Are you editing straight off of that portable field drive you used during your shoot? Stop right there and go buy yourself a dedicated edit hard drive. And an extra back-up hard drive while you’re at it, if you plan to keep taking your original drive out into the field with you.
Because like my friend Kate says:
“Sometimes the universe just gives you a roundhouse kick to the face.”
Glass desks, for example, do spontaneously explode, sending hard drives crashing to the floor.
A literal hard drive crash. Aren't you glad you backed up your hard drives?
I give you permission – actually, I implore you – to not skimp on hard drives. Even if your budget is tight.
Think of it as a basic insurance policy for your film.
Who This is For: A Quick Disclaimer
My goal is to give you – an independent documentary filmmaker – practical advice to get you set up adequately – as in, good enough to get the job done, though it wouldn't pass the sniff test for a professional post-production facility.
I'm also assuming that you're bootstrapping your edit, i.e. you're editing in your apartment at 1 a.m., in sweat pants you haven't changed in three days, shooing your cat off the keyboard. And that you're not getting paid to do it.
So consider these to be real world, real budget recommendations based on many years of what has worked for me in home editing circumstances, and what should be do-able for you.
So that you can get this part over with and move on to more interesting things.
How Many Different Drives Do You Need?
You should have at least three external hard drives for your documentary project, each one dedicated to a specific purpose. Two at a bare minimum. Ideally four.
Also known as “footage dump” or transfer drives. Field drives are your nimble fairies – they fly around the world with you and are small enough to fit anywhere. At the end of every shoot day, you transfer (or "dump") the footage from your camera cards onto your field drive(s).
Back-up field drives are also highly recommended (though not always practical or feasible), so that you have at least two copies of your footage at all times. Camera cards don't count as a back-up!
Unless you're strictly making films as a hobby, you should have a dedicated edit drive. We're talking a moose of a drive: big, heavy and reliable. It doesn't hide or pack easily – it will be a big and conspicuous presence on your desk, and permanently tethered to your computer.
It should also have plenty of space. Depending on the length of your film, resolution (as in, you shot in 4K), or number of films you plan to edit, it will likely need to be one with double digit terabytes.
Also, it's ideally a so-called "RAID." A RAID is basically a bunch of drives bundled up as one. Set up in a certain way, it will automatically protect your footage in case one of the drives inside the RAID fails. It's a bit like packing rain gear for a shoot. Chances are low that you'll have a drive failure – but if you do, you'll be able to keep working without any down time.
Back-Up / Project Archive Drive
Finally, don't overlook investing in a back-up edit drive as insurance for your footage. This is especially important if your main edit hard drive isn't a RAID.
Once you've delivered your film, this back-up drive will become your project archive drive.
Your back-up edit drive basically just sits there in your home office until you have a media emergency (like if your main edit drive fails, gets damaged or stolen) or you revive the project years later.
If you're pinched for funds (and who isn't?), you can put your back-up field drive into service as your back-up edit drive, assuming you're done with shooting.
And of course you'll technically have a fourth drive type if you include your computer's internal hard drive. However, you should not be storing your footage or any other media assets there – only your software, your computer's operating system, photo downloads of your niece, etc.
In fact the only film-related files you should keep on your internal hard drive are your fonts, because they won't show up in your projects unless you have them installed on your computer system. That said, it's also a good idea to save any fonts you use in your film on your edit drive, in case you ever hand off your edit project to someone else.
Drive Type Characteristics
Now let's look more closely at the most important characteristics for each type of drive.
Back-Up / Project Archive Drive
Choosing an Edit Drive
When Cost Isn't an Issue, Get RAID
As with most things, you get what you pay for when it comes to hard drives.
My main edit drive is an Other World Computing (OWC) Thunderbay 4 20TB RAID - which cost USD$1,359 at B&H in 2015. It's the black one to the left in the edit drive photo above.
It's an older and smaller version of this 32TB OWC Thunderbay 4 RAID.
BTW don't take this as a recommendation – it's just in case you were curious what I use in practice.
Was it super expensive? Yes. Especially considering I had to pay customs duties to import it into Mexico where I live. But it was worth it. Editing is how I make my living, and the OWC has been totally reliable. Plus it keeps on trucking after five years of almost daily use.
Once I'm done with an edit project, I move all of the footage and files onto a non-RAID archive drive, which is a lot less expensive per terabyte – freeing up space on my edit drive for my next project.
The only performance issue I've ever had with the OWC is when editing with Abobe Premiere CC 2019 (using it with Premiere CC 2018 is fine). Premiere CC 2019 hangs up after nearly everything I do, which means I waste a lot of time staring at the spinning beach ball.
But it's a known issue with Premiere CC 2019 slowing down in conjunction with a particular type of hard drive connection (the one on my model of OWC), not with the drive itself.
Also I can no longer connect the OWC directly to my iMac without an adapter because the OWC only has a Thunderbolt 2 port, which my 2017 iMac does not. But that was a simple fix.
A Middle Option (Cheaper, but Still RAID)
At USD$900, an intermediate option would be something like a 20TB G-Technology G-RAID, like this. There are various models of G-RAID's, differing in size, connection type, and price.
I've worked with plenty of G-RAID's in the past. My only complaint was that they were a bit noisy and ran hot. I haven't used one in a few years, though, so I can't attest to their current quality.
Because a G-RAID is, well, a RAID (more than one drive bundled up in a single device), it gives you that extra data protection in case one of the drives inside the G-RAID fails.
Just note that you have to configure it correctly before you start using it. It won't necessarily give you that data protection straight out of the box.
Less Expensive (non-RAID) Options are Fine Too. Just Always Have a Back-Up.
The good news is that a drive like the OWC Thunderbay 4 RAID will probably be overkill for most of you – unless you're editing a full-length feature, you're editing as part of your business, or you plan on editing multiple projects back-to-back like pro editors do.
Recently, I've also edited off of a much less expensive, non-RAID Seagate BackUp Plus Hub 8TB drive (the white drive on the right in the edit drive photo above). I bought it in a pinch at a run-of-the-mill computer store, without shopping around. It's currently priced around USD$160.
For a while the Seagate performed nobly, but after a couple of years it failed. Had I not had a back-up, the footage and projects on it would have been lost because it doesn't have the same data protection that the OWC Thunderbay RAID does.
I've bought two more Seagate Back-Up Plus 8TB drives since then – they're the easiest to come by where I live – and one of them I couldn't get to work even brand new. It just wouldn't mount. I tried to format it on both a Mac and a PC without success. So I can't say that I'm a big Seagate fan right now.
Takeaway for Buying Budget Hard Drives
If you can only afford something in the lower price range, say less than USD$200, just make sure that you back up all your footage and files on an additional drive before you start to edit.
I'm not going to tell you to go out and buy this brand vs. that. I've used them all. G-RAID, OWC, WD, Lacie, Seagate, CalDigit, etc. Basically, I'm brand agnostic.
Maybe it's because I've been on the receiving end of so many edit hand-offs and they've arrived on every brand of hard drive imaginable.
Or because I live in Mexico, where hard drive selection is not nearly as good as it is in the US. In other words, beggars can't be choosers. So unless I'm willing to pay some serious customs duties to import a drive, I have to make do with what's available in the marketplace.
Just buy an edit drive that's:
Available to you.
Has more than enough space than what you need.
Has the right connections for your computer.
Fits your budget.
And then buy another one. That's your back-up.
That's because less expensive drives are more likely to fail. In that case, the only way to protect your footage and all your hard work is to have a separate back-up drive.
How Many Terabytes Should Your Edit Hard Drive Be?
The general rule is that your footage plus all your files should take up no more than 85% of the space on your edit drive.
Conventional hard drives need a minimum of 15% of free space as so-called “headroom” to be able to move stuff around.
Your project files, scripts, photos, music, voiceover, etc. will take up a tiny amount of hard drive space relative to your footage, so don't worry about estimating the amount of disk space that you'll need for those.
The only way to be sure how much hard drive space you need is to add up the size, in gigabytes or terabytes, of all your footage once you've shot it, plus a good estimate of archival and stock footage you might end up working with.
How to Calculate Amount of Footage on a Mac
And then allow for at least an extra 15% margin on top of that. More margin is fine.
In other words, if your footage takes up 4 terabytes (TB), you'll want an edit drive that's at least 5 TB. If your footage takes up 6 TB, you'll want an edit drive that's at least 8 TB. And so on.
If you're lucky enough to have a bigger drive (like your footage takes up 2 TB and you have a 10 TB drive), you can simply luxuriate in all that free space.
What about Solid State Drives?
Now solid state drives are a slightly different beast… but you don’t really want to talk about that, do you?
Solid state drives are way more expensive and the traditional “spinning disc” drives (which you'll know it is if it's described with that term RPM) will work just fine.
We could have a whole discussion about digital archiving too (and how my film archivist husband actually argues that film is still the most future-proof back-up medium, because all you need to read it is light), but let’s save that for another day.
How to Prep your Edit Hard Drive
Step #1 – Format your new edit hard drive
So you went and bought a new, dedicated edit drive. Excellent! Now here’s what to do next.
Plug the edit hard drive into your computer and power outlet if necessary.
Format it if it's not already formatted for your computer's operating system (Mac or PC).
On the Mac, you can do that in Disk Utility.
Once Disk Utility is open, select the drive you want to format from the list on the left.
- Then click the Erase button on the top bar.
- Give your edit drive a name and make sure the format is set to Mac OS Extended (Journaled).
- Click the Erase button on the bottom right.
That's it. Your edit drive should be empty, ready for you to set up some folders.
Step #2 – Set up an organizational system
Before you copy over any footage from your field drive, it's important to set up an organizational structure on your edit drive. This will prevent your edit from falling into chaos later.
More Guidance to Get Organized
Hop over to this post for a complete guide to walk you through how to organize your documentary edit project.
Step #3 – Transfer footage onto your edit hard drive
Make sure that both your field drive and edit hard drive are connected to your computer. If you have more than one field drive, it doesn't really matter which one you start with.
Finally, you can copy your footage over from your field drive(s) to your edit drive.
To do this, select all your folders with footage in them, drag them, and drop them onto “Camera originals”… and wait.
Be patient – this could take hours depending on the amount of footage you're transferring and the speed of your hard drives and cable connections.
I usually set up my transfers at the end of the day and let them go overnight.
Back-Up Best Practices
Backing Up Your Footage
If you don’t plan on doing any more shooting, you can now start using the drive that was your field drive as your back-up / project archive drive (assuming it's big enough). Just label the outside of it so you know what's on it.
Stash it somewhere safe. That's it! You've got a back-up.
But if you’re planning on putting that field drive back into circulation, you need one more dedicated back-up drive in case your edit drive fails, gets damaged or stolen.
"Wait," you say. "My field drive has a simple stack of footage folders named Day 1, Day 2, etc, while the edit drive now has this fancy, organized folder structure with documents, project files, footage, etc. Which one do I copy over to the back-up drive?"
I recommend that your back-up drive be a copy of your edit drive rather than your field drive (s).
This way, if something happens to your edit drive, you can just connect the back-up drive. Since the file paths are essentially the same, you'll be back in business in no time.
Still Not Convinced You Need a Back-Up Drive?
A brief cautionary tale, in case you're thinking about taking your chances and not investing in one.
I've had an edit drive (one of those tall silver Lacies) fail on me at the worst possible moment. Like 72 hours before I was supposed to export the final version of a film and send it off on a cross-Atlantic flight with the director.
And in that case, no, I didn't have a proper back-up.
The footage was sorta kinda "backed up" – scattered across various field drives, with voiceover files and stock footage tucked away in my cloud storage account.
But it would have been a time-consuming chore to resurrect the project that way, when time is what I had least of.
Not to mention all the non-backed up renders and graphics and text elements I would have lost.
I can only thank my lucky stars that a technician was able to fix the drive on a Saturday morning before our Tuesday deadline. It turns out the power circuitry had failed. But my and the director's nerves were frazzled beyond repair.
I'll never make that mistake again.
Daily Project Back-Ups to the Cloud
Likewise I can't overstate how important it is to get into the habit of also backing up your edit projects. I save these to the cloud at the end of every day of editing.
Depending on the sensitivity of the project, I either use Dropbox (because I find it to be the easiest for syncing across multiple computers) or Sync.com. You could use Google Drive, iCloud, Adobe Creative Cloud, Box. Whatever you’re already comfortable and set up with.
If privacy and security are of utmost importance to you, but you still need the convenience of cloud storage, you might want to consider Sync.com. With Sync.com, your data's fully encrypted end-to-end. Also, Sync.com is based in Canada and therefore must adhere to Canada's more stringent privacy laws, whereas US-based providers like Dropbox are bound by less stringent privacy laws.
A final note about archiving. Because you'll want to be prepared in case you need to access your project months or even years after you've moved on to other things.
Remember that back-up of your edit drive that you made at the beginning of your project? At the end, when you're wrapping up, you'll want to update your Back-Up drive in order to convert it into your Project Archive drive.
That means copying over from your edit drive everything new you've created or downloaded during post-production – all the project files, music, graphics, exports, audio mixes, film masters, etc.
You can even download all documents (like scripts, transcripts, screening notes, etc.) from the cloud and save them to your Project Archive drive.
This ensures that you have a complete archive of your project.