managing metadata of video from consumer cameras

How to Manage Metadata of Video from Nonprofessional Cameras

Amy Leland

February 3, 2021

For much of the digital video age, clear boundaries have separated the two kinds of cameras—professional/prosumer cameras and nonprofessional/consumer cameras—and the video formats they created. Film and television productions have been shot on cameras like the RED and Alexa cameras for years, while cameras like the GoPro and iPhone were relegated almost entirely to amateur use. On the rare occasion that professional editors were given footage from these nonprofessional cameras, it was understood that it wasn't optimal.

The quality of footage provided by those consumer cameras has improved dramatically—now, those boundaries are becoming less strict and far from obvious. GoPros are a go-to when shooting in small or unusual spaces, and smartphones turned out to be a convenient way to keep reality TV shows in production during quarantine. It's no longer rare that files from these cameras make their way into the professional post-production process.

The files these cameras create, however, are still not optimized for professional workflows. In order to work with them efficiently and predictably, editors, as well as their assistant editors and DITs, have to modify their workflows to accommodate these files.

These cameras don't just present media issues of transcoding and codecs. They also present metadata issues. Clean, organized metadata is the foundation of any smooth edit. Time spent before the edit addressing the "hygiene" of the metadata for these nonprofessional camera files prevents a lot of frustration later down the line, especially when media used in the edit is conformed back to the original camera files for finishing.

Finesse Your Filenames

The simplest piece of metadata, the filename, can create some of the most unexpected headaches. Many editors keep a reference to the original camera filename throughout an edit. While there are good reasons to rename a clip in the edit, doing so can remove the reference to the original filename—making it difficult (or even impossible) to reference back to that original camera file. If an editor finds themselves with good reasons for changing the clip names, though, there are some important things to keep in mind.

The first is whether maintaining the original camera filename is actually the right choice. Whenever a video clip is recorded on a camera, the camera itself creates the name for the associated file. Consider whether those automatically generated filenames will result in unique filenames. For the most part, professional-level cameras create inherently unique filenames every time a clip is recorded. For example, the naming convention for RED cameras involves seven pieces of information: the camera letter (which is set in the camera's menu), the reel number (which is set in the camera's menu), the clip number (which increases with each successive clip), the month and day the file was recorded, two random alphanumeric characters, and then the file suffix. For example, a clip from the first reel of camera A recorded on October 19th could be named A001_C001_10196M.RDC.

It's less common for consumer-level cameras to have the same naming conventions. GoPro cameras, for example, have a prefix that identifies the camera type (GS, GP, GH, or GPAA), sometimes followed by an underscore, then a number that increases with each chaptered file. This leads to filenames like GS123456 or GS_1234, plus the suffix for the various video formats (.360, .jpeg, .mp4). Similarly, iPhones create filenames with the prefix IMG, followed by an underscore and a number that increases with each file (e.g., IMG_1234.mov). Neither of these naming conventions will result in reliably unique filenames.

This is one situation where it might make sense to change that "original" filename prior to ingesting the media into the post-production process despite the rule of keeping a reference to it. Using the professional cameras for inspiration, renaming generic clips with more robust alternatives that include clip numbers and shoot dates may prevent issues down the line when you go to reference those original files.

Clarify Your Clip Names

Once filenames have been addressed, an assistant editor may be tasked with renaming media clips to something more descriptive for a given project. For example, in a narrative edit, clips might be renamed to reflect the scene and take they contain—e.g., S1AT2 for the second take of scene 1A. However, before simply renaming the clip and erasing the file's reference to the name, take care to maintain that reference.

One common choice is to copy the contents of the Name column, which contains the original media names, to another column in the bin, such as the Tape or Source Name column. These columns may exist by default in the editing system being used, or you may need to create them as custom columns. Then, the Name column can fit whatever use is most useful and intuitive for the project. Later, in the conform process, that original media name is still there to be used as needed.

Master Your Metadata

The media file/filename may require the most care of any piece of metadata for a smooth workflow, but other pieces of metadata can be useful throughout the process. Professional cameras will create some of those pieces of metadata automatically—RED cameras in particular provide a massive amount of metadata. Files created by nonprofessional cameras, on the other hand, are more likely to need a bit of attention to ensure the necessary metadata is in place for the edit.

Some typically helpful metadata includes camera type, format, bit rate, and frame rate. If these fields do not populate automatically, taking the time to fill them in once the media is ingested into the project can prevent serious confusion later.

Another crucial type of metadata is the color data. Many professional cameras automatically pass through information about color settings employed by the cinematographer. In the case of consumer cameras, any information from a third-party utility used to create a "look" while shooting the video probably won't make it into the file's metadata. Providing that information in a bin column so that it is passed along to the color process via an ALE (and makes the return trip to the edit via an EDL or XML) will make the colorist's job much easier.

Adding descriptive data after the camera file is created offers real functionality to the edit. Depending on the genre, columns like scene, take, angle, director's note, and circle take can facilitate edit choices. And, of course, a tape name or disk label column makes it easy to track where the original media is stored.

An Ounce of Prevention for a Pound of Cure

Managing the hygiene of your media's metadata might seem tedious to some, and it definitely requires some people power. But take heart—all that work pays off handily later when you get to skip the scavenger hunt and grab, say, the original media behind the clips in an edit.

The more these consumer/nonprofessional cameras and their associated video formats find their place in professional editing workflows, the more post-production teams need to be prepared to manage the necessary metadata for these files.

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Amy Leland Headshot
Amy Leland
Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, Echoes, is available on Amazon Video. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network.

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