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Script Based Editing: Avid’s Untapped Ecosystem

Editors discover this often-overlooked aspect of Media Composer and never look back.

Script Based Editing, Scriptsync

For the editing of films, TV shows and other videos in the art of narrative storytelling, many if not most editors use the edit system called Avid Media Composer. One of its shining gems is its ability to integrate paper-like scripts right inside of it, using what we call a script-based editing interface. It allows editors to click on words in a film, TV show or documentary’s script and jump right to the corresponding video itself. Scripts or interview transcripts are synced-up manually by an assistant editor or automatically using an option in Media Composer called ScriptSync.

Editors discover this often-overlooked aspect of Media Composer, and never look back.

Script Based Editing, Scriptsync

This is an edit bay in a PBS television station. Here we’ve made documentaries, TV shows and series. There are many editing suites. Windows. Mac. New old. Each one at this TV station is running Avid Media Composer.

So how do editors in a place like this work?

We used to be busier. Not busier, that’s the wrong word. If you were to rewind technology, you’d see us making the same amount of product, it just took more effort to make it, and the effort was more deliberate and tangible. Now it takes less effort but there are many more steps. The work is faster and there are many more layers to it. The workflow is less linear, and often results in us never actually touching the finished product.

That doesn’t just apply to professionals. These days most people in general wear all hats when making a video. Shooting, editing, music, voice overs, graphics and animations, and then uploading, tagging with metadata, tracking that data, seeing who’s watching, when, where… Each person is an entire production company, broadcasting entity, corporate communications department, and security and tracking agency all rolled into one.

Editing without Avid script-based editing

This is an era of “upload it and ask questions later”. This is an era when over 300 hours of video are being uploaded to YouTube every minute. It’s reasonable to assume then, that the glamorous and elite Hollywood workflow of writing a movie script and producing it, as a film isn’t being used nearly any of it. Preproduction? Location scouting? Storyboarding? Scripting? Is it all going away?

If the ratio of creating videos is that one-sided against even the idea of scripting, then what’s the use of learning about some computer software interface that helps you with your scripts?

Those of you who have used it – you know the answer.

Look forward in time, into that edit, and start imagining that more than one person is sitting there in the edit. Imagine that the editor is a pro, not a hobbyist. Imagine there is a producer, a director – clients if you will, sitting in the room. Perhaps the project is a documentary for PBS or Netflix or even YouTube. Regardless, there is a huge budget behind it. It is huge enough at least, to pay for these people to be here.

What are the questions being asked by those non-editors in the room?

“Do we have a better instance where that woman is saying that?”
“ Does that guy say anything about the product that doesn’t sound so operational?”
“ Of all the people interviewed, who talks about X?”

I know, you’re thinking “amateurs!” Well, not so much these days. These days, people are indeed wearing many hats and just might not have time or budget to get things to the editor as smoothly as they “should”.

And as editors, it’s our job not to worry but to accommodate.

Script based editing is for many types of projects. For commercials and weddings, not so much. Music videos? Not really, unless there are a lot of lyrics to match-up in multi-cam shoot. It’s for things with where people talk… a lot. In fact, I’ve talked to many feature film editors and editors of episodic television that say they don’t even use it on the whole film. They just decide to use it on scenes that they’d describe as dialogue-heavy.

One told me, “I’ll use it when there’s a lot of takes and a lot of coverage, or when there is coverage for one scene spread across three different scenes…”

But some editors don’t use it at all, or want to but simply haven’t had the time or ability to do so. Another editor told me, “I’ve actually never really used it. It usually requires an extra assistant dedicated just to prepping it… it’s too much to ask to take on scripting / ScriptSync prep in addition to all the normal prep work.”

Producing for an edit that will be using script-based editing

Producing and/or directing for an edit that is going to use script-based editing is not just different, but wildly different. This is probably one of the main reasons editors have stayed away form it. If the person getting all of the materials to the editor is not doing so in a way that’s conducive to using script-based editing, then… why do so?

Not producing for SBE means the writer/producer is delivering media and then babysitting the process because the only tangible road map is the brain of the producer/writer.

Would writing out that road map be a good idea? There’s the script. Would having the scripting process save time or add time in the edit? There’s how you budget your time and resources.

Hint: I was working on a television series back in the mid-2000’s. It was a routine 30-day edit. As soon as we adopted SBE, ScriptSync and PhraseFind, that went down to a 14-day edit. And it took no more time or effort on my part. It simply required creating the materials for the edit differently, and then shifting my focus at various points.

Here’s an analogy. I was editing a branding campaign for an ad agency. It was a massive project. They weren’t just looking for a couple of :30 commercials and a little web marketing, but “mini-docs” – a bunch of 5-7 minute long videos describing various visions for their products. Hours worth of interviews and B-roll were shot. It wasn’t that too much media was shot, because I ended up using most of it, but there was one drastic thing sorely missing – no one at any point in the process scripted a single thing; and no one even thought to transcribe all of the interviews. They just went out, recorded people saying stuff, and then assumed the post process would create a story.

Of course they were right (wink, wink).

No fault to them at all. They are an ad agency that had been used to small commercials, but then asked by their existing client to ramp-up the scale. So they switched editors and edit plans. At the DP’s urging, they called me, a documentary editor, and I was handed hours of video. In a week I was going to have clients in the room looking to “see the stories we’ve got so far”.

I know, a bunch of you just got all up in arms, saying “stupid clients” or “bad directors”, but no. This is what happens in the wake of a recession. When an agency is able to get a client, and the client wants a heck of a lot more than the agency knows how to do, they’re lucky to be able to call on people like you and me who know all of the extra steps. It’s good to be able to up-scale a project quickly, and to do so, you need to know as many editors as possible.

So I subcontracted all of the transcriptions, and implemented an Avid script-based editing workflow. And yes, it was itemized as such on the invoice, to make sure all parties understood the process, and there would be no bickering at the check-cutting stage.

How an edit can “live inside of the script”

Not sure about a lot of my documentary colleagues, but I’ve been using script-based editing almost since it came out two decades ago.

Many of you are probably starting to think, can I completely edit from inside this interface? No unfortunately, although I’d love to, truly.

It’s important to note that although the interface for script-based editing is amazing, it does not replace a sequence. Sequences play in the Timeline Window, which is where Media Composer can play to tape or be seen on a client monitor or export with layers to AAFs and so on. So in the script interface, you can’t drag a bunch of stuff into it, and then hit play or export and have it make a finished video.

What you CAN do however is use it as a storyboarding process. Unlike storyboarding apps out there, everything can happen entirely inside Media Composer, which is ideal. So in a way, you can begin to live inside of your script and your project even before you begin cutting. You can use SBE as a preproduction means of communicating your intentions to your producer, to yourself, your assistants, or if you are an assistant then to your editor, before day-1 of the edit.

Let’s say you’re able to begin storyboarding but not necessarily ready to start cutting yet. For example, in a documentary you are editing, you’ve learned that an interviewee discusses a few specific points. You’re not ready to add music or pacing yet, so you aren’t going to be finding the clips and making in/out points. You just want to organize yourself so that you know that these shots – in whatever length they currently exist – need to go with this interviewee at this point. So you take those clips, and drag them to the script. This way you’re not editing anything and you’re not creating new subclips or spreading too many extra versions of clips across bins after bins. That can sometimes become a media management nightmare. Instead you’re simply adding Post-It notes if you will, onto your script, and those Post-It notes come with the thumbnail of the shot and the metadata hidden inside that allow you to match-frame with one click, and even find them in your bins with another click.

Depending on the project, you can get extremely robust with this. You can even decide music, add a scratch voice-over, temp animations and graphics, titles, sound effects and so on. In essence you are pre-building a sequence.

Well, why would you want to? If nothing translates into a tangible sequence by hitting “Insert”, why bother?


In large projects, reality TV for sure and definitely documentary, there is more to editing than just cutting together what’s on the script or even what’s organized in bins. You are quite truly making up the story as you go. So you need as many different ways of looking at and accessing your content as you can get. In addition to browsing media in the source window and bins, it’s amazing the first time you begin using script-based editing how many new ideas for approaching a scene you get, and how quickly you are able to access and implement those ideas. You can even take it a step further and print out your fully loaded scripts, so that others in the process can look at them and mark them up.

Under the hood – how it works

To understand how script based editing works under the hood so to speak, you already have the best resource available. You know how when you buy a new car you get a manual? Well it staggers me how many people don’t know how robust the Help directory inside Media Composer is. Rather than Googling questions about workflow, any editor should first look up top in the File menu for the last file tree called Help. In there is Media Composer Family Help.

“Family” help? Yeah I know… You’d think childhood counseling right?

Actually it’s one of my favorite resources in Composer because it gives you access to hundreds and hundreds of pages worth of a manual.

So since this resource is better than any sort of “how to” I could put together for you, let me just describe the important process of how to get scripts into script-based editing. Then when you have specific questions, you can use your MC Family Help menu to search for the answers.

All transcripts are made, and from them the script is written. Don’t go and open Media Composer yet, first grab a transcript on your computer. You’ll have to reformat it as a text file (.txt). Open it in MS Word. Click File > Save As. Before it saves, another dialogue comes up. This is important. Text encoding? Even if you are on a Mac and going to a Mac, click MS Dos. Options? Insert line breaks. End liens with CR/LF. Allow character substitution? Always.

Once you have these four things selected, click OK, and it saves your script as a text file. Now this is ready to be brought into Avid Media Composer.

ScriptSync and PhraseFind

Speaking of resources that are available to you, let me mention ScriptSync and PhraseFind. These are options for Media Composer you can obtain. ScriptSync cuts down on the immense amount of time it takes to prepare scripts for script-based editing. Once scripts are built, PhraseFind gives you one of the best possible ways to search inside of your scripts – phonetics. A transcriptionist might not spell every word spoken in an interview or by an actor correctly. So a phonetics-based search is remarkable.

I won’t belabor these here, because you can find detailed webinars I’ve made previously here at Pro Video Coalition.com

Here are the links:

Does it seem outdated? Or is it just me?

So you now have a glimpse at this whole thing. What are your thoughts?

“Uh, the workflow seems great but…”

If you’re unimpressed with the interface, don’t worry. You’re not alone. This whole thing was designed, engineered and implemented in 1996. It was amazing back then. There have been a few small updates, and some very welcome ones for a refresh in 2017, but it certainly seems frozen in time. Some are OK with that from a workflow standpoint because the workflow of scripting hasn’t changed much in 100 years. Sure there are new apps out there helping script supervisors on the set; new apps for logging on an iPad, plus all of the great updates in Final Draft and so on. These can certainly, certainly leave us starved for similar updates to how an editor can interact with a script.

 

We’d love to see stronger storyboarding. We’d love to see different views and sorting tools allowing us to just see one actor’s lines, or just lines from the narrator, or at least the ability to highlight one actor’s lines with just one click. We’d love a 3×5 card view. We’d love the ability to add shareable comments, like in MS Word. We’d love a tremendous update to our ability to color code and reorganize the interface. We’d love additions to multi-cam situations. We’d love an Avid Partner program in which editors could commission script-based editing friendly transcriptions through the Avid Marketplace. In addition to that, and similar to ScriptSync, PhraseFind and Symphony, we’d love a paid speech recognition “Option”. In documentary we’d love to have an “additive script” that springboards to and from all of our transcripts, kind of like how you can step-in to and step out of effects.

We’d love a spell checker.

If that were impossible, we’d love an ability to send the transcript for updates to Final Draft or MS Word from within the script window, and then bring them back to have changes update dynamically.

We’d love to finalize the script and have it converted to captioning. And of course, ultimately, we would love the ability to have the script-based editing interface become a rough cut sequence creator. To essentially add a vertical tracks bar into the script interface, and then “commit” our storyboarding into something that the sequence can accept.

Perhaps as editors, these are all things we could all get together and propose in the next Avid ACA vote?

Tips, tricks and troubleshooting

As far as tips and tricks, there are certainly a few you’ll love. Most of them are for ScriptSync and PhraseFind though, so when you have the time, go watch my Pro Video Coalition webinars on those apps. This way you’ll see the tricks in-context with real situations.

Regarding tips for script-based editing interface, here’s one everybody needs. Over the years, there have been many goofy reasons why scripts in a Media Composer project change their fonts. OS updates, fonts change in your system, or even slight changes in each new version of Composer. Whatever it is, there’s no reason to worry. Just do this.

Open the script. Take a moment to either panic, or marvel at the magnificence of how goofy the thing looks, and then click in the File menu: Windows > Set Font.

Another great trick is using scripts as reference materials. What does that mean? Well, do you remember earlier when I mentioned you can print our your scripts so that the producer and others involved can mark them? When I say “others involved”, I’m referring to the legal department, the business office, the funders, the RFP’s you’re answering on future productions and so on. Usually these people are asking for information about the edit right in the middle of when we’re working. So just exporting the scripts for them to use in any way they see fir is always a good idea.

The Avid script-based workflow: learn it; share it

It seems the line in the sand dividing many editors and their productions is the script – whether they get one, how well it’s formatted and presented to the edit, and how much input an editor gets to have based on it.

So if you’re an editor who is deep in this workflow already, find one who isn’t and share the wisdom. More people working in this way means more producers and directors will learn how to integrate themselves. Likewise if you’re an editor who wants this workflow, start learning it and then present it to your clients. As in my case many years ago, it changed the way they worked forever, which changed my situation forever.

Integrating scripts into the video editing workflow using Avid’s script based editing interface does add time and effort at the front-end. But once it’s set up, it saves a remarkable amount of time throughout the rest of the process. Like the fable of the tortoise and the hare, editors find they win the race using the slow but sure process every time. Not always because it gets her or his project done quicker, but certainly it gets done more thoroughly; and that’s exactly what every client hopes for when commissioning an editor to the project.

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Chris Bové is a craft editor, story editor and consulting script editor. He has edited over 400 hours of broadcast programming, independent documentaries, web content and bonus material.

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Warren

I love scriptsync. But on a broadcast network drama there aren’t enough hours in the day for my assistant to mark up a script, and do everything they are supposed to do.