DdTv: Pushing Boundaries, part two
In part one of this series, I discussed the inception of DdTv (watch it here!) and our conceptualization of the broad aims and structure of the show. With those thoughts out of the way and only days to go, we began to work on the technical nitty gritty. Putting up a show with speed and grace was going to take major coordination. (This post is rather technical so I include links that explain everything. Skip over it if you’re not interested in the details. I’d very much appreciate hearing what is helpful to you of this information.)
Our greatest barrier, even in this most technological venture, was the human element. With five, then six, people actively working on the show and each having creative input and a stake in the outcome, our greatest challenge was to cull input and come to consensus as quickly as possible. The first two episodes, which were completed while Emily and Mark were still in New York, were the easiest. We would discuss in general what we wanted the episode to be and I would work in the same room as everyone else; conversations and review sessions happened spontaneously as they were needed. When they left for Thailand our first solution was email; they would send an email with every day’s upload and a general description of what was most important.
Email was a decent solution that allowed us to convey a lot of information and respond whenever convenient. Issues arose, though, whenever there was disagreement or conversation to be had. It’s is an extremely ineffective way to achieve consensus; in fact, one of the most ineffective ways I can think of. It’s a solitary medium written entirely in ones own head to convey ones own opinion; it can take an entire day to discover that everyone in an email thread agrees with you. In our case, one person made a suggestion followed by another person’s opposite suggestion, immediately creating a new issue to debate and solve; it was at times like watching paint dry. In addition, email was messy. In a conversation thread of 100 emails, it was difficult to see quickly what changes were required and what still needed to be done. (It’s my hope that Google Wave will solve these problems.)
Our next solution was to use two Google docs, essentially a wiki: one to log all the footage and another to outline the episodes. Our hope was to roughly chart the next four upcoming episodes, filling in the structure with more and more detail as our concept of the episode evolved. This way, even before a rough cut, we would know what the episode was about and its structure. Footage that had to be shot and unperformed changes were highlighted, and every person typed in their own color. The hope was that it would become a discussion forum as well as a document.
We stuck with email for short-term communication and used docs for outlining, and they proved a more useful way to hold this information. The change allowed us to think ahead and be on the same page, but we were still left with some essential limitations. It was difficult to completely convey what we wanted: one of us would ask for more of a certain feel to the episode and it was difficult to ask clarifying questions and be sure we all understood this request the same way. New cuts of the episodes took more time than such clarification would have.
This brings me to an essential lesson: no matter what your budget, no matter what your time differences, there is no substitute for face to face communication. Instead of removing this requirement, digital technology has made meetings easier. We now have a schedule of video meetings, and are considering technologies like MeBeam and Oovoo. It’s far easier to send an email than plan a conference with many schedules and across time zones, but conference chats force us to think collectively on the same timeline, enabling us to work on multiple episodes at once and think collaboratively.
After communication, ironing down a cogent workflow was our second priority. Mark and Emily shot their video using the $150 Flip Mino camera. The point and shoot simplicity (there are literally about five buttons) made it simple to record while on the go, and the price could not be beat. The Flip’s image quality was incredible for such a small and cheap camera, its files were small for transfer online, and the audio was quite passable; I am now a real supporter of this camera.
Uploading and converting the footage was the most time-intensive process. At first we used an FTP server to put up the footage, but we have switched to Dropbox, an excellent and cheap service. It is a lifesaver that places a folder on everyone’s computer that stays synchronized. Mark and Emily can upload whenever they want, and whenever our computers are on they work to download the files; this means that when we want to look at them to edit, they’re sitting right there.
We learned quickly that the footage had to be renamed. The flip puts out videos numbered sequentially, and we would organize them in folders by upload date, with the result that we would have multiple VID00001’s, which we accomplished using the freeware Name Mangler. In a video project, every file should have a different file name, regardless of whether they are neatly sorted in folders. Remembering that fact will save you hours of pain! We then used Compressor droplets to convert the footage from MPEG-4 into DV, a format that Final Cut Pro can edit (you can put them in your dock and drag files to them to convert!) It took about a half hour for each nightly upload and created some seriously huge files (about six times the size of the originals!)
I edited the footage and uploaded it to FTP or our donated internal Google Video (Apple Compressor has a pretty nifty feature that allows you to export footage directly to an FTP) in files that could be easily viewed on Emily and Mark’s iPhones. I created version numbers and copied over a new version of the sequence in Final Cut Pro. In other words, I uploaded 03_Soliya_1.0, 03_Soliya_1.1, 03_Soliya_1.2, etc. In my editor I had these same versions, so I could always revert back to an older edit (how many times have you heard “let’s just go back to the way it was two cuts ago?”) After Mark and Emily saw it, we discussed as a group.
With this workflow in place, it was easy to add another editor — and we did! The fabulous Raquel Lizardi has already edited two episodes and is working on her third. All we had to do was was to keep our files the same on all the computers, which was easy with Dropbox. As long as the source files had the same names, we could easily share Final Cut Pro documents, only needing to reconnect them to our version of the footage.
Our workflow is running smoothly and we know what we’re doing, so expect to see more compelling DdTv. In my opinion, the best is yet to come. We will follow the Dd team as they set up their Handheld Human Rights and Project Einstein pilot projects in Bangladesh, testing the first truly secure and open source mobile platform connecting students in those areas to ones in the United States. Our upcoming episodes will feature more links to outside content so you can better engage in what’s happening on camera. Continue to follow us to get a better view on Digital Democracy’s fantastic projects!
I’ve discovered a lot of techniques in relating to this new filmmaking world, and I know that one day very soon many of the challenges to which we have cobbled together solutions will come pre-solved. A cheap service where anyone can put up high quality video footage and it can be edited like a wiki, with awesome workflow stuff, is on its way very soon. But there’s no reason to let the perfect become the enemy of the possible; high quality and cheap distributed video production is here!
Products mentioned in this post: Google docs, Flip Mino, Dropbox, Name Mangler. Compressor, Google Video, MeBeam and Oovoo. Oh yeah, and Google Wave.