using video file naming best practices while editing

Video File Naming Best Practices for a Smooth Post-Production Workflow

Jonny Elwyn

March 2, 2021

Video editing is inherently creative, but sometimes editors need to be unimaginative by design. Case in point: using a well-honed file naming convention.

File naming best practices may not be flashy, but they are essential to avoiding time-consuming, needle-in-a-haystack situations that force editors to spend hours tracking down that one file, surreptitiously named "0001.mov."

Each editor will approach this task in their own way, but a few general principles apply in all situations. Above all, a file naming convention needs to be ironed out before the edit begins—otherwise, it's too little and far too late.

Video File Naming Best Practices

Done right, a solid file naming convention provides more speed with less rush. Whether flying solo or working as part of a team, your file naming convention should be logically consistent, easy to implement, and established across everyone who uses the files.

  • Logically consistent: A useful file naming system needs to make logical sense. Avoid complex coding systems or structures that only you can decipher—any editor thrown onto the project at the last minute should be able to understand the file naming structure without having to refer to third-party documentation.
  • Easy to implement: If the file naming convention is too complicated to quickly and easily apply, it will become tiresome to use—meaning that in a short time, it won't be used at all. Aim to strike a balance between including useful information and staying concise.
  • Established across the entire team: If people involved in the project deviate from the file naming convention, it will quickly become irrelevant, as you won't be able to search or interpret the file name using the same expected terms. This makes a big difference, especially when collaborating on large projects with multiple contributors or when interrogating or contributing to a multi-generational asset library. Asking if there is an existing file naming convention is a great first-day-on-the-job question.

Consider your cameras

Keep in mind that original camera file names have their eccentricities. If a high-end, professional camera creates a unique and meaningful file name, it is important to never rename these files. Apply your file names either inside your NLE (where your searching will occur, too) or within a media asset management system. Maintaining your file names this way will ensure you can always track back to the original camera file as well as preserve connections in a proxy workflow.

However, if your footage arrives with inconsequential file names (such as "0001.mov"), then rename these files at the OS level to something unique and meaningful, enabling your NLE to track each file individually. A meaningful file name from an ARRI Alexa camera might look like this: A004C022_200121_JK4L.mxf.

To break it down into its components:

  • "A" refers to the camera unit.
  • "004" refers to the reel counter.
  • "C022" refers to the clip number.
  • "200121" refers to the date (YY/MM/DD).
  • "JK4L" refers to the unique camera ID.
  • ".mxf" refers to the file format.

Universal Tips for Better File Naming

What do the three principles above look like in practice? Each unique post-production workflow will have its own constraints and creative requirements, so take an individualized approach. For example, a documentary project will likely feature a lot of interviews, so including subjects' names in the file name is essential. Dailies on a scripted project, though, would likely benefit from including the shoot day, scene, and take numbers.

Here are some universal file naming specifics that apply in the majority of cases:

  1. Avoid using special characters such as : ; / \ , . { } [ ] ( ) * ? < > |! $ etc., which are not all supported by operating systems, file formats, and creative software.
  2. Use underscores (_) or dashes (-) rather than spaces. Dashes are easier for machines to read, but I personally prefer the white space between characters that an underscore provides.
  3. Don't make file names too long. Some operating systems have a limit of 255 characters. You don't want to have to keep scrolling around to see the relevant information in a narrow NLE metadata column.
  4. Describe dates and times from largest to smallest: year, month, day, hour, minute, second. This is even more important when working with international colleagues, because standard date formats are not the same everywhere.
  5. Keep a consistent sort order by including leading zeros in clip numbers. For example, "07" instead of "7."
  6. When versioning an export to send off to a client or another department, never use the word "final." If something is delivered, you could append that—for example, "ProjectX_v4_201104_DELIVERED."
  7. Always keep the version number of your sequences/time lines in sync with the exports. If it's "v5" on the time line, then the export needs to be "v5" as well. If they don't match, cross-referencing feedback on a specific cut with the correct edit will be challenging.

Apply Best Practices to Your Folder Structure, Too

The governing principles of your file naming convention should also carry over into your folder structure. Prioritize logical consistency, easy implementation, and team-wide adoption. Fortunately, folder structure templates are easy to create, either through a free application like Post Haste or by simply creating pre-named empty folders for future reuse.

Ideally, you want to avoid any situation where essential metadata about a file is only recorded in the name of the folder it is stored in. For example, a lower-end camera with non-unique file names might not differentiate between footage shot on different days. This may present an issue when you go to re-link in your NLE if you need to batch re-link to the source footage; if the shoot day is not recorded in the file names, each shoot day folder may have a wash of similarly named files. Embed essential information in the file name rather than differentiating through the storage location in order to reduce the number of links in the chain.

In a post-production workflow, hunting down files wastes time you don't have. Setting up a clear, consistent, and easily sorted naming convention ahead of a project can save time and mental energy during the post process, allowing you to focus on creative editorial decisions rather than digging through files.

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Jonny-Elwyn-Headshot
Jonny Elwyn
Jonny Elwyn is a freelance film editor and writer from London and the author of How to Be a Freelance Creative.

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