April 5, 2017

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.

Transcribing

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.

Transcribing interviews with Inqscribe for 'The Shopkeeper'
First things first: transcribing every word.

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:

  1. Open an email on my iPhone and address it to myself.
  2. Play back the clip in Premiere with headphones on, and, using Siri, dictate those quotes into the email. 
  3. 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.

Rain Perry's Filemaker Pro Database for The Shopkeeper
A typical entry in Rain's comprehensive Filemaker database.

Filemaker Basics

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
  • Screenshot 
  • 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)
  • Transcription
  • Themes 
  • 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).
    Rain Perry Shopkeeper Documentary Editing Filemaker Database
    Rain's Filemaker Pro database

Identifying Themes

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.

Rain Perry's Daily Excel Workflow for Editing 'The Shopkeeper'
A single day's work is literally cut out for the editor.

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."      

The Shopkeeper has finished its festival run and is now being screened in a unique house-concert-and-a-movie format that Rain is calling the Community Screening Campaign. Look for (or host!) a screening /concert near you.

Your Comment

18 Comments

This is basically how one should organize a doc, except you can do it all in Premiere.

First you would put each interview in their own sequence. Then you would watch it, make markers with durations that contains the text of the sound byte (or even just the gist). As you go, you would pull selects from each interview and add them to a sequence organized by theme (you would create a sequence for each theme). You can even add verite moments to these theme sequences to easily find later.

You would also make sequences for each verite scene containing all the synced footage from that scene. You can transcribe if you want to/can afford to, but that isn't as necessary if you organize your project this way.

Why is this method is probably better? Well, in addition to being as organized, it's less time consuming/confusing to track data in three places. Moreover, by creating these sequences with markers, a lot of the work of finding everything has already been done in Premiere itself, saving the editor and AE time down the road.

Side note: For those working in Avid, using Script Sync with transcripts is a game changer.

April 5, 2017 at 4:02PM

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Christopher Smith
Director
98

Yes, now I can understand why the workflow you describe makes sense. The problem for me was that I had never even opened any kind of editing software. I decided to make a movie and I hired Micah as my DP and figured he'd edit it once we finished shooting. But when we got done, I realized in order to to truly direct the film I had to have some way of knowing what we'd shot. I didn't know how to cut-and-paste a sequence or create a marker or anything. I had no idea how I was going to grapple with all the footage. So the process that he describes predates me learning anything about Premiere. I read a lot of articles and everyone said I needed a verbatim transcription of all the interviews, so I started transcribing using a demo version of Incscribe and went from there. I suspect for most film professionals, my technique would be pretty redundant. But for someone like me who needed to conceptualize the footage outside of editing software, it worked out great. And I also would propose that I was able to track a lot more information in FileMaker than would be convenient to track in premiere. Murch uses it in tandem with his editing software. I'll see if I can find a link to an article about it.

April 6, 2017 at 6:40PM

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Rain Perry
Director/Musician
8

Totally makes sense. I mostly posted the comment to help others who might take something from it. And honestly, every film I worked on has a different post workflow. I borrow a little from them all for my own version. Also, I think transcribing makes a lot of sense, so am all for it, so opt for it whenever I can, but it can either be expensive or time consuming, both resources that are often lacking on a doc. Anyway, it's tough to go through the process, so congrats for making a film. Cheers!

April 10, 2017 at 5:43PM

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Christopher Smith
Director
98

FYI all of this database work can be accomplished natively inside FCPX, including the transcripts with Speedscriber.

April 5, 2017 at 5:21PM, Edited April 5, 5:21PM

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Jamie LeJeune
Director of Photography
227

Thanks for the heads-up on Speedscriber, Jamie. We use FCPX exclusively and this is an exciting development (we transcribe a lot). Looking forward to seeing it out of beta.

Cheers

April 5, 2017 at 11:19PM, Edited April 5, 11:20PM

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Man, that would have been great to know about.

April 8, 2017 at 11:36AM

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Rain Perry
Director/Musician
8

I am an intermediate-level Filemaker developer, and I use it to organize pre-production and production. However, as other commentators have observed, FCPX makes it unnecessary. I really like the idea of transcribing using Siri.

April 6, 2017 at 10:04AM

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Curtis Polk
Principal
293

I use transcribe.com in dictate mode...listen to the clip and dictate it back to transcribe. Then create markers in premiere pro and cut/paste the text for clips I want to use into the Marker description. They are fully searchable so easy to find when you need them.

April 6, 2017 at 10:44AM

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Andrew Neighbour
Filmmaker
91

That's rough, it will be great if Adobe ever gets the nerve to rewrite Premiere to natively work with metadata instead of search bins bolted-on to 25-year-old code.

Great tip about dictation!

"She had planned to use Premiere's global marker search to organize the footage, but at the time Adobe hadn't added that feature."
So she had to buy CC for that promised feature but found out it wasn't going to work as promised (just like everything from Adobe):
"using Filemaker, 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."
So CC was just a waste of money since that was the only feature they needed that was missing. Adobe is good at feeding uncertainty to get people to upgrade. Software rental is crap.
Good article.

April 6, 2017 at 11:47AM

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Michael Atkinson
Crusher of Industries
79

With Vegas Pro you can introduce text markers and regions with any indication. This can be saved in the clips as metadata forever. You can copy the video and the markers and regions are here. Obviously you can modify and/or delete the markers. Its a very useful tool. Sorry for the english. I'm argentinian and Walter Murch fan.

April 6, 2017 at 10:08PM

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Ernesto Figge
Sound recorder, editor and mixer. Teacher
20

If she had used FCP X, a good majority of her workflow could've been done natively in app, since it's a database with a timeline. Favourites and keyword ranges along with notes inside of those keywords for transcriptions is searchable and filterable. She could've used favourites to create string outs (or use Lumberjack/Lumberyard) for her editor to just put in the timeline. Ah well, what's done is done. I know for sure she would've saved a lot more money had she used X.

April 6, 2017 at 10:13PM

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Sam Woodhall
Video Editor & Motion Graphics Artist
120

It was a case of developing a strategy as I recognized the need, plus my DP/editor (and author of this post) works in PP so it was the natural choice.

I'm a singer-songwriter, so a transcription-based approach to me was probably a better fit than a more visual approach. A quirk of this project, I guess.

April 8, 2017 at 11:59AM, Edited April 8, 12:02PM

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Rain Perry
Director/Musician
8

I started a similar exercise in FCP7. I was adding markers and writing tags in them like ' b roll, Character A, Happy' then exporting the sequence as a text file, importing it into Excel and sorting from there whenever I needed a clip of character A when there were also happy, i could find it... Then FCPX came out and built that feature into the software.

April 7, 2017 at 10:46AM

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Garrett Kafchinski
Editor, Ronin Op, DP
81

Man, you guys are making a strong case for FCPX.

April 8, 2017 at 11:59AM

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Rain Perry
Director/Musician
8

Here's a link to a video of Murch describing his FileMaker approach. Setting aside the pros/cons of FCPX vs. PP, I think his approach is worth considering, even if you are far more versed in editing than I am.

https://www.filemaker.com/solutions/creative/#video-murch

April 8, 2017 at 12:02PM

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Rain Perry
Director/Musician
8

There's no con to FCPX when it comes to logging and tracking footage. All the database features that require FileMaker in Murch's workflow are built into FCPX, so there's no need to double your logging work by entering it all into a separate app. When you add in the power of organizing using roles, subroles, keyword ranges, plus importing script supervisor notes automatically using Shot Notes X, plus integrated transcripts (that are linked directly to your footage!!!) using Speedscriber, the rapid pace at which you can acheive a Murch level of organization becomes hours rather than days or weeks. Read through fcp.co and you'll see tons of information about these workflows in FCPX.

April 8, 2017 at 1:09PM

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Jamie LeJeune
Director of Photography
227

Wow. Yes, that is pretty much everything I cobbled together, except the use of Siri.

April 8, 2017 at 2:16PM

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Rain Perry
Director/Musician
8

With the 3rd party tools for X, you could easily export out your timelines as an Excel sheet, that gives timecode, transcriptions, notes, select ranges etc. If your editor wanted to use Premiere, you could do an assembly in X and XML to Premiere. Not as clean, and you lose some benefits doing it in X natively, but there are options.

April 11, 2017 at 11:38AM

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Sam Woodhall
Video Editor & Motion Graphics Artist
120