By David Zimmerman, CEO of LC Technology International
When the production team spends countless hours perfecting a film, and every actor and technical person gave it their all, it’s devastating to experience a technical problem with the footage. Unfortunately, technical problems do occur and can potentially wipe out a lot of great work. However, there are several best practices production groups can deploy to manage the camera’s storage capabilities in order to safely protect footage.
Understanding the Data
New cameras output data in different ways, depending on the manufacturer. So each type of camera has its own formatting rules and folder creation scheme regarding how the data is written to the card. There are many different types of cards in use today including CFast, SD, Micro SD, or the Sony proprietary SxS, with storage capacities of usually 256GBs. Higher-end production cameras produce great imagery and sound because they work with high capacity cards that can store these large files.
Movies used to be created as a single streaming file that blended audio and video. The format has changed with HD video and now they are separate files and use XML data to bind them together to play them in sync properly. Corruption of the files creates a tricky problem due to the underlying complexity of how the footage is assembled. Older AVI or MOV files could sometimes still play if they were corrupt, but the modern files are usually unreadable or unplayable if there’s even the slightest corruption.
Preventing Bad Storage Cards
With modern cameras, there’s a delay between the recording process and the writing of the file to the card. If the operator ejects the card too quickly or powers down prematurely, then the two actions won’t complete properly and the files will not be finished writing to the storage media properly. This can be a nightmare scenario for a cinematographer who pulls a card out too soon when they think it’s full, only to see later that they lost some of the last footage. After shooting a scene it’s best to wait a few seconds (watch the activity LED) to give the card time to write the cached data properly.
Cards can become unusable for a host of reasons:
- Moisture or condensation from a scene shot in the elements or a spilled cup of coffee can damage the card’s inner workings if plugged in while still wet
- Swapping the card between different devices will change the formatting and can cause data to seemingly disappear once it initializes the card. Stick to the one-card one-device rule. Remember that each manufacturer employs a different formatting process
- Static electricity can electronically kill a card and render cards unreadable.
Develop a Data Storage Plan
Formal plans might seem like a way to stifle the creative filmmaking spirit, but they’re essential for data protection. Production teams should consider data as their most important non-person asset, and put in place rules for managing and creating the data. A formal plan means the entire team is accountable for following best practices and makes the team view the footage as a supremely valuable asset.
The specifics of the plan should be a roadmap for where you will store all electronic data for the production. This includes data on scouting locations, story ideas, and other behind-the-scenes information as well as the actual footage data. Plans should detail where all of this information currently resides, who has ownership and access rights, and where instead all of this information should be moved. Centralize the data to streamline who can access the information and to stay organized. Close old Dropbox accounts, clean out external hard drives, and put data into a secure location such as a private cloud. Organizing the data proactively can greatly reduce the chance of data loss, and prevents conducting a tedious search for that amazing lost footage or script notations.
Filmmakers that use their camera’s SxS or CFast cards as long-term storage solutions are simply asking for trouble. The cards are meant to be conduits from the camera to the big screen, and their fragility means they are not suited for long-term data management.
Moving a movie from a 256GB card to a cloud provider can take a while, but this can be a “set it and forget it” action. It’s also an exceedingly inexpensive way to safeguard content, as cloud storage is very cheap and reliable. Also consider buying a new card for every project to avoid formatting issues with the new footage, and to have a second-tier backup via the old removed card.
In data security there’s always the call to “back up the backups” and production teams should definitely embrace this mantra. The data management plan should include detailed instructions for backing up files to multiple cloud providers as well as external high-capacity hard drives. Consider the minimal cost of such moves against the potentially massive costs and headaches from lost footage.
Recover Footage – The “Last Resort” Option
Even if a production follows the best practices, mistakes do happen. Cameras are not infallible. Corruption can occur. When the unexpected happens, filmmakers should use the services of a recovery firm with experience in pulling footage back from the dead.
The recovery company will use several advanced tools and software to address the specific problem. If the card was soaked by a bucket of water, then the recovery people will take steps to dry and restore the card. If it’s data corruption by an unknown cause, then they’ll take a different track.
Pick a recovery firm that has worked with high-end cameras and faster capacity cards. They should know the latest file formats for the best cameras, including the Nikon D500, Sony 7R II, Panasonic DMC GH4, Fuji XT-1, and various others. Recovery is specialized work, so resist the urge to use online software tools that promise to recover the information in minutes. These tools are often filled with malware, which can open up your team to a whole new type of problem. Also, mandate the recovery group will sign an NDA and has experience with sensitive film footage. This means they use physical and network safeguards to protect your data.
Protecting footage is about developing understanding and action. Understand how cards and cameras work, and then put in place a formal plan to store and protect the data. And if all else fails, then have a recovery firm on speed-dial to help you get your data and get your production back on track.