Think of a media database system as a reference book written about all your projects. With it, you should be able to find any given shot, and all relevant information about said shot, at a moment’s notice. A simple database might contain the content, source location and duration of all the shots in a project, kind of like your media logs do now. Truly complex offerings include thumbnails, previews, lens filter and exposure, performer contact information… the list is endless. Some can also be integrated with your edit system(s) so that they will enter all the content automatically as you log your clips into the capture tool. This data can then be shared with, analyzed and manipulated by everyone else in your network for use in other projects. In addition, the business end of your company can use it to confirm that all noteworthy points are cleared for rights and contacts. Meanwhile your production crew can record exactly how a shot was taken. It’s a great way to get everyone on the same page.
There are three primary types of databases relevant to the video industry. There’s no reason you can’t mix and match them, but successful systems require a meticulous commitment to inputting all of the data, all of the time, so sometimes it’s best to focus on your primary needs first. You can always expand later.
1. Simple Catalog
The first type is basically an in-depth catalog presenting everything you ever wanted to know (and many things you never cared to) about your audio and video library. On the personal side, you might use one as a catalog of all your Blu-rays, DVDs and CDs. (Think of the Netflix browsing interface customized to only videos you own). You can browse your movies, search by genre, release year, etc. If you like an actor in the film, you can select their name to bring up what other roles they’ve played (Think of all the six degrees of Kevin Bacon games you could win!) This is one of the easiest databases to host because much of what you get can be instantly and automatically retrieved from the Internet (like how music programs can retrieve information on your ripped CDs). These programs are usually built with a specific interface and categories that are already established, so you don’t need to set them up. They are limiting however, in that they don’t support the customization general database programs possess. You could input your own media information, but your categories will be mostly limited to those relevant to watching or listening. Perhaps we want help in the creation of our videos. This leads us to our second type of database.
2. Content Containment
There are situations when you might want to consider a system that would support your post-production efforts. This system would allow you to search through your source material not just from your current project, but from all of your projects. Newsreels, sports and documentaries are perfect targets for a backend like this. These are genres where you might regularly deal with a mass amount of archive material, and/or material that necessitates that other important information remain with the clip whenever it is used. How was this footage acquired? Is it the proper format, resolution, or time of day? What rights have you paid for? What are the restrictions? You can put into this all the information you will need to submit to your broadcaster. When it’s time to submit your production you can input your edit decision list and have all your paperwork generated for you. This of course leads nicely into our third type of database.
3. Metadata Management
Imagine your contact and address book on steroids. What if you had a system where you could do a search for all the companies you deal with that sell a specific service, or piece of equipment? You could then narrow down your choices by who is open on the weekends, and who has next day delivery? Perhaps along with this you could book crews not only by whose name you remember, but also who did a good job on a similar shoot. Perhaps you want to compare the rates of one person whom you rated 8 out of 10 and see if there’s anyone who you ranked equal or better for less cost. If you have a tremendous and ongoing research or pre-production effort a database of this type could save you tons of redundant and extraneous effort over time.
Building a Database
How effective your database will be in your business depends on how you approach it. Your database will only be as useful as the information you put into it, and the ideal method is to get as much information in with as little effort as possible. Fortunately in the video world, much of our data has already been compiled elsewhere, we simply need to aggregate it into one place.
It is highly recommended that you organize your information in spreadsheets before bringing it into your database. Doing so allows consistency and smooth import, so everything goes where it needs to go. This doesn’t mean that you should start typing all your information into little boxes though. There are ways to get all your mp3 tag information, for example, into nice neat columns and rows. The trick is finding a common interface.
Before that of course, you need to have the information. Again, we don’t want to spend hours tagging songs and re-screening tapes. Whenever possible we want to get what we need from places that already have it.
The Media Library
All your “consumer” media should be tagged and cataloged before you begin integration into your database. This allows you to not only access that information outside the database program on an individual file basis, but lets you use that data in media players and other programs. Mac users should employ the auto-tagging features of iTunes to gather information about their files. For PC users, there’s a great little program called MediaMonkey, which sports an excessive amount of tagging capabilities. Even if a file format doesn’t carry metadata with it, programs like these will still let you retrieve and store information on them in their playlists, so they are perfect for our needs.
Let’s work with MediaMonkey for now. Point the program to the folder(s) where your media is stored. Upon import the program will magically categorize and sort the files based on what’s provided. You can then have the program access the web and search for any missing information using online databases that you specify. If it finds more than one option it will give you the choice of selecting which one best fits your file. It will then automatically retrieve, associate and tag the media. If there is no information about a particular file, you can enter it yourself. Sometimes entering just the name of a clip will be enough to allow the program to find the rest of the related information.
Once all your files are set here, pat yourself on the back. You’ve just created your first media database. We don’t want to stop here though, so let’s go on to the next step. Most programs (including Media Monkey and iTunes) can export information they’ve gathered as a text file. In iTunes, you want to select your audio library (for example). Then under “file” select “export > playlist as text”. This text file is a special kind of file, termed “comma separated values”, meaning there’s a bunch of little bits of data with commas (or sometimes tabs or symbols) between them. This is our “common language”.
Bring the text into a spreadsheet program like Excel or Calc. Upon seeing this file, the program will walk you through an import wizard to ensure correct placement of data.
The Footage Library
Now it’s time for your editing elements. Most editing programs above the basic level will allow for media logging, and will arrange your logs along with timings, format and other clip information, much of which, in these modern times, has already been embedded with the file by the camera itself. You should consult your manual as to the exact process but exporting your logs is usually just as simple as the process explained above. Look for the function to export your “bins”, or “media logs”. Note that the media information exported might be based on your bin display, so make sure you only hide the columns you don’t want to transfer, and make everything you do want visible.
Again, you now have a file format you can import into a spreadsheet for further refinement. Once imported, be sure each sheet is laid out in a similar fashion. You may have to insert or move columns to make them match up properly with the others. You can also add missing information en-masse and add or delete whole chunks of data as needed.
The Final Step
You’re now ready to bring your information into your database. Again, you’ll often find a setup wizard that will walk you through the process. If so it may even create the appropriate data classifications as well. Congratulations, you’re done!
Now that you’ve got your database you should consult the manual as to its operation in order to achieve maximum usefulness. Database programs cover a wide range of uses and operations will vary greatly from program to program. Note however that maintaining an established database can be done one entry at a time, or all at once, by adding a new column on your spreadsheet, then re-importing.
So now that we’ve got a glimpse of the scope of data such a system can process, and gone over what is involved in setting one up, let’s get back to our long-standing question: Is a database for you? To be honest, if handled incorrectly a system like this can be a massive and needless waste of resources. You shouldn’t walk away from this article thinking that you absolutely need a media database for your business; but for widespread data handling their ease of use and wealth of knowledge is insurmountable. Your success will depend on how strict you are with entering data and there will be businesses that will not be able to justify the effort over the advantages such a system provides. However, if you regularly use or sell stock footage, run a series with excessive b-roll, produce the aforementioned documentary, or work in a place where many people have access to the same material, you’ll probably find such a system alleviates a lot of double work and communication problems and is ultimately invaluable.
Sidebar 1: Some Programs to Look Into
As far as spreadsheets go, you really need not look any further than Microsoft’s Excel, or LibreOffice’s Calc. They are some of the most readily available programs with more functionality than you need, and support the popular universally compatible document formats.
Database programs on the other hand are a completely different story. General database programs like Microsoft Access, Google Base and Filemaker Pro offer unparalleled flexibility but are not geared towards multimedia specifically. Avid Interplay and Final Cut Pro Server are just a few of the options available tailored to the film and video realm. Some are meant as a browser for viewing your catalog (DVDpedia, Delicious Library 2, MediaMan). Systems like Plex provide more of a media server/viewing solution. Others will help track the minutiae of production (TeleScope Video Manager). There are also a host of open source and free programs out there (K Database Magic). For more information on that, check out opensourcedigitalassetmanagement.org
Sidebar 2: Throwdown: Database vs. Spreadsheet
A spreadsheet can hold all this data too. It’s a valid argument. Think of a spreadsheet as a giant mall. Everything is organized into stores, then into departments, then categories, price ranges, brands and colors. You could spend hours walking around, comparing information, reading the sides of boxes, etc. just to find the one green tea kettle in the store that’s under thirty dollars with a trigger for the pour spout. Alternatively you could invest in a computer and set it up with Internet service. Then, you could hop online and simply do a search for the same item and have twenty purchase options pop up in an instant, sorted by relevance. That’s your database. The difference is the ability to run searches, queries (compare the cost of shots from day 1 vs. day 2), and reorder the information in any way you want without losing the integrity of the data relationships. Every department can enter their own information about the same clip at the same time, and in the end it’s all in one place. That said, a spreadsheet can be compiled rather simply. An effective database is a constant commitment. (Support your local retailers).
Sidebar 3: Keywords Are Key
If you’re going to use your database to search through your footage, you’ll want to use keywords. This is a column that shortens the description to its most basic elements. So if your shot description says “Playground – MWS Jack and Jill from slide to swings to balance beam” your keywords might be “children, Jack, Jill, playing, playground”. The idea is that if someone were to later need a shot of children, or specifically of Jack, or general shots of playgrounds, this shot would show up in the results. It’s a ‘Catch 22’ really, as the best use of keywords is when you use as few as possible, but you can never have enough. It’s a tough thing to nail down but practice and consistency will yield positive results.
Peter Zunitch is a post-production manager and editor working on every system from 16mm film to Avid Symphony, utilizing many of today’s advanced manipulation and compositing tools.