You don’t have to back that ass up, but your ass better back your films up!
In the northern hemisphere we’re at a time of year that many filmmakers dread–ice, snow, and cold weather leave many of us hibernating for the winter. Poor weather and the post-holiday duldrums often mean less projects are happening, leaving most people with a lot more freetime than they normally have. Rather than hide out in your bedroom with Netflix, this month is the perfect opportunity to make sure your backup systems are set up to keep your data organized and protected during the busy months ahead.
Digital media management is like going to the dentist–nobody wants to even talk about it, let alone do it, but it’s just as essential to the health of your film business. Hopefully you’ve not yet had the experience of telling an important client that the video from their once-in-a-lifetime event was lost forever when your hard drive crashed, but the older your hardware gets and the more data gets squeezed onto a drive there will inevitably come a time when a drive finally bites the dust. It’s important that you have other copies of that data so that work remains intact.
Backup plans for your data can be as complex and expensive as you like (photographer Chase Jarvis outlines his incredibly thorough workflow here), but they don’t need to be. The most important thing is to have some sort of workflow and backup system in place to protect files and data for you and your clients. Below is a simple outline for a backup workflow suitable for most amateurs and small production companies.
At the shoot
A strong workflow begins right at the shoot itself. Make sure you have plenty of extra SD/CF cards for your equipment. Even though the cost has come down considerably on cards that are 64G and higher, resist the urge to squeeze your whole shoot onto one card. Something as simple as a bent pin or moisture can render a card unusable, which at the very least means a trip to the electronics store if you don’t have extra cards on hand. It’s a better practice to use more smaller cards and swap them out on a regular basis. Number each card and keep a log of what shots are on each of them–if data on the card is corrupted after the fact then you’ll at least know what was on the card. From there you can decide if it’s better to shoot those scenes again, try to recover data from the card, or just nix those scenes and move on.
Immediately after the shoot (or even on set if you have the personnel and resources to devote to it) you should download the cards onto two separate portable hard drives or a RAID dual drive. The most important thing is that the data is redundant–meaning that you have more than one copy of the same data. RAID drives will do this for you automatically–they are actually two separate drives in one housing unit. Data you save is automatically written to both drives at once, and the drives can usually be taken out so they can be transported and stored separately. RAID drives are typically more expensive than a standard hard drive, though you can get the same redundant storage effect by downloading your cards onto two separate external standard hard drives.From this point on you should make sure that your redundant drives are transported and stored separately. This is one of the most important pieces in a solid backup workflow, and the reason for using redundant drives–if you’re in a car accident, your office burns down, or some other catastrophe occurs, you still have another copy of the original files on your redundant drive.
When purchasing your hard drives another thing to consider is SSD (solid state drives) versus HDD (hard disk drives). HDD drives are more common and what you typically see in most consumer external hard drives, desktops, and laptops. These drives store your data using spinning platters and magnetism. These drives have gotten to the point where you can purchase a 500G or larger drive very inexpensively. However because of the moving parts there is a higher chance of drive failure–jostling the drive can break the glass plates, or heat can warp the inner workings of them and make them corrupt. SSD drives are a newer technology–they have no moving parts inside, so there is less chance of a drive failing through normal wear and tear. They also typically transfer data faster than a HDD, which could be a factor if you regularly store and transfer huge amounts of data. SSD drives are quite a bit pricier than HDD drives, and usually have less storage space. There’s not a “right answer” as to which drive you should get–do some research and decide which type will work best for the work that you do.
At the office
At this point you should have just one of your drives that goes back to the office with you. The other drive should be safely stored in a different location and only retrieved when you actually need the backup. At this point you’ll probably want to store a copy of the files on your computer or local server. It’s good practice to copy the files that you’re going to edit–that way if you need to start work over you still have the original file locally and don’t need to go to your off-site backup.
However you store the files that you’re working on is up to you, but using a media management software like Lightroom, Bridge, or Aperture can be a huge help when it comes to culling through clips and stills. These programs allow you to batch rename groups of files to make them easier to find later, rate the different files (useful if you’ve done multiple takes of shots), and also attach different keywords to clips to make them easier to find later.
Make it automatic
One of the key components of a successful backup workflow is that it be automatic. There are many tools available to automatically create off-site backups of data “in the cloud.” Services such as Carbonite, Rackspace, and Amazon’s Web Service are all fairly inexpensive ways to back up large amounts of data. They can be set up to backup specific folders or your whole computer on a regular basis. If you ever do have a drive or machine fail, it’s very easy to retrieve the backed up data on to another machine. However services like this may not be practical if you deal with a large supply of data that changes regularly–backing up large files eats up a lot of your internet bandwith and can be unrealistically slow to back up if you have a slower internet connection. Mac users can easily set up the built in Time Machine feature to back up to an external drive, and there are similar services for PC users. These will back up your files to external hard drives, but again this is only truly effective if you’re making redundant copies of those files as well and storing them in a separate location. For filmmakers that don’t deal with large amounts of data regularly, Dropbox is a dead simple solution–you can get up to 2G of storage for free, and easily drag files in to your Dropbox folder to be uploaded to cloud storage to save or even share with clients and co-workers.
If you’ve already got your backup system in place there are still some “spring cleaning” tasks you should do on a yearly basis. Go through all of your drives to make sure you have original files along with any edited files, but extra copies of files beyond those can be deleted to free up space on the drive. Older files on your computer that you’re not likely to need in the foreseeable future can be moved to redundant external drives. All of your hard drives should be given a “yearly checkup” using a utility to monitor their Self-Monitoring Analysis Reporting Technology (SMART) status . This will alert you of potential hard drive failures. Any drives in question should be replaced and the data transferred to new drives.
Perfecting your backup workflow isn’t the most exciting part of being a filmmaker, but it’s essential to protect your films for years to come.
Do you have a workflow or backup tip? Share it in the comments below.
A version of this article first appeared on the 48 Hour Film Project.