Archive for: August, 2009

Organizing an Editorial Department Using Backpack

UPDATE: So my experiment with Backpack came to a premature end. I took another job that came up unexpectedly, so I never got to finish testing out Backpack. I would like to go back to it, though, or try out Basecamp instead. Next time!

Once the craze of Production is over and a temporary period of relative relaxation (known as the Director’s Cut) begins, it becomes time to clean up any messes leftover from Production and truly get the department in order. I’ve decided to use the cleanup period I’m currently in to test drive an organizational web app called Backpack. Made by 37Signals, Backpack is like a ready-made intranet for your office. All you need to do is get people to remember to use it.

I’ve had Backpack up and running for two weeks (out of a 1-month free trial) as of the writing of this post, and it’s been useful enough that I’ll probably start to pay for it when the month expires. For 6 users, which is convenient since there are 6 of us in Editorial right now, it’s $24/month.

Thoughts

I’ll update this as we get further along in our testing, but having an Editorial intranet has long been something I’ve wanted to try out. Since starting to work as an assistant editor, I’ve been conscious of the sheer amount of information I have to remember and then share with the rest of my Editorial team. If I’m the only assistant editor to stay on through both production and post-production, that means I’m the only one who knows all the ins, outs, and irregularities of the film, and bringing other people up to speed takes a lot of time. I’m also a big proponent of open access to information, and I like it when every person in the department can be self-sufficient to a great degree. I don’t want to micromanage a Quicktime output, for example, so I like the other assistant editors on my team to have access to all the same information, email, and contacts that I do, and I find that sharing information freely increases the efficiency with which things get done.

The only barriers stopping me from doing this before were the need to have an in-house server, and that I would be the one who’d have to set it all up and maintain it. Since my main job responsibilities kind of preclude me from having the time to setup and maintain a server, going with another company’s web app is a very appealing option. In addition to Backpack, I also considered Zoho and Google Apps For Your Domain, but in the end the simplicity of Backpack won out.

The only thing so far that has irked me a little is that in its strive for simplicity I’ve found the documentation a little too sparse. For instance, including a Google Map inside a Page turned out to be a piece of cake, but to do that you have to add a Note inside your Page, and nowhere does it say how much HTML/CSS/Javascript you can include. Regardless, here are a few of the highlights of using Backpack.

Journal

The Journal seems to be the least touted feature on the Backpack product page, but it’s where I find all of us spending most of our time. The Journal is akin to a Facebook News Feed. It consists of two boxes, one to list a status update of what you’re currently doing, and another to describe what you have completed. The status update is temporary, and keeps no log of your actions. When you add a completed action, though, that gets appended to the timeline so you can see what people have finished.

As you can see below, it’s useful to for staying informed on what everyone is working on, what tasks they’ve completed, and where to go for lunch.  It’s a pretty simple feature, but it gives us great at-a-glance information on what tasks have been completed and how the day is being spent.

Backpack Journal

Backpack's Journal page (somewhat Photoshopped)

Calendar

On Hellboy 2 our Post Supervisor entered our post schedule into iCal and then shared it through mac.com. That made it easy for all of us (since we were all on Macs) to subscribe to his iCal calendar and stay up to date the instant he made changes to the schedule. I didn’t need to keep track of multiple versions of a calendar that was emailed to me as a PDF, and at the moment I needed to know what was happening I could just open iCal and see the most current schedule reflected right there. For the film I’m on now, I wasn’t willing to shell out the cash for mac.com (now MobileMe), but I still wanted an online calendar that everyone else in the office could subscribe to. For this you can use something like Google Calendar, which I was already using before trying out Backpack, or you can use Backpack’s built-in Calendar.

There are two ways you can use the Backpack Calendar. One is to have Backpack sync its internal calendar with your externally-hosted one (Google Calendar, MobileMe, etc.). The other is to use Backpack as your calendaring software. Since I already had our post schedule on Google Calendar, I just created a Backpack calendar that subscribes to my Google Calendar feed. With this setup, Backpack will sync itself every hour or so to your GCal feed. There is no way to manually sync Backpack, or to change the interval with which it syncs to GCal. Here at the office, I have everyone subscribe their iCal software to my Google feed as well, so that they can refresh iCal at any time, which makes Backpack’s calendar a well-positioned reference, but not the actual source of our online schedule.

Any calendar on Backpack has an iCal address also, so you can subscribe to your Backpack calendar if that’s where you’ve entered all your events and stay up to date in iCal that way. You can also subscribe in iCal to a Backpack calendar that is in turn subscribing to a Google Calendar, but then your iCal is at Backpack’s mercy as to when it updates to reflect new changes.

Backpack's Calendar

Backpack's Calendar

Pages

Last of the features I’ll go over are Pages. This can be like your own little wikipedia. When you create a page, you can set it so that anyone can edit it, and through this they become useful as ever-updating reference for commonly-accessed information like FTP logins and crew contact info.  You can add checkboxes, HTML, images, and attachments to a page. To date, I’ve created a page for:

  • Server logins: Here, everyone has access to all of the FTP, Digidelivery, iDisk, and web site credentials necessary to transfer material to/from Editorial. When we get information on a new server we have to access, anyone can update the server logins page so that it’s easily accessible to others in the future.
  • Delivery specifications: This is where I put all of the Quicktime/tape specs for any department we deliver material to. Right now we only have the music information filled in, but when sound, vfx, and mixing stages start up, we’ll add all their info so that if I ask another assistant editor to make a Quicktime for sound, they can reference what that Quicktime spec is.
  • Basic info: I created a simple page with the address and contact information for everyone in Editorial. When an editor is on the phone and wants to know what our fax number is, they can look here (or shout at me across the hall). I also store our full contact sheet here for quick reference, as well as a condensed version that can be emailed out to new vendors.

Backpack Pages

Backpack Pages (map location altered for privacy reasons)

The Rest

The remaining features of Backpack are Reminders, Writeboards, and Messaging. Reminders are what you’d think: you set a To-Do item and it reminds you by email or SMS when that To-Do item is due.

Writeboards are similar to pages, except with version control. Every time you save a Writeboard, it makes a new version and archives the previous one. You can revert or compare versions at any time, and again, you can set it so that everyone can edit them. I’m trying this feature out for edit notes that need to be addressed, but the way the interface is organized makes the Writeboards a bit buried, especially if you want to include one in a Page. The other thing is that unless you need version control, just working on a Page might be a bit more user-friendly.

Messaging is basically just an internal forum. You can initiate a message to everyone (or certain people), and they can log on and reply. I haven’t found a need for this feature yet in terms of something specific to Editorial, but as a way to get everyone’s Starbucks orders it’s turned out to be pretty handy!