The last thing you want to deal with on set is lost footage or deleted clips – something that is very likely if you’re making your process up on the fly. And while no exact one way is right, there are certain guidelines that can lead you to a hassle-free digital workflow. And here they are:
1. Know Your Storage Capacities
This may seem redundant but it’s extremely important that you are aware of how much storage you have to shoot on, be it P2, CF cards or a hard drive. Before a shoot begins, you should familiarize yourself with how much each storage unit can hold in terms of footage and how to tell when it’s getting low. It’s embarrassing to not be aware of this and have a roll-out in the middle of a take. Not only that, but if takes are running up to 3 minutes long you need to be able to quickly calculate in your mind how much longer you’ll last without fresh memory. That is crucial. I have worked before with limited resources in terms of storage but because I researched a time to storage ratio, I was able to warn those I was working with that in certain cases we will only have so much time for each card. This covers your butt in the case that memory runs low because everybody was warned ahead of time. It also eases everybody’s mind if this problem doesn’t suddenly spring up.
The other side of this coin is to know how much storage you will need when dumping the cards to computers. Most of the time you will be dumping to external hard drives (more on this next). Try and estimate how much data you will shoot in a day, multiply it by the number of shoot days and add on a couple Gigs to compensate for variations. It’s important to have enough space on a hard drive before you run out on set with full memory cards and no where to dump them. If during the shoot you notice your estimations are off, let somebody in production know so that you can obtain another hard drive.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to have redundant back up hard drives. Two drives copied with the same footage is usually cheapest, though it is most safe to go with three hard drives. If you want and have the money you can purchase more, but three at all times is usually a safe bet. If one of the three fails, then you can replace it while still having two backups. There are so many people who make the simple mistake of only having one drive and usually, by no fault of their own, the drive fails and all their work is lost.
It’s also important to copy the footage to these drives as close as possible to each other. That is, if you can dump the card to both at the same time, that is the best solution. That way there is always two copies of the footage at one time. On many shoots, I refuse to re-format a card or drive until I know it has been backed up to at least two places. If it has only been backed up to one drive, then the card is effectively the backup copy and so I don’t want to rid myself of that safety net. In some cases, however, because of time, there hasn’t been the ability to copy to dual drives simultaneously. In this case, do it as soon as possible. Lunchtime or breaks between setups are usually best. However, if you can afford it (and I hope you can)…
3. Hire a Data Loader or D.I.T.
Most film sets have a loader on set whose sole job is to load and unload magazines. Digital shoots should be no different. Hire somebody whose entire job is to dump footage to hard drives, check it out, and deliver fresh memory back to the camera assistants. This will free up everybody’s time. AC’s usually don’t have time to check on card dumps and even if they do, they often have to rush through the process. Many sets have a DIT or digital imaging technician who can dump along with their other duties. Or assistant editors can do it as well. The advantage to this is not only the dedication and focus of one person on your footage but they’ll have time to do important things like…
4. Checksums, Spot Check, and Scrub Through Clips
If you don’t understand what all that means, no worries, I’ll break it down for you. But the basic premise of all these ideas is to add an extra safety net. Digital data can be incredibly finicky and sometimes copies don’t always come in full or clips can be corrupted in the transfer process or via drop frames. To catch these problems do two things:
a.) Checksums – Check sums basically means you will literally cross-check the data values for each folder of data. That means you would open up the info pane on the memory card and check for the amount of data it contains, say 5.71 GB (gigabytes). Then you would open the folder to which that memory card has been dumped and check it’s d ata amount. If they match up, cool, that generally means all the data is there. Sometimes they may be off by a a little bit, say 5.70 GB for our example, this is OK. A lot of times, the small amount of space is accounted for by the format process that adds a bit of “invisible” data that is essential for the card to be read properly. Plus if you do these other two things, you should confirm that everything is OK.
b.) Spot Check and Scrub Through Clips – Spot checking is when you choose a clip at random in the folder that was just dumped from a memory card and make sure it is there with data. Not only that, but if possible, open up the clip and scrub through the footage making sure it’s all working. Even better, wear headphones and check the audio if you’re shooting sync sound. Not all data workflows allow you to open clips, but it’s still important to spot check that the clip is there. On a show that I was a data loader, when I had time, I would spot check three clips per card that I dumped. Remember this is your entire movie, no amount of redundancy is too small.
With these extra checks, you should be able to catch when your data has been damaged. If that’s the case, mark the memory card and don’t use it for the rest of the day! You don’t know if it’s the card itself. Wait until after the shooting day is over and shoot some tests on it or diagnose the problem somehow before you risk more lost footage. However, none of this matters unless you have…
5. Establish a Verbal, Departmental Workflow
A verbal workflow was important to the first AC the first time I did some data loading and I carried it on to my own shoots since it’s invaluable in catching human error. You may put your own spin on this but I do it like so: Every new memory card is a new “roll,” i.e. A1 or A43. With each card loaded, a “mag tag” is placed on the side of the camera that displays this number. Whenever I need to reload, I announce “camera reloads,” attach the tape to the card, and hand it to either the 2nd or the loader. When they hand me a (supposedly) fresh card, I ask them “Is this card OK to format?” The reply that I’ve informed them to give to me is some acknowledgment along with the words “OK to format.” A simple “yes” does not suffice because I don’t know if they could be answering somebody else’s question. Once I have the OK on formatting from them, I will format. Another check I do is that I make sure the DIT/Loader/2nd knows not to return the memory cards with the mag tag on it. If they do, I make them re-check it, otherwise how do I know that it ever got touched?
This verbal cue goes on down the line. The 2nd must ask the loader when he receives a card that it’s OK to format. The loader must announce it to the 2nd. This creates a mental check for each member of the department. If at some point somebody is unsure that it’s OK to format, they will hesitate in saying so and be able to go back and check. It also puts everybody in the department at ease. A lack of communication about memory cards can cause panic, especially if you find some footage is lost. This way, if editorial loses it or something else happens, at least your department has done what it can. It’s another way to cover your butt.
6. Keep the Download Station Clean and Away From Set
Another obvious piece of advice, at least the first part, is to keep the station clean. Do NOT let any drinks or food get put on the table it’s at. Not even your own if you’re doing the downloading. Accidents happen all the time, but not all accidents can cause a complete failure of a hard drive and you to lose hundreds if not thousands of dollars of production in the form of footage. When I was data loading, I used to take bright colored neon camera tape and place reminders on the desk stating not to place anything on the table. Organize the hard drives in case something goes wrong you can diagnose efficiently – this certainly includes cables.
Of course, if your station is away from set you won’t have to worry much about drinks and food, but the real reason it should be away from set is so there isn’t any snooping. People like to see footage because they don’t want to wait until the film is finished. Not only does footage viewing get in your way to do your job, but it could really anger some higher-ups. Some directors don’t want anybody else to see footage. In short, the producers, the director, and your department up to the director of photography should be allowed to see the footage. If anybody else asks, such as an actor or other crew member, simply say you don’t want to disturb the process and that it could corrupt files. Basically, make up some techno mumbo jumbo they wouldn’t understand but you wouldn’t offend them with. Also, many actors do not like to see footage of their performance. If any actors are nearby, do not scrub through or watch any footage. You don’t want to be responsible for upsetting the talent.
7. Keep Paperwork
This includes camera reports, but if you can, have the DIT or data loader keep their own “reports.” When I was data loading, I made makeshift reports that had how much data each card had on it, which drives it got dumped to, which memory card it was, and how long it took. Then to top it off, I initialed each dump. That way if some footage got lost, I at least had that to somewhat cover my butt. Why would I initial off on something unless I had explicitly checked it all? However, make sure the AC keeping camera reports and the loader are consistent with labeling the cards or storage. That way if some files become corrupt you can quickly find which card it was, as well as figure out which takes were lost.
So those are 7 guidelines that should have you going through a shoot clean without losing any footage! It’s not that hard, it’s mostly common sense, but if you don’t apply these rules at the beginning, you risk running into a muddy swamp of a workflow that can cause lost footage. If there’s one golden rule of media management, however, it’s simply one word – backup!