Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Transcription formatting

For a couple of years around 2005, I made a pretty good living as an interview transcriber for reality shows.   A production assistant would drop of VHS tapes of raw footage at my apartment and pick them up when I was done.  I was paid $1 per minute of footage and at my peak I could get through 1800 minutes in a week.

Here is a transcript style guide I got from an Executive Producer that I carried through that time and introduced to many different companies.  This assumes you are using a word processing program and is most helpful if you are papercutting, but can be used for script synching in Avid as well.  This guide is written in the font you should be using, Courier.

Nice-looking transcripts and transcripts that are easy to work with are often two different things. I'll take the latter. We cut and paste name, tape, timecode information and bites directly from the transcript - so that's what this is geared toward. 

He's some things that would help me greatly:  
1) No Autoformatting. No tabs. Tabs remain after cutting and pasting and they're a pain to eliminate . Autoformatting is worse because it can change the format of the sections it's copied to.  
2) The easiest standard format for me to use when cutting and pasting any bite is as follows:  
(TAPE #, TIMECODE) Quote, in sentence case.  
(B1606, 01:23:34) Dan says that I could cut this thing straight into a script and make a few small adjustments when cutting in the partial sections etc and have this work pretty well. The advantage of having the timecode beneath the name is that we can easily reach an interim timecode, without having to cut and paste it above. 
3) Interim timecodes do help when there's a long quote. Again - simple formats are best. (B1606, 01:25:04) It's good to have a timecode at least every 30 seconds or so.  
4) Questions can be paraphrased. They matter very little, except to help me remember the context which is usually pretty obvious anyway.  
5) Ums, ahs, long pauses etc are good to see in the transcript. Just write the ums and ahhs and use ... for the pauses and (pause) for the long pauses.  
6) Generally - it's worth a second look or a third before the word (unintelligible) gets typed in. If it's that bad - fair enough, but I've known some transcribers with big companies who used this because they didn't understand an accent or really couldn't be bothered. Mumbles are mumbles, but please check to be sure. 
7) Spellcheck
8) Please do not delete any transcript files from your hard drive until requested. 

If you can master the copy and paste command keys, and the 12 button number keyboard, the repetitive tape and timecode notation goes much faster.

Also, I can definitely vouch for the last point as well, I always keep my own personal backups for transcripts and it has come in handy and even saved the day when files are lost between seasons or during moves.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

5th Annual Prime Cuts Panel

This weekend I went to the excellent 5th Annual Prime Cuts panel at the historic Aero Theatre in beautiful Santa Monica.  The esteemed panel was made up of this year's Emmy nominated editors, including several nonfiction editors, moderated by venerable Executive Producer Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield).  I was pleasantly surprised by his enthusiasm and one question in particular which he posed to Mike Bolanowski.

SR:  "20 or 30 years ago, TV was looked down upon in relation to film.  And you know a lot of shows in the last ten, fifteen years have kind of changed that perception.  Now [the] reality [television genre] feels a little bit like the thing that gets looked down upon in comparison to some of the other genres, and yet it's extraordinarily popular as a genre.  As someone working on the inside of it, in your mind, does it deserve to be considered as an artistic form with some of these other genres on tv?  And do you see that perception hardening or changing?

MB:  "It's always been a perception that I don't understand.  To do a show like The Amazing Race or a show like Survivor, the higher-end reality shows I would call them, you have to have a tremendous tool set to do it well.  The problem with reality is there's so much of it and it's really sort of gone down the slant.  It's really about making money in a lot of senses and it's become throwaway or just so built on sensationalism that you've gotta pick and choose what you're gonna work on or you're gonna find yourself being miserable, at least in my opinion.

"Do I feel 'less than' as a reality editor?  Not at all.  I feel like I can cut anything, any day of the week.  And I feel reality--a show like The Amazing Race is probably the hardest show to cut on television.  Comparatively, I've worked on a lot of other shows; they're difficult but, you know, the thing about a show like ours is, yeah, it's a game and there's an elimination each week or there's whatever, there's parts of the game, but it's not in a studio, it's never shot the same way.  When you sit down to start an episode, you have no idea what you're getting, you don't know how it was shot, they don't know how--I mean, they plan it as they go.  So, it's a real challenge.  So I don't think that--to answer your question, some of the reality, yeah, it's pretty on the low end, I would call it, you know, but--

SR:  "I didn't mean to be prejorative, by the way!  I'm asking your opinion and you gave a great answer."

MB:  "No, no!"

SR:  "It sounds like you consider it to be a great training ground either to do more and better reality or to do some of these other genres."

MB:  "Yeah.  I mean, I've seen a lot of great scripted editors fail tremendously on a show like The Amazing Race, because it is a different sort of a thing, you know?  So to me, here's the thing about editing, I always think editing is editing.  If you can do it, like you get it, it's all storytelling.  It's really just what genre you end up doing.  When I moved out to LA it was like, 'Oh, you better pick what you want to do because if you're gonna be a drama editor, you can only cut drama and how dare you think that you can cut comedy?' or 'you have to do scripted or only reality.'  The lines, with technology, have blurred.  You still run into the whole idea of executives at networks or executives on different shows being like, 'Oh, that guy's never cut this or that, so he clearly couldn't do it,' but I think that's a big misnomer.  I think that many reality editors would make great scripted editors, and vice versa.  But I do think--I know a lot of scripted editors and feature editors, very, very successful ones, and they've said to me, 'That show, I wouldn't want any part of that because it just seems overwhelming at times.'  So, you know, that's sort of my answer on that."

SR: "That's a great answer."

I agree that was a great answer, I was happy that the subject was brought up because there is definitely an unfair stigma towards reality television as being somehow less valid than scripted.  Personally, I would actually take it further and say that reality television is definitely an editor's medium and we can go places creatively that scripted editors could never dream of.  Largely because we have a lot more control over the material.  And given the amount of footage we start with and the timetables we operate on, with no scripts to guide, often no logs or transcripts even, I believe that reality editors are faster, better critical and creative problem solvers than any other genre.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Score one for Red State

Last Sunday night, my lovely girlfriend Chelsea and I attended a screening of Kevin Smith's new flick, Red State.  After the screening, he spoke for about an hour about various aspects of making the horror movie, a departure from his normal comedy adventures.  Using no traditional act structure and skewering story tropes, Kevin calls this an experimental film, explaining, “Everything is designed to keep you off balance.  All the things that allow an audience member to sit there and be ahead of the movie, we just throw out.”

One thing Smith mentioned was the importance of score, or in the case, the lack thereof.  "I put some score into the scenes and I was like, 'this feels like fucking bullshit, like this just dropped and it just became a fuckin’ movie.'  Take the score out and like, 'shit this is real.'  it forces the audience to decide how they feel at any given moment.  I’m not telegraphing or telling you how to feel via the music.  I let you decide how to feel, and that’s difficult in this movie from time to time.”

In reality television, it's often necessary to tell the audience how to feel via music to quickly tell complex stories or add meaning to footage that was maybe a little soft to begin with.  On most shows we have wall-to-wall music, meaning there is almost never any significant time without music of some kind playing.  Usually a cue will last 30 seconds to a minute, so a one-hour show (about 43 minutes without commercials) will have around 75 music cues in it.

That being said, it can be very powerful to remove score at key moments to draw attention to drama.  If you're having a tough time deciding which cue to use during a sad, tense or even joyful moment, consider dropping out the score as your solution.  If you've properly set up the stakes and emotion in previous scenes, trust your audience to react accordingly.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Get in the habit of calling people sir or ma’am, regardless of their age or status.  This is a rough and tumble business in a rough and tumble town, and using this small sign of respect can sometimes instantly make you the most polite person in the room.  Sir and ma’am have often helped me make a great and memorable first impression, and never hurt.  No risk, all reward.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What is an OTF interview?

OTF stands for “on the fly,” and it’s a type of interview that is done on the spur of the moment with little or no planning.   They are generally emotion based, and you needn’t bother to ask for point-to-point setup information in an OTF situation.

When to OTF:
  • If something dramatic has just happened, but the dust has pretty much settled.  But don’t interrupt characters that are still talking to each other about a dramatic event, rather wait for them to finish when they are alone.  This is why you often see them done in cars, as the character is driving away after something dramatic.
  • If there are characters that only appear in this scene and you will never get a chance to really interview them.  For example, if a spoiled character has to get a job for this episode, make sure to OTF the boss at the job and fellow employees. 

  • Likewise, you should OTF the main cast if you are in a location that you will never visit again so you can have them on camera in that space.  So make sure to OTF the spoiled character while they’re in their embarrassing work uniform.
  • If the character is doing something and you want them to explain their actions while they are doing it, particularly if their routine is the subject of the program.  For example, if your show is about heroin addicts, have them explain to you what they are doing with each step of getting the drug ready, cooking it, shooting it, etc, while they are getting high.  Be careful not to overdue this method, make sure you have some footage of the character going through their routine silently.

The Holy Trinity

Directors, crew and even Executive Producers often have little patience for OTFs and ten minutes is considered a very long OTF.  If for some reason you have time to ask only three questions, they should be:

1.  How do you feel about what just happened?
2.  How did you feel before it happened?
3.  How did you feel while it was happening?

In the worst case scenario, any other information can be supplied in post.  Characters can be identified by lower thirds, scenes can be set up by narrators or title cards, but one thing we cannot create in post is how someone felt at the time.  If you can get nothing else out of an OTF, find out how the character feels.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What is a Story Producer?

Defining job titles in the realm of reality television is often difficult if not impossible as the line between jobs can be blurry at best.  Also, there are hundreds of production companies out there, and they all have their own way of working, so your title doesn't always translate from company to company.  So, with that caveat, depending on where you work or the type of show, the duties of a story producer may include all or some of the following:

  • field logging
  • interviewing talent on camera
  • field producing scenes
  • writing hot sheets
  • tracking story through field and/or post 
  • beating out the episode, creating a story grid
  • finding and watching all of the raw footage
  • cutting stringouts/papercutting
  • managing editors and handling their requests for footage and interview bites
  • creating frankenbites
  • researching any science or statistics used in graphics or VO
  • writing VO
  • writing and conducting pick-up interviews
  • addressing notes (in-house and then from the network)
  • working with production coordinators to secure releases for subjects/ locations / artwork / photos / music / articles, etc
  • making sure the episode includes all advertising and graphics requirements, conforms to S&P, and is to time
  • Watching down outputs for QC
We will discuss many of these bullet points in detail in later posts.  But for now, you can see it's a lot to do and usually not a lot of time to do it in.  An average hour of reality television is in post production for about five to seven weeks before going to the network as a rough cut.

Your average story producer for a non-union show is paid by the week and therefore can be (and usually is) worked to the bone for as many hours per week as they can stay awake.  Ideally a story producer will be in the field during the shooting of his episode(s), conducting his own interviews, writing his own logs, etc.  But often story producers are not included until the post production process, starting a week or two before their editors begin cutting the show.  So, the trick is to keep "feeding the machine," that is, keep one step ahead of the editor with stringouts and everything they need so that story is already thought through and they can concentrate just on editing.  All the while, story producers must keep the full episode in mind, track story at all times, and make sure everything flows storywise.  The episode basically only exists in the story producer's head until there is a rough cut.

On a non-union show, the story producer will use an Avid editing system to make basic edits to the raw footage, cutting it down and streamlining it as much as possible before it goes to the editor, adding interview bites where needed.  On a union show, the story producer is not allowed to touch an Avid and must write his stringouts using tape numbers and time codes, and they are later assembled by an AE (this is called papercutting).  I personally cannot imagine a world without using my Avid for story, it just makes the whole process go so much faster, it's a much more immediate way to see if a scene is working, and it's just more fun.

Sometimes a story producer is lucky enough to have a story editor, which is basically an assistant to the story producer.  They share in the duties, but they are not held accountable if something goes wrong, and they generally handle the less important scenes or requests.  Ideally, the story editor and story producer are a team that work on several episodes together, but often due to budget constraints there are more story producers than story editors and they act as sort of a "story editor pool," where any editor or producer can make requests of them and those requests are prioritized by deadline.  

That's basically what a story producer does.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Edit Fest LA 2011

Thanks to my good friend Marika Ellis, I recently attended Edit Fest LA 2011, the first of its kind weekend seminar about the art of editing.  While there, I particularly enjoyed the closing panel, featuring some of Hollywood's hottest young television editors talking about their craft and tips for the mostly college-age crowd in attendance.

Among the panelists was Hunter M. Via, A.C.E., an editor for AMC's acclaimed series The Walking Dead, who gave some real world advice that I think applies to any job in this business of show.  "It's remarkable how quickly people can rise and fall," Hunter said of life in the industry.  "Don't burn bridges."  To back up his point, he went on to tell a story about a tweet gone wrong that required lawyers and scariness.  Panel moderator Steve Rasch, A.C.E. added that he decorates his desk with a piece of tape under the monitor which reads ABN, a secret reminder to himself to "Always Be Nice."

I think this is good advice especially for the reality television genre, as it is truly the wild west of Hollywood today.  Today's transcriber is tomorrow's supervising producer, all while I'm still an editor.  And today's fellow editor is tomorrow's Executive Producer (I've seen this happen literally overnight).  So be nice to everyone, because you really never know where they will end up.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Cold Open

No wait! I did come here to make friends…aww jeez.

Hello, my name is Dan. I am a reality television editor and I find my job incredibly rewarding, challenging and stimulating every day. Before becoming an editor, I have been a Story Producer, Story Editor, Story Assistant, Transcriber, Logger, Production Assistant, Secret Santa and Story Consultant.

I love what I do and I highly recommend reality television as a career choice. My goal with this blog is to give the complete newcomer some idea of what it’s really like to produce and deliver nonfiction entertainment today.

I hope you enjoy!