It's an inconvenient truth: knowing how to organize your footage for editing is an essential skill if you're going to edit your documentary film all by yourself. If you ignore this step, you risk later having to hand off your film to a rescue editor – who may have to start from scratch.
I've inherited many projects in my day – films that for one reason or another just weren't working. I am a so-called "rescue editor." The hope was that I could work my magic and save these films from the abandoned docs club ☠️.
And almost always, when I open up these inherited projects, I find that I've inherited a mess. There's no rhyme or reason to where media is stored or how sequences are organized. Whoever was editing before me clearly had no system for how to organize their footage for editing.
And it's made me think that there's a strong correlation between a disorganized project and disorganized thinking about story.
Why it's important to organize your footage for editing
Head off a chaotic mess
The problem is, a lot of people want to jump right into to cutting scenes together. It's understandable – you have to make editing fun somehow.
But here's the reason that I rattle on and on about the importance of organizing your footage before doing anything else:
In all likelihood you WILL end up pulling out your hair at some point during your edit. But if you've laid down a solid organizational foundation, at least it won't be because your project browser looks like a dirty laundry heap, you can't find that gem of a clip, or you can't reconnect media that's gone offline.
Basically, how to organize footage for editing – or even whether to bother much with organizing your media at all – comes down to a very simple question.
Would you rather your edit project look like this?
Or like this?
Avoid the file pile-up
When you're documentary editing, the first order of business should always be how to organize footage for editing. Because you won’t be just dealing with loads of footage.
You’re also going to accumulate tons of other files: including transcripts, scripts, projects, music, and render files.
Plus maybe voiceover, photos, stock footage, sound effects, exports when you need to share a cut with someone, graphics, subtitles, so-called “tech specs”.
The list goes on.
If you don't commit to getting and keeping that huge volume and variety of media into something resembling order over the long haul, your edit will become a big, chaotic mess before you know it.
Just imagine trying to find anything in those heaps of clutter in the messy office in the photo above – say a particular footage clip or music track or piece of scratch narration. Makes you worry that it'll take all day to find the element you're looking for, or at worst that you'll never find it, right?
How to organize footage for editing?
Create a logical, repeatable system
In comparison, now imagine setting off to find a clip in the modern white library in the other photo. While there's actually a lot more material kept there, you don't stress because you know there's a logical system to where everything is kept.
And that logic makes sense to anyone, not just to the person who invented it.
Documentary editing is especially vulnerable to falling into organizational meltdown because of the sheer volume and variety of material compared to other genres of film and video making. The fact that it's unscripted doesn't help either.
That's why it's especially important when editing a documentary to really commit to creating and maintaining an organizational system.
My editing mantra is
SORT BEFORE YOU IMPORT.
Sort before you import
"Sort before you import" means doing a bit of mise-en-scène like chefs do:
Mise-en-scène is about having a container for every ingredient – including empty ones for ingredients you haven't brought in yet – and putting everything in its place and within reach before you start cooking.
That way, once you actually fire up the stove, you can quickly access the tools and ingredients you need in the exact moment that you need them, without having to lose your work rhythm or waste precious mental energy having to search for things.
By keeping the organizational process zen, you reserve your mental energy for the creative process of editing.
It also means not wasting time on detective work trying to locate lost files later on in the process. You invest a bit of extra time in the beginning so that you can be a ton more efficient later.
And inevitably, this having to do detective work always seems to arise when time pressure is most intense. "Sort Before You Import" heads off these stressful situations.
Other reasons why you should organize your footage for editing
Save time and money during the finishing stage of your edit
Take it from someone who's been cutting documentaries for over a decade – if you skip the organizing stage because you’re tempted to just jump in and start editing, you're likely creating much bigger hassles for future you.
It could also interfere with or even derail your creative process.
It’s also about looking weeks or even months ahead, toward the final stages of editing your film.
Once you’re done editing your film you’re going to hire professionals to “finish” it, assuming that eventually you’re going to want to submit your film to festivals or deliver it to be aired on television.
This generally means sending out your project to a sound designer, an audio mixer (often the same person as the sound designer), and a colorist.
The more organized you are throughout your edit, the easier this hand-off process will be. The same goes if at any point you decide to hand off your project to another editor.
Plus the precious money you pay these pros will go more towards their creative input, rather than them trying to decipher your organizational system (or lack thereof).
You might even get a nice note of appreciation, like this one I got from an audio mixer:
Thank you for being so organized! It makes it possible for me to dedicate time to the mix vs sorting/organizing material... 🙂
Luke Rohwer, Acacia Recording
Finishing your film probably will mean hiring an online editor too – though daring souls may try their hand at this themselves.
As opposed to the offline edit, which is the stage of putting your film together from scratch, the online edit is an under-the-hood technical clean up of your film, making sure that it complies with technical requirements (which I like to think of as all those super minute details that, if not done correctly, will get your film rejected by broadcasters on technical grounds, and yet are practically imperceptible to the average viewer!)
A complete system for organizing your footage for editing
It starts with your hard drive
I think of my hard drive organization as my first line of defense against that dark disorganization spiral that can befall even the most virtuous editor.
So I want to give you a quick run-through of what my editing hard drive looks like from the inside, i.e. how I organize all the folders at the Finder level on my computer each time I start a new documentary project.
Finder-level folders for all your footage and files
At the top level of my hard drive, I create a folder with the film project's name.
Or a client's name, if I do multiple projects for them – then I make a folder for each individual film project inside of the client folder.
Then inside the project folder, I group my elements like this:
If ten folders seems like a lot, just remember our mise-en-scène.
Just as there are big bowls for your main ingredients and a medium bowl for your chopped onions, there are also little bowls for oils, garlic, your salt and pepper, etc. Plus empty bowls in anticipation of ingredients you haven't even brought in yet.
Everything has its place, no matter how little of it you plan to use.
Altogether, those ten folders (plus one more level of sub-folders nested inside) are designed to catch every possible type of file that you might create or bring in over the course of editing a documentary.
That way, once you’re cooking, you won’t have to stop and think, “where do I save this kind of file?” Its folder will already exist.
How the Dark Disorganization Spiral Begins
Now imagine the opposite scenario.
If you're in edit flow, and the right folder doesn't already exist, chances are you'll be tempted to skip the step of making a new folder, figuring out where it logically belongs and what name to give it.
And so the new file will go into an unsorted heap that you'll "organize later," but never actually will. And so the dark disorganization spiral begins.
Deeper into the Finder folders
After you've set up Levels 1 and 2, you're going to nest additional folders inside each group.
In the Finder, it'll end up looking like this. Pictured here is the set of folders I have nested inside the "Media" group.
Why are the folders numbered?
I find that it's helpful to have the folders ordered in a way that aligns with the stages of the edit process. If you don't number them, they'll just appear alphabetically, which to me feels a bit random. I like to reinforce the sequence of the workflow whenever possible.
Of course you can customize the folders according to what makes sense to you. You can pare them down, too, if ten folders feels like overkill. I'm simply sharing the system that I have refined over many years of working on professional projects.
The ultimate system for how to organize your footage for editing
The complete run-down
Here's the complete run-down of two versions: a simpler Essentials version (good for web projects) and a Professional version (anticipating all the things that might come into play with a project for TV broadcast or festival submission).
No idea how to organize your footage for editing? This folder set includes the absolute necessities to organize your edit hard drive, and nothing more. It's meant for you if you're a beginner or you just prefer to keep things uncomplicated.
Toggle down on each folder to read more about what goes inside.
If you're like most people, you keep documents like scripts, transcripts, logs, project notes, etc in the cloud. So you might never need the 01 Documents folder.
Still, it's here in case you like to keep local copies for working offline.
It's also here if you ever hand off your project to another editor. You can download documents to this folder so you don't have to worry about the hassle of sharing cloud permissions.
And once you've wrapped up your edit, it's a good idea to save all your documents here so you'll have a complete project archive.
Whenever you do a "Save As" and a program prompts you to decide where to save a project, 02 Project Files is the place.
In the name of keeping it simple, I only included Premiere. But you may add or modify the folders inside 02 Project Files depending on whatever edit software or other helper apps you might use.
2. Setting Project Auto Save Location
Also, when you create a new project and Premiere launches a window called "New Project," you'll want to click on the "Scratch Disks" tab and set Project Auto Saves to 02 Project Files. You can also change this setting on an existing project by going to the File menu at the top, then down to Project Settings > Scratch Disks.
03 Media is where you'll put all your footage and other media assets to use in your edit.
Hang in there with me, there's a lot to go over in this folder.
- 01 Footage is where you'll put your original footage. Photos that you shot that you want to use in your film can go in here too.
- 02 Audio is in case you recorded field sound on a separate recorder. If you didn't, just leave this folder empty or delete it.
- 03 Voiceover. If you record voiceover, save it here. If not, don't worry about this folder. You can leave it empty or delete it. You'll notice that there are two folders inside 03 Voiceover: Scratch (temporary narration you record while you're editing), and Final (for when you've locked your edit and you go into a studio to record professional quality narration).
- 04 Graphics. These may be graphics that are provided to you, or ones that you create. They can be full-screen (like opening titles, a map, an animated sequence – like say you want to make a visual out of text messages or tweets). Or they can be elements that go on top of video, like lower thirds.
- *05 Stock and Archival. This is the place to save stock and archival footage that you bring in from outside sources. Photos that come from other sources can go in here too.
- *06 Music
- *07 Sound Effects. So often I hear from people editing their own films that they don't plan to do any sound design. IMO this is the element of editing that is most often overlooked! Even on the smallest projects, I add sound effects – these can include synthetic sounds (like the hits and whooshes you hear in film trailers) as well as ambient sound (think traffic noise) and foley (specific sounds like footsteps or paper rustling, re-created in a controlled setting to simulate naturally occurring sounds that might be missing in your edit).
2. Labeling Media Sources that Aren't Yours
*An important thing to note about the 05 Stock and Archival, 06 Music and 07 Sound Effects folders. This is most likely media that you're bringing in from outside sources – so inside of those numbered folders, you'll want to create a separate folder with the name of each source.
So let's say you downloaded a clip from the Screenocean archive. Make sure to create a Screenocean folder inside of 05 Stock and Archival.
Or you downloaded music tracks from Free Music Archive. You'll create a Free Music Archive folder inside of 06 Music.
Sound effects from Soundsnap? You'll create a Soundsnap folder inside of 07 Sound Effects.
You get the idea.
This way, when you finish your edit and you want to properly license all the stock footage, music, etc that you used but don't own the rights to, you'll know what library or archive each clip came from. Otherwise it's really easy to lose track!
3. Setting Location of Scratch Disks
Finally, when you create a new project and Premiere launches a window called "New Project," you'll want to click on the "Scratch Disks" tab and set the following options to 03 Media:
- Captured Video
- Captured Audio
- Video Previews
- Audio Previews
- CC Libraries Downloads
- Motion Graphics Template Media
You can also change these settings on an existing project by going to Premiere's File menu at the top of your screen, then down to Project Settings > Scratch Disks.
Anytime you want to export a cut to share with someone (like say to upload it to Vimeo), this is where you'll save it.
Also, if you end up hiring professionals like a motion graphics artist, audio mixer or colorist to work on your film, they'll ask you for certain exports when you hand off your project to them. You don't have to know what OMF's, XML's, and reference videos are. Just save them here.
Congratulations! You made it to the finish line!
This is where you'll save the final version of your film, aka master. This is also where you can save the files given back to you by your audio mixer (the stereo mix and "stems") and colorist (the final color graded video).
The Professional version is designed to be a comprehensive file sorting system for TV broadcast and festival-level projects. I've refined it over more than a decade of working professionally as an editor.
Maybe you already have your own system for how to organize your footage for editing, and you just want to compare how someone else does it.
With toggles collapsed, you can see the list of groups that go inside a film project's folder in the Finder on your edit hard drive.
Expand each toggle to see additional folders nested inside and read about what types of files you should save in each folder.
There are a lot of juicy workflow tips in here so they're worth diving into!
01 Documents is the place for everything from transcripts, to scripts, to technical specifications provided to you by a network, to work contracts if your project is for a client.
Now chances are you'll be saving most of these documents to the cloud, so many of these folders may stay empty during your edit.
It's helpful though to download and organize all of a film project's related documents into these folders when you're handing off to another editor, or when you're preparing to archive the project.
02 Project Files represents your all-important creative work in post-production.
Every time you do a "Save As" in any program, whether it's Premiere Pro or a helper app you only use once during your edit, this is the location where you'll save that project file.
When setting scratch disks, this is also where to tell Premiere to put Project Auto Saves.
In the organize bundle, I've included folders for commonly used Adobe Creative Cloud applications, as well as Red Giant's Plural Eyes, which I use for syncing up audio recorded with a separate sound device. Automator, a free application on all Macs, is in there too. (Like I said, I'm going for comprehensive with the Pro version.)
You may add or subtract from this list depending on what applications you plan to use.
Aside from the most obvious video related programs (Premiere, After Effects, Audition, even Photoshop), I sometimes use InDesign for subtitles. You can read more about that by toggling down on 04 Text Elements. I rarely use Illustrator but it's in there just in case. You might also be a fan of Adobe Prelude or Edit Ready for prepping media.
I've included Automator in this list because sometimes it comes in handy for renaming files, and you can save the Automator workflows you create to use in the future. For example, you might want to append the name of a music or photo library to new assets you bring in (see 06 Music for more about this) in order to keep tabs on who owns the rights in case you decide to license them.
You might have noticed that Davinci Resolve is missing from this list. I love Davinci Resolve and use it for color correction (more and more I'm even toying with using it for editing), but where it saves your projects, no one knows. In other words, it doesn't give you any say over the file path when you do a Save As, which is why I don't have a folder for it. (If you're really ambitious, you can go into Preferences > Media Storage, then click on the User tab and Select "Project Save and Load," and only then will it give you the option of specifying a project back-up location... see what I mean about Resolve being coy?)
FYI when I'm migrating a project from Premiere to Davinci, I save the .xml file in 08 Exports>07 Color Correct-outbound.
03 Media is your footage vault.
01 Camera Originals – All your raw footage goes here.
02 Transcoded Footage – This is the place to save any proxies. Like say you shot in a high resolution like 4K but your system can only smoothly handle editing in HD (1920x1080). You'd direct those proxy files to be saved here.
03 Audio – Where to save any sound you recorded in the field. Note that other sound elements like voiceover, music, and sound effects have their own folders.
04 Stock – This is the place to save stock and archival footage. Inside, you'll need to create a separate folder for each third-party owner/collection (for example: Getty Images, Pond 5, Artlist.io, cell phone videos given to you by your film's subject, old news clips from a local TV station, etc). Basically any moving image media that you don't own the rights to.
The same goes for 05 Photos.
06 Voiceover – There are two more folders nested inside here: one for Scratch (rough narration you record during your edit) and Final (once the script is locked and your narrator goes into a studio to record).
07 Reference Videos – Is where you can stash videos for inspiration and examples to follow.
2. Setting Location of Scratch Disks
When setting scratch disks, this is also where I direct Premiere to save Captured Video and Audio, Video and Audio Previews, CC Libraries Downloads, and Motion Graphics Template Media.
04 Text Elements is intended for both text source files (for example, a list of credits you type up in Google Docs, then download to this folder); as well as text image files that you create in programs other than Premiere and then import into your edit project.
It can also include pre-made elements (like viewer advisories) that are provided to you.
Now you might be asking yourself why I'd go to all the trouble of creating text image files outside of Premiere when you can just make text inside of Premiere, without creating loads of new files.
Well, sometimes (especially on longer projects) I prefer to make text elements in other programs like InDesign, Photoshop and/or After Effects because those apps give me more creative control and greater ease making global changes.
For example, if I'm working on a film that's really heavy on subtitles, and the style isn't already set in stone, I prefer to use InDesign to make subtitles and export them to Premiere as standalone .png files.
This way, if later on I want to change the font or any other stylistic aspect of the subtitles, InDesign lets me make global changes to all of my subtitles at once.
I re-export all the subtitles as a batch (taking care that all the file numberings stay the same, which, admittedly, can be tricky) – and Premiere automatically reconnects to the updated files.
Not so in Premiere – you'd have to update the font separately on every subtitle card, which, depending on the number of subtitles you have, could take hours.
You can check out a YouTube tutorial on using InDesign to make text elements here. In the example, he's using InDesign to create lower thirds.
If you don't plan on making text elements like subtitles, titles, lower thirds, explainer text, or credits in your project, just keep these folders empty. Or delete the Text Elements folder altogether. It might also make more sense to you to save elements like these in the 05 Graphics folder, and that's fine.
01 Brand and Channel Elements are things like logos, bugs, "idents," and fonts that are provided to you by a specific media outlet or client. If your film hasn't been commissioned yet or isn't for a brand, then you'll probably keep this folder empty.
02 Placeholder Graphics. These are working drafts of graphics you might create as you're working out an animation's concept and timings. Eventually you'll finalize the placeholders enough to send them out to a motion graphics artist as reference videos (see 08 Exports > 06 Graphics - outbound.)
03 Animations. This is the place for final versions of any opening titles, maps, 3D models, fancy photo treatments, graphics, etc. Basically any element created in After Effects or similar motion graphics program.
04 Other VFX. VFX is short for visual effects. These are stylistic visual elements like film artifacts (burns, leaks, leaders); alpha mattes; textures; and gradients that you can use to make transitions and other layered effects. If you are looking for some quality VFX to play with, try Luxury Leaks by Josh Enobakhare.
05 Downloaded Templates is where I save motion graphics project templates that I've bought and downloaded from sites like Video Hive (my go-to) and Motion Array. Also, you may want to create a folder called "Reusable Assets" at the top level of your edit drive, and save a copy of these templates there (along with Other VFX, music, and sound effects) so that you can easily find them to re-use in future projects.
If you downloaded the Organize bundle, when you open up the 06 Music folder you'll just see a single folder called DUPLICATE THIS FOLDER THEN RENAME FOR EACH COMPOSER OR MUSIC COLLECTION.
The idea is that as you progress in your edit, you’ll start bringing in music from different sources. Some tracks you might pull from one of the many online paid music libraries like Premium Beat, Audio Network, Music Bed, Epidemic Sound, Audio Jungle, or Artlist.
Other songs you might copy over from a CD or your iTunes collection (in which case, you probably don’t have the rights to use them in the final film – but you need them for inspiration, right?).
Each time you bring new music into your project, ask yourself if you’ve already brought in music from that particular source.
If not, duplicate that folder that says "duplicate me" first, then rename it with the name of the music track’s source, be it a library or a composer or Lila Downs.
This is important to do because oftentimes, the file names of the tracks themselves don’t include the critical source information – i.e. who owns the rights to the music.
Your future self will thank you when it comes time to sorting out and paying for music licensing – because you’ll know which music track belongs to which library or composer, and whether or not you have (or can afford to buy) the rights to license it.
The 07 Sound Effects folder follows the same logic as the 06 Music folder. Though when it comes to sound effects, keeping them sorted by source has more to do with staying organized than with anticipating licensing issues down the line.
Also it's helpful to organize them by sound effects collection if you find a particular one more useful than others and want to remember where to look in the future.
FWIW I’ve never been asked to document the sound effects I’ve used, though I am always required to document music tracks (who's the composer, publisher, and owner).
Think of the 08 Exports folder as your outbound traffic.
- 01 Audio for Transcripts - Audio mp3's you export and upload to a transcription service like Rev, Speechmatics or Trint.
- 02 Review Cuts - compressed exports (most likely h.264 or .mp4 format) you upload to Vimeo, frame.io, Dropbox, Wipster, etc. so you can share your work-in-progress with other people.
- 03 Screengrabs and Stills – Self-explanatory, no?
- 04 Promo Selects – Some media outlets will ask you for a promo selects reel. Ask the appropriate outlet contact for requirements before you export.
- 05 Social Media – Clips you make for social media.
- 06 Graphics - outbound – Contracting a motion graphics artists to do an animation? You'll need to send them a compressed reference video (ask them for their specific preferences before you export). This is so they can see the concept, get an idea of the surrounding context, and calculate the exact timings. This folder is also the place to gather any examples you want them to follow, or assets (footage, photos, documents, fonts) you want them to include in their composites.
- 07 Color Correct - outbound – If you send your film out to a colorist, they'll ask you for an XML and a compressed reference video. Ask them for their specific preferences before you export.
- 08 Audio Mix - outbound – If you send your film out to an audio designer/mixer, they'll ask you for OMF's and a compressed reference video. Ask them for their specific preferences before you export.
The most common issues that need fixing during an online edit are:
- light flicker
- low-light shots that have a lot of ugly noise
- shots whose frame rates need to be converted in order to match the overall film's frame rate
- and wobbly shots that need stabilization.
Back in the day, I used After Effects to tackle these issues, which meant a tedious process of round-tripping clips out of Premiere (PR) over to After Effects (AE) and back again.
Hence the folder names PR2AE and AE2PR.
Truth be told, I don't use these folders much any more because a) without leaving Premiere I can stabilize thanks to the miraculous Warp Stabilizer as well as frame rate convert using the Twixtor plug-in (see below).
And b) DaVinci Resolve Studio (the paid version) de-flickers and de-noises shots beautifully. It does a crack job of stabilizing shots too. Even better and faster than Premiere's Warp Stabilizer.
So 09 Online is like the closet with all the tech junk, most of it obsolete.
But if you're not yet using DaVinci and you're doing your online edit, you just might need the PR2AE and AE2PR folders.
03 Frame rate converted. The only tedious clip exporting and re-importing I still have to do is in the name of frame rate conversion.
Let's say your overall film's frame rate is 29.97fps, but you've got a bunch of archival shots in your film whose frame rate is 25fps. You could leave them be, but you'd risk your film getting rejected by quality control for jitter.
My technique is to pop on RE:Vision Effect's Twixtor plug-in, do a bit of 4th grade math, and export the "Twixtor'ed" clip out as a new clip. This folder is where I save those frame rate converted clips before re-importing them back into Premiere and replacing the clips in my sequence.
10 Final Film is the place for files related to the final finishing stage:
- 01 Color Correct-inbound – If you sent your film out to a colorist (or if you did the color correction yourself and "round-tripped" it from Premiere to Davinci Resolve and back again to Premiere), this is where to save the full resolution, color graded and legalized video (note that the audio in this file won't be your final mix).
- 02 Audio Mix-inbound – If you sent your film out to an audio mixer (or if you did the mix yourself and "round-tripped" it from Premiere to Pro Tools and back again to Premiere), this is where to save all the final audio mix "stems."
- 03 Conformed Masters – Once you've gotten your final color graded video and audio mix stems, you'll marry them up together in a final master sequence in Premiere and output it. This is your final film, aka conformed master! Now if you're delivering for broadcast TV or a festival, you'll probably have to deliver at least two versions: a Texted version with the stereo mix, and a Textless version with separate audio stems (often referred to as the "clean" version, where all the different audio tracks like voiceover, dialogue, music and sound effects are separated out so that the film can easily be re-edited.)
- 04 Captioning – If you're required to send your film out for closed captioning, this is where that file would go.
- 05 Final for Web – A toast! You finished the ultra marathon that is editing a documentary! Why not export an h.264 for Vimeo to share with all your fans?
An organized editor is a zen editor
A final reminder of the organized editor's mantra: SORT BEFORE YOU IMPORT. That's really the key to how to organize your footage for editing.
The point of all of this organizing is to save your mental energy for building scenes and structuring your story – not waste it looking for lost audio files, music tracks, scripts, or old versions of your edit project.
The rewards of being an organized editor
- Importing a bunch of archival footage? You’ll know exactly where to save it.
- Some footage went offline? No problem, reconnecting is only a minor hassle because all the file paths will follow an obvious logic.
- Moving your edit to another computer? You won’t end up with missing files because you’d saved them to the desktop or some other dark alley on your computer’s internal hard drive.
- Handing off the project to someone else? No sweat. Files are much less likely to get lost or disconnected in the transfer, plus the new editor / colorist / audio mixer will be able to get up to speed quickly because the project is organized in an intuitive and consistent way.
Once you get this media management system in use to organize everything on your hard drive, managing your assets inside your project will be easier too, because your project bins will simply mirror how you have your files organized on your hard drive.
Just remember, the system will only work if you commit to putting all your files in the right place. Not just in the beginning, but every day that you’re editing and creating and acquiring new files and assets.
Make good housekeeping a habit and I guarantee that editing your documentary will go a lot more smoothly.
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