Make Room for Data

Not so fast! All those hours shooting, editing, laying down your audio and mastering your great effort are over. But if you’re like most of us, your computer is littered with the electronic results of all your hard work. You have sequence files, audio files, graphics, and all manner of other digital work files populating your virtual folders or scattered around your desktop. And some of these files represent pretty big buckets of bits. Even if your computer came with industrial size hard drives, eventually you’re going to run out of storage room if you don’t learn the techniques of good computer file housekeeping.

So, essentially, this article is for anyone who has ever had to face the reality of having a drive or drives that are so crowded that you can’t begin your next project until you dump a bunch of files from the last one. Which means, essentially, all of us.


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Plan the Work, Work the Plan

Let’s begin by acknowledging that an overcrowded desktop is often a sign that you’re doing something right. After all, if you didn’t have the next job, you wouldn’t need to back up this one, right? So let’s start out by defining some of the various classes of files you might want to store and different approaches you might want to consider for backing the important ones up and safely tossing others.

Video files — these are the blue-ribbon swines when it comes to hogging data storage capacity. Standard def DV data files require around 200 megs of storage for a 1-minute video clip. So, if you just finished a 30-minute documentary — you’ll have at least 6 gigs of video files scattered around your hard drive (and that’s at a one-to-one shooting ratio; you can easily have three to ten times this amount). The good news is that there’s really no reason to back up this kind of large media file!

That’s because virtually all editing systems work on a structure where a small project file holds all the data that simply points at video files stored somewhere else on your hard drive. These video files are typically captured from your physical source tape. If this is the process you use, as long as you have the source tape (or a time code accurate clone of it) sitting around somewhere safe — you can get your clips as well as your whole project back by simply re-capturing from the original tape any time you like.

Systems are starting to appear where the original video is directly digitized onto a data drive rather than written to tape (Direct to Edit or DTE). If you’re using a system like this, you may need to back up your original footage into a more permanent form or you may risk losing it all in the event of a drive failure. But if you’re shooting to digital tape – as long as you have the original project file — and the original source tape you digitized to create it, you can re-create the clips that populate your timeline whenever you want. So there’s no reason to back up these large video clips as data. When your program is done, simply erase them.

The same goes for many temporary files that are created when you finalized your video, such as render files. Render files are just code that tells your computer how to display complex composites, transitions, and other complicated calculations that needed extra computer horsepower to create and display. If you search around your hard drive, you’ll probably find video and, perhaps, audio render files taking up space. These are typically safe to dump when your project is complete. If you decide you need to get them back, you can just tell your computer to re-render your sequences and you’ll be back right where you started.

Backing up Projects

One class of files you probably don’t want to dump, however, are the files that tell your computer about all the decisions you made in creating your masterpiece. In most NLE (non-linear editors) implementations, there’s a project file (sometimes called the "sequence" or something similar) that holds the navigational data that tells your editor precisely what to do with all the video, audio and graphics files that make up the building blocks of your project. The project file also typically holds the definitions for the transitions you’ve used between scenes, and even the text data that you created when you made up your titles and graphics. Even though these files can be complex, they’re typically pretty small in digital data storage terms. Therefore, the first order of business when you’re cleaning up after a project is complete, is to decide how to back up these critical, but small files.

My strategy is to create a folder for every project, and the first thing that goes in it is the final version of the project file that represents my finished program. Unless I’m creating working versions of the project, my next step is to hunt down and trash all the previous versions. Next, I go looking for any source files that are unique to the project. These might include graphics, titles, sound clips and other digital source files that I didn’t create within my editing system. The goal is to make it as easy as possible to rebuild my timeline as painlessly as possible should a client need to re-edit a part of the project.

Audio Files

Audio is another area where a cohesive backup strategy can be useful. For example, if I use whole audio clips from a buyout music CD, I generally toss those clips, because, like my video, I can re-capture the cut from the original disc if needed. But if I applied special processing to the clips, or otherwise altered them beyond simple cut and transition editing, I might find it difficult to re-create the clips exactly as they appeared in my original project. So they go into the "project backup" folder along with the other digital files.

Once my "project backup folder" is complete the first thing I do is make a digital copy of the whole thing. I keep one on my desktop in a "recent projects" folder — and the other I back up to CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. If the project is important, I might even make two copies of this backup disc. Discs are cheap and having to re-build a trashed program from scratch is a major hassle, believe me. As my desktop copies of previous programs age, I can safely dump them knowing I have my disc backups safely stored.

Use the Tools!

The bottom line is that desktop organization and data backup – while always a good thing – becomes even more important when you’re doing something as complicated as building a complex video project. Happily, both Windows based PC and Mac systems have plenty of sophisticated data organization tools built into their design. Virtual Folders are available so you can assign a project file for each program, and then nest similar projects into their own folders. Once you master the relationships between what is a unique digital asset that should be preserved and backed up – and what is simply a clip that can be easily re-captured — you can free your hard drive from the tyranny of clutter and free your desktop — and your mind – for your next big project.

Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits, and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.

Sidebar: The Numbers Game

When it comes to organizing digital assets, you need to learn that computers see number sequences differently than people do. Lets say you want to name your project with a number consisting of 305 — for March 2005 — followed by a project number — project 12 in this case.

So you go with 305-12 and label all your files

305-12 Audio Clip 1

305-12 Audio Clip 2,

305-12 Title Graphic 1

305-12 Title Graphic 2

Everything is fine until a few months later when you’re working on, for example, your second project in November.

You happily label those files

1105-02 — Audio Clip 1

1105-02 — Audio clip 2


The problem is that your computer sorts by each digit sequentially. So it’s going to sort all your 1105 files AHEAD of your 305 files simply because 1 is smaller than 3. That’s right, in the sort-by-numbers world of computers, November comes before March! The solution is that whenever you know you’re going to have any numeric sequence greater than 10 — you use a leading zero. File 305-12 becomes 0305-12 and your sort integrity is preserved.

If you start your file naming system with the
year, like they do in the military and in Europe, your computer will order your files chronologically (e.g. YYMM_NNN = YY for year; MM for month; NNN for tape number, so 0504_639 would be the 639th tape of April, 2005).

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