Documentary Workflow: How a Walter Murch Spreadsheet Can Save You in Post
When first-time director Rain Perry got to post with her docThe Shopkeeper, she quickly realized she needed a way to edit without actually editing.
Going through post-production on an independent film can be tough: editors are expensive and the process can drag on for months or even years, especially for documentaries. After reading that Particle Fever director Mark Levinson essentially made himself legendary editor Walter Murch's assistant on his own film's post-production, director Rain Perry decided to the same for her documentary The Shopkeeper, about a music producer in Texas.
"It’s super time-consuming but it makes a lot of sense because, as the director, I need to have seen every moment of footage and, as the producer, I want to save time and money."
In order to keep the film straight in her head and save money, she made a database of all of her footage so she could pre-visualize edits before handing it off to me as the film's actual editor. Using a combination of Inqscribe, Filemaker Pro, Premiere Pro and Excel, Rain's Murch-esque database was an invaluable tool to keep track of every sound bite during her first time directing. Here's how she did it.
Using Murch as inspiration and her nascent knowledge of editing, Rain jumped head first into creating a database:
I started transcribing every interview in Inqscribe, but it was deadly on my hands and taking forever because I’m just a medium-fast typist. I researched transcribing software and was underwhelmed, and it wasn’t really in my budget to hire a transcriptionist. Then it occurred to me I always have a great piece of transcribing software at my disposal: Siri. But how was I going to get the audio of the interviews into Siri? Then I thought: I could translate for her. With headphones on, I listened to an interview while dictating it into a note on my iPhone. It’s like being a language translator, but you’d be surprised how fast you can do it because people pause so often when they speak. I could transcribe an interview at least 4x faster this way.
For interviews, Perry wanted an exact transcription. When she was logging the interviews she'd already transcribed in Inqscribe, she dug out the pertinent quotes and copied and pasted them in. Rain describes her refined 1-2-3 transcription process:
- Open an email on my iPhone and address it to myself.
- Play back the clip in Premiere with headphones on, and, using Siri, dictate those quotes into the email.
- Send the email to myself and open it on my computer. Then I can copy and paste each quote into the database.
Interacting with the footage
At first, Rain tried using Inqscribe to mark all of the dialogue on each clip. Eventually though, it became clear that this method wasn't the end game tool, so she subscribed to Premiere Pro to insert markers on the clips themselves. She had planned to use Premiere's global marker search to organize the footage, but at the time Adobe hadn't added that feature.
At this point I realized I needed a killer database. I needed a record of every interview quote I might use and every bit of b-roll, photograph, audio clip, potential music cue, etc. Again, Walter Murch came to the rescue. I remembered reading about him using Filemaker, so I invested in it. I’m so glad I did, because I developed a custom database that tracks a lot more information, in a far more accessible fashion, than I could store in the marker notes in Premiere.
For those of you who have never used Filemaker before, the basics are simple. Create a new document, which sets up a default "table." Then you can start creating fields for the things you want to keep track of. Rain would fill in the fields from the info she'd logged in Premiere or Inqscribe and add screenshots to keep visual track of the clip.
Here are the fields Rain used in Filemaker:
- Type of material (interview, b-roll, photograph, music cue, etc)
- Filename of film footage
- Marker timecode
- Marker name
- Folder for the footage in premiere pro
- Location of filming
- Time of day
- Rightsholder (great for keeping track of archival material still to be licensed)
- People (either mentioned in interview or connected to a photograph)
- Notes (like “pair this quote with that photo from 1987”)
- Value - (i.e. “can’t make the movie without this shot,” “probably use,” “ok” “meh”)
- Marked (for quickly selecting/deselecting certain records)
- Section of film (the shot’s likely place within the film's chapters).
Once she had her database, Perry had to find a method to use it with Premiere Pro. Once in Premiere, she would place a marker for each interesting point and assign it with a short name. Then she'd copy and paste the marker names and time codes, plus a screenshot into the Filemaker database. (Filemaker has a “duplicate” function which makes the data entry faster when she's logging in multiple markers from the same clip.) Once she had created records for all the markers in a clip, she'd go back and fill in the fields that are different for each marker, like “themes,” and “rightsholder." This way she could instantly quickly find all references, b-roll and potential music cues related to "Ani DiFranco" or, everything someone said about "Austin."
As I was transcribing all the interviews, whenever I would recognize a theme I might want to pursue, I would write it down on my list. And then when I got that clip integrated into FileMaker, I made sure that theme was listed. That way, every piece of footage was connected to a theme. The most useful feature was to be able to do multiple level searches—the ability to look for everything that refers to Sara Hickman and also refers to my theme "old business model." I set up a field in FileMaker called "themes," and in it I logged in all the major themes I had recognized running through all the footage.
Parsing records out to Excel
With 30 interviews and lots of b-roll and photographs, Rain had amassed about 5,000 records by the time we started editing. She made lists from Excel to give to me before we began editing each day. Each day when we started, Rain had already laid out exactly what clips we would be using and our agenda for that session. From my perspective as the editor on this project, it was great. After she went through this process, she knew exactly where everything was. Plus, she saved a sizable amount of money by being prepared and organized before going into each editing session—something more directors should take a cue from.
Ultimately, Perry's efforts paid off. "It took me months," she recalled, "but I was very comfortable going into the edit, knowing I’ve watched every single moment of film and I know how to find it again and exactly what I’m working with. I don’t see how I could have begun to understand the connections between things and begun to see the arc of the story without going through this long process."