words of caution weren’t enough!)
I was working on a show where I was the producer on set and also was in charge of ingesting footage. The DP was handing me labeled cards and I was ingesting them, and double-checking that the file size on the card matched the file size on the ingested folder.
When editing time started, I got that dreaded phone call: “WHERE IS THE FOOTAGE FROM THE SECOND HALF OF THE DAY?” My heart immediately started to race, I tried to rack my brain to try to figure out what had gone wrong, and how could they possibly be missing Card 2?
I had double-checked that the file size matched, but here was my mistake: I hadn’t scanned through the actual footage after the ingestion. It turns out what had happened was that I had ingested Card 1, and then in the madness of it all, I had accidentally put Card 1 back in to be ingested as Card 2. If I had scanned through the footage, I would have noticed that I had put Card 1 in again by mistake.
We realized the problem, after we noticed that Card 1 and Card 2 in the drive were identical. It’s a horrible feeling!!
Eve: AND sadly this “user error” story is identical to what happened to me, except I wasn’t the one ingesting, I was the DP and got the call that hours of my hard work had been lost. It’s just as devastating. Especially on documentaries—you can never get back moments. So don’t f*** it up!!!
Sandra: Eve is usually a very nice person! So….back to my protocol, which is probably not the safest bet, as I have just learned.
DATA INGESTION TIP!
Sandra: My editors and DP’s have taught me: always ingest the entire folder structure and contents on the shot card (not just the one folder on the card that looks like it contains the shot footage).
Eve: If you use a data management program (as you are now all going to do, right???), you can’t mess this part up: elimination of user error #1.
Sandra: For my first shot card of the day on A Camera on April 5th, 2015, I take the entire contents of the shot card and transfer it over to the “150405_A_01” folder in “1 ASL Field” drive.
Then I repeat the same transfer of the first shot card of the day and transfer it into “2 ASL Field” drive in the “150405_A_01” folder. The goal is at the end of the day, I have two drives that are identical, and have all of the footage from the day on both drives.
DATA INGESTION TIP!
Sandra: I always ingest the card directly to the first drive, and then take the card and ingest directly to the second drive. I never ingest all of my footage from one drive to another for backup. If a card ingestion was corrupted on the first drive, then I would just be ingesting the corrupted card to the second drive by doing this. It’s time consuming, but always safer to ingest the actual card onto each individual drive.
Eve: and if you’re using your data management program, this also cannot be messed up: elimination of user error #2.
Sandra: Over the years I have come to respect the double-checking process, and now consider it the most important step when ingesting a card. As detailed above, many of the “wiped card” nightmares I have had in the field were due to a card not being double and triple checked.
After each individual card ingestion I always double-check that the file size of the card matches the file size of the folder in the drive. The best way to do this on a Mac is to right click the card and select “Get Info”
Then I look at the file sizes on the upper right-hand corner of the dialog box to ensure the numbers match (I was told by several editors and DP’s that the number next to “Size” won’t match completely because of the structure of the card vs. the folder. The most important number to match is the number on the top right corner).
Sandra: It is very time-consuming, but I always scan through my ingested footage just to make sure everything looks right and that it matches the footage on the card. As per Eve, it’s the only acceptable way to use the drag-and-drop method.
Eve: Which is not a method. But if you’re stuck in a pinch, rely on your eyes and ears and make sure you’re watching the footage from the drives and not from the cards.
Sandra: Once the shoot is over, I clone all of the footage from my LaCie drives onto both of my master G-Tech drives. Ideally I try to keep the two master G-tech drives in separate places. I actually used to keep all of my footage on one drive, until my DP (Eve Cohen, in fact) almost shook me silly when she found out.
Eve: Oy—I thought I was going to have a heart attack when you told me. Drives fail all of the time, and this is normal. Don’t be fooled into thinking hard drives are life proof and last forever. Having your footage and your work backed up on a second drive (and really I suggest a third, at least for the raw footage), is mandatory. No questions asked. It will cost you, but it will cost you more to re-shoot or re-edit, or attempt to re-live those moments that you lost when you didn’t back it up.
Use reliable drives and every few months—spin em up! Plug them in and get them running. Drives are mini-engines and need to be used. They cannot sit in your closet on your top shelf collecting dust. Bad idea.
Sandra: Eve is really usually a nice person…I swear!
As budgets shrink, and technology grows, one-woman/man bands are becoming increasingly popular. I hope my data management protocol can help those poor souls out there striving to do it all and multi-task their hearts out! Thanks again to the brilliant Eve M. Cohen for helping us producers keep our precious, precious footage safe. Now I’m off to learn how the heck to use Prelude…
Eve: Don’t worry, I’ll help you.
Sandra: Thanks for all of the useful tips Eve! Good luck to all of you and remember…Back that thang up!
Check out Sandra’s work at www.reelmuse.com