Speed Up Your Workflow with Good File Naming Practices
File naming conventions are the unsung heroes of the video production industry. Tireless workers, striving to bring order into chaos, and law to the wild west. Or at least to avoid 30s-cut_final_final_no-seriously_final.mov. Don’t believe me? Read on.
A wrong file name can wreak havoc, not only internally, but amongst your audience as well
The basics behind a file naming convention and why it’s important
The elements that go into a file naming convention
How a large media conglomerate like Disney does it
Factoring in dates
What to avoid when naming files
Naming internal assets—track-based NLEs and FCPX
Small Mistake, Huge Price
In early August of 2017, German fans sat down to watch the latest episode of Twin Peaks. They were eagerly awaiting Episode 13 of the David Lynch mystery thriller, entitled “What Story is That, Charlie?” The audience was a bit confused when Episode 14 “We Are Like the Dreamer” aired instead. Sky Deutschland issued an apology and quickly removed the episode from Sky On Demand, but spoilers were already spreading like wildfire across social media.
The mistake? An incorrectly named file.
The end of the world
It’s funny to think that such a small misstep can have such large ramifications. It’s not, however, the first time that a few numeric characters have caused a disruption. Remember the Y2K bug? So much anarchy resulted from the fact that computer programs were using two numbers instead of four when referencing the year. In the end, the United States reportedly spent $150 billion to correct these programming errors. A costly mistake that could’ve been avoided with some forethought. So while you might have thought too much about file naming conventions, maybe it’s time you did?
While a lack of organization and proper file-naming in the world of video editing will not likely cause mass chaos, it could easily lead to the airing of another incorrect episode. Without your own file naming standard in place, you’ll most likely run into problems when working with other editors, archiving a project, or opening up old projects.
It’s easy to misplace or overwrite a file when you aren’t keeping track of the assets. To avoid these issues, it’s imperative to get file naming conventions set in place early on. Let’s have a closer look at what this entails.
The Importance of Organization and Categorization
When I talk about file naming conventions, I’m not limiting the definition of the word ‘file’ to source footage files coming out of a camera. It’s important to look at the project as a whole, including the names of folders, media drives, project files, bins, sequences, exports, and archival material. However, developing a standard for naming source files and folders will help drive how to name all of the other assets that need naming.
Where do you start?
So, when organizing media assets, how do you decide what to name them? The categories and identifiers used can vary widely. The type of project you’re working on will generally dictate which categories are most important. Project sizes and types can obviously differ vastly, so you’ll want to ask yourself a few questions before getting started. Here are a few ideas.
What is the subject matter?
How many cameras?
How large is the editorial crew?
What is the genre of the project?
What is the format of the source material you are editing?
Does the production company and/or client already have a file naming standard?
Did your client provide a deliverables document?
Will there be a digital intermediate?
Are you working with proxy files?
Is the DP/Camera Operator naming files in-camera?
What is the backup system?
How will you archive the project?
These questions will help narrow down the categories so you can find the ones that are most important for your particular project.
Let’s say, as an example, that a documentary crew is shooting an interview with a photographer for a series called Behind the Lens. This is the first shoot for the series, and they don’t have a file naming standard in place yet.
They’re using two cameras for the interview, the first camera on a close-up and the second on a medium shot. The medium shot has an audio feed running to it from a shotgun microphone, while the close-up camera has an audio feed running from a lavalier microphone that’s attached to the subject.
There are a number of possible categories to select from this particular shoot, including—
Depending on how the crew and the editorial team wants to handle the footage, the file name could end up looking something like this.
Weddings and events
Or how about a file naming standard for a wedding and event videographer? Let’s say I have a crew of three videographers filming a wedding. Camera one is the wide shot, two is the close-up, and three is the artsy slow-motion cam. All three of these camera operators will be shooting at both the ceremony and the reception. Here are a few possible categories to use:
To avoid having extremely long filenames, I could take any of these categories and put them as the name of the folders instead. For example, I could just use the shoot date for my folders, and keep the couple’s last name in the filename. Here’s what one of our wedding files could look like—
The beauty of this filename is that it’s short and sweet, and will be much easier to work within an editing program. Since I won’t be sharing these files with other editors, I don’t need to worry about listing the actual shot composition of each camera. I can simply memorize the fact that camera one is my wide shot, two is my closeup, and three is my slow-motion. Having that extra category in the name could make it a little too busy.
A filename on a narrative project could look similar, instead utilizing take and scene categories. Again, it’s all very specific to the context of the project, and the questions above will help guide you to the most important categories and identifiers.
Professional File Naming Conventions
Think of a file naming standard like a language. If you don’t speak the language, you can get lost. Lost from your files, that is. Understanding the nomenclature and identifiers of good file naming conventions is imperative for navigating a production pipeline.
Larger production companies and distributors will almost always have their own standards for naming files, with documentation included so partners can quickly learn the language. Disney is a perfect example.
Organization is obviously very important for a large company like Disney. The Disney ABC Television Group has a five-page document entitled DATG File Naming Convention & Minimum Metadata Requirements. The purpose of the document is to “allow for a common understanding of the filename elements among all users.”
Disney’s filenames are composed of a string of very specific descriptive elements. Below is a list of these elements and their corresponding definitions.
Disney calls these descriptive elements tokens. Tokens are essentially metadata elements that make up the structure of the filename. Each token is composed of TokenIdentifiers and TokenCodes.
The Token Identifier is a one-letter code that represents the corresponding descriptive element. When creating the filename the token identifiers must follow the order below.
The Token Code is a codified representation of the metadata forming the descriptive element. It is often an abbreviation of the standardized metadata terms. In some cases, it can be a number representing a unique identifier within an associated database record, or the episode number of the content of the file. Here are some examples of Token Codes.
Disney’s file names can vary depending on the workflow and the final destination of a file. For instance, here are two duplicates of the same file, one labeled for broadcast and one for archive. Notice that the file for archive requires more tokens, making it easier to find later.
As you can see, Disney has set a standard that achieves its mission of “allowing understanding among multiple users.” This is really the whole reason to set up a file naming convention—so that everyone understands the workflow.
As you are well aware, there are myriad ways to write a filename. This makes readability a very important aspect of a file name. Ideally, you want your asset names to be both human and machine-readable.
Human-readability is especially important if you’re working with a large editorial team. An assistant editor jumping into a project will be able to get up and running quickly if the files are named accordingly. A good file-naming standard can also help editors opening up old archived projects. If an editor has been using the same naming standard with previous projects, then time won’t be wasted searching for files or reverse engineering a workflow.
Subtle changes to a file name can make it more human-readable, such as adding hyphens between identifiers. Take the date category as an example. Leading a filename with the date is a very popular method since it allows you to quickly sort your assets chronologically. As you can see below, simply adding hyphens to the date will make it much easier to read.
The date category is actually a great example of why having a standard is so important. Even though the example above is more readable with hyphens, it could still be misinterpreted depending on what country you live in. A European (and most of the rest of the world) would read 01-12-2001 as December 1st, 2001, whereas a person from the United States would see it as January 12th, 2001.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) saw this problem and introduced ISO 8601 to combat these misinterpretations in the world of data communication. ISO 8601 is a set of standards regarding how date and time information are represented in data. With 8601, date and time values are ordered from the largest to the smallest unit of time: year, month (or week), day, hour, minute, second, and a fraction of second.
Basic Format for a calendar date
Extended Format for a calendar date
Now everyone can understand the date, no matter where they’re from.
In addition to the human-readability factor, ISO 8601 is also very machine friendly. The lexicographical order of the representation thus corresponds to chronological order. Again, this allows dates to be naturally sorted by file systems. The standard also requires a minimum four-digit year, which will avoid any future Y2K-ish problems.
Pro Tip—If you decide to begin your file names with ISO 8601 dates (which I recommend you do), be sure to include the leading zeros for months and days, otherwise everything can quickly get out of order.
Things to Avoid When Selecting a Filename
While it’s convenient to have human-readable file names, it’s imperative to have machine-readable ones. For this reason it’s good to understand how your files are being handled by the software applications and operating systems you use.
I’m sure you’ve heard many times over not to use special characters in your filenames. This is mainly due to the fact that some of these characters can tell software programs or operating systems to perform various functions, so it’s best to avoid them. Here’s a list of things to avoid (according to Apple) when attempting to create a cross-platform friendly filename.
It’s also important to be aware that certain file formats have specific folder directory structures and naming standards. Changing the names of these can lead to major problems as these file naming conventions help your software applications import and handle the native files correctly. If this is the case, simply create your own directory of folders utilizing your naming convention and store the source material there.
When sharing files cross-platform, some operating systems will append file name extensions for compatibility purposes. This can be disastrous for an editor, opening up a relinking nightmare the likes your workflow has never seen before. Also, be aware that changing the name of any reference or source files halfway through an edit can also quickly lead to a relinking nightmare.
Last but not least, do some brief research into how the format of your source material works in your particular NLE. For example, you can’t simply drag and drop CinemaDNG folders into the Adobe Premiere Pro Project panel. You have to use the Media Browser to select the folder, which will then combine the source images into a single video file upon import. Knowing this specific information upfront will help guide decisions for your file naming choices.
When to Rename Files
The real key to keeping things organized is to develop a file naming standard as early as possible. If you want to keep track of everything and avoid wasting time, you’ll need to think about these issues before you put your hands on any files. And especially before you start to cut anything. Trying to organize and rename files in the midst of an edit can be a much more intensive and tedious process, leading to lost or overwritten media.
There are a number of steps in the production process where you will have an opportunity to name or rename your media assets. One of the first places is on set, just before the shoot. Your DP or Camera Operator can sometimes input specific information in the camera, including filenames as well as additional metadata information. If you have this ability, it’s smart to utilize this feature.
If the format allows it, you can always batch rename source files and folders directly after offloading to a work drive. Again, this is if the format allows for renaming the source files. Many do not, so pay attention to this fact.
Naming Internal “Assets”
Once you import your media into your editing software, you can change the name again via the reference files in the program, but I don’t recommend this as this can quickly lead to confusion if media goes offline.
Depending on which NLE you use, there are different ways you can go about naming internal “assets” such as bins, keywords, etc.
For track-based NLEs like Premiere Pro and Avid Media Composer, a good practice is to put your files into bins. I often name the bins similar to the folders housing the source clips on the local drive.
A simple numerical system will do, with the most important assets having a bin with a lower number. Once again, the project will generally drive the names of the categories. Here’s a sample bin structure for the Behind the Lens project I mentioned earlier.
Final Cut Pro X
FCP X is heavily driven by metadata and in lieu of bins, uses Keyword and Smart Collections as a method to organize media. Since the same clip, or even parts of a clip, can have multiple keywords attached to it, you will want to think of a naming convention based on how you might search for media.
Using the wedding example from above, a clip of the bride and groom walking down an aisle could be tagged “Ceremony,” “Bride” and “Groom.” You might even have a keyword “Money Shots” for when they exit the ceremony.
Or, let’s say editing a recruiting video for a hot New York City startup, where the HR executives were interviewed. You might have keywords for both “HR” and “Office Life.”
Get your file naming conventions in place early
Whatever standard you choose, the best method is to get your file naming standard set in place early. Then remain as consistent as possible from there. If you do the majority of organization and research upfront, your life will be much easier down the road.
Think of it as a retirement plan. If you start saving early, you’ll do well. If not, you’ll find yourself working for the rest of your life.