Digitizing a Box of Media Assets

Over the past year there's been much news about the distribution of television programming over the Internet. However, a revolution in the work habits of those who use the 'Net to research stories and collaborate in the making of films and television programming has been less visible.

Over the past year there's been much news about the distribution of television programming over the Internet. However, a revolution in the work habits of those who use the 'Net to research stories and collaborate in the making of films and television programming has been less visible.

I address this subject from the perspective of a writer who is currently caught in the eye of the storm. When I'm very lucky, stories that I research--often over many years--sometimes become feature films or television shows. I learned long ago the value of being a pack rat when it comes to combing through the myriad details from true stories.

When pursuing a story, I make audio recordings of all my interview subjects. (Video is still too intrusive for many people to speak freely.) I take photographs of everyone and everything connected to the story. I acquire personal snapshots, newspaper clips, and other documentary artifacts whenever I can. I pursue small, random scraps of information--fragments that I've learned can later turn into important details.

In theory, most of these story elements can be digitized, cataloged, and easily accessed on a computer. In reality, independents such as myself rarely take the time to deal with computer technology. In my case, I created over the years a kind of freeform depository--the cardboard BANKERS BOX®, available for under $5 at most office supply stores.

Of course, these boxes proliferate. Row by row, floor-to-ceiling, they sprout like kudzu, eventually dominating every available space. The good news is that everything is there (somewhere) . The bad news is... well, just try finding something.


Then, one day, success comes. Now this filing system catches up with you and the crisis begins. A project I've been working on since 1988 was recently sold as a feature film. Part of my task is to supply the screenwriter with anything he needs from my book and its underlying research.

Not only do I have to find and organize all the "stuff" from the tall stack of boxes, but I must make it available to share, not in the same office, but across the country. I'm based in New York City. The screenwriter lives in Los Angeles.

OK, so the inherent weaknesses of my BANKERS BOX® system became alarmingly apparent. I had to change my ways or drown in a sea of minutiae. Fortunately, my timing was right.

When the term "workflow" is used in a publication like TV Technology, it usually means the processes used throughout the media production and post-production chain. But workflow can also be applied to any part of the sequence of events that results in a production--including research, writing and collaboration among members of the creative team.

My project, centering on an old murder case, involves dozens of interviews and hundreds of documents, photographs, charts, and media snippets. Audio formats range from 1/4-inch tape and microcassettes to DAT tapes, Minidiscs and .wav files. Photographic formats include 4 x 5 negatives, APS cartridges, and 35mm prints and slides. Documents range from newspaper articles to books. There is a smattering of 16mm news film from the 1960s.

I began by emptying the BANKERS BOXES® and organizing the media by type and priority. First, I tackled the images. I used an Epson Perfection 4180 photo scanner to create TIFF and JPEG images of the visual media. Then I organized them by category and folder on my Apple iMac. This way I could create slide-shows for groups, and quickly find photos of any individual or story element.

Apple's "Spotlight" feature, which arrived last year with the current version of OS X, expedites my ability to locate any media file--it has become essential to making this system work. Spotlight not only reads the metadata on any of the images in any folder, it searches large numbers of text documents in seconds.

Audio was the most time consuming. I decided to digitize everything. Armed with a "Jurassic Park" of ancient audio playback devices, I used CD Spin Doctor, developed by Sonic Solutions, to transcode the audio into AIFF sound files. From these large, high-quality master files, I made compressed .mp3 copies in mono so that others involved in the production could easily listen to them on their home computers, iPods, or other media players.

Because many of the files were too large to e-mail, I used Apple's .Mac service to make the .mp3 files, photos and other documents available for download. Included with the $99-a-year Apple service is a virtual "iDisk" that includes a public folder.

Once my collaborators have my iDisk password, they easily download any posted file. This has turned out to be a very powerful collaboration tool, enabling people to work together anywhere in the world.

I have gradually turned the BANKERS BOXES® into virtual containers of data that can be easily moved around over the Internet. Though I'm careful about making backups, it is good to know that others also have copies of important data.

Once I created this large "bucket" of data, I then addressed how to access it away from home base. At first, I just assumed one way: a laptop. Then I had an "ah-ha" moment. If the television is migrating to the video iPod, why can't all the multimedia elements of the production also go there?

Obviously, the .mp3 audio files were ideal for iPod listening--we were already doing that. But what about the mixed bag of photographs and video images? Would huge .tiff files work on an iPod without a lot of time-consuming manipulation? They work perfectly!

While far more expensive portable media players require resizing and downsizing of photos, the iPod--combined with Apple's iTunes and iPhoto--does it automatically. Simply drag and drop the picture to iPhoto and on the next update, it appears on the iPod--no conversions or hassle. Each photo just appears, whether as part of an electronic contact sheet or a slide show.

The video iPod supports H.264 and MPEG-4 video formats. Quicktime 7 Pro does an easy conversion with a menu option to automatically create an .m4v file containing H.264 video and AAC audio optimized for the iPod. With an A/V cable, video and photos can be displayed on TV set with a video input.

While on location, the video iPod allows quick access to a range of research materials without the need of a bulky laptop. The image quality is surprisingly good and the software even allows viewing images of interview subjects when listening to their words. A very powerful research tool!

Moving forward-on this project and future ones I undertake-every research element will begin in the file domain. When possible, all new video and audio will be recorded as files. Digital photography has all but replaced film, while scanners are now so cheap and easy to use that they greatly reduce paper. Metadata now gets its due respect, especially since it has become as easy to maintain as checkbook balancing.

Just as the Internet is becoming an important new distribution medium for finished television programs, it also works equally well behind the scenes for creating new works. Cheap and simple Web tools allow easy collaboration among creative workers regardless of location.

Without nostalgia, I look forward to the day when I can say a final goodbye to the venerable BANKERS BOX®. No good old days here! There's a better way now, and I can't wait to leave the old "workflow" behind.