Screenshot of the Hellboy 2 Avid Project Window

Organizing a Project’s Reels and Versions

This article is a little outdated (sorry!). I need to do a thorough rewrite, but in the meantime know that since 2008 I’ve decided to contradict my writing below and just use R1v## as my reel format. When I hit a milestone I make a new bin, label it as Director’s Cut or Assembly or Preview #2, throw the appropriate sequences in there, and then stash the bin in an easy to find folder in my project. It works pretty well, and I’ve found the fewer characters in your reel names, the easier it is on everyone.

 

The determination of how to organize all of the sequences you’ll create during the course of your project is extremely important, but unfortunately it is also nearly impossible to standardize. I work in features primarily, so while my organizational system is based around reels and suits me just fine, it would need a lot of modification were I to go to episodic or reality TV, commercials, etc. Individual editors also have their preferences for organization based off of how they are accustomed to working, and if you’re an assistant editor your degree of influence over the project’s organization will vary depending on how much the editor wants to delegate this type of organization to you.

With all that in mind, I wanted to set forth a description of the system that I use to keep all my reels in order on a feature. I’ve seen quite a few organizational systems used in different editing rooms, both on films I’ve worked on and ones I’ve just visited, and so far this is the best one I’ve seen. Thanks to editor Sean Albertson and 1st assistant editor Seth Clark for introducing it to me on Rocky Balboa.

Organization By Milestone

One of the most frequent organizational structures I see used by others uses a simple version number attached to the name of the reel. The problem with this is that you get up to these massive version numbers (R1AB_v72, R2AB_v117, etc.), and there’s no common element to link all these versions together in a meaningful way. The system I use has two levels of versioning included in the name of the reel; one is to track a milestone like a director’s cut or a preview screening, and the other is to track the individual versions of a reel created leading up to that milestone. For example:

A sequence name I might use is: R3_DC1_v4, which breaks down like:
R3 = Reel Three
DC1 = Director’s Cut 1 (this is the milestone)
v4 = The 4th version of Reel 3 for Director’s Cut 1.

Using this system, I can not only group my bins and sequences according to the progress of the project, but I can also make sure other departments are working with all of the right reels quickly and easily. Additionally, as it’s often the case that a director/studio/editor wants to go back and look at a previous version, with this system the editor can instantly find and pull up an old version from the project window so long as he knows roughly when the version he is looking for was created.

Screenshot of the Hellboy 2 Avid Project Window

Screenshot of Hellboy 2 project organization. In the project window you can see DC1-DC6 folders. The bins on the right show DC7

Defining Reels

This is global across all organizational systems, so feel free to skip this section if you already know about delineating reels.

Once you’ve got all, or at least most, of your scenes cut, you’ll probably want to create reels out of everything. The general guidelines for creating reels are that your first reel be no longer than 1600 feet from Picture Start to Last Frame of Action (LFOA). All remaining reels should be no more than 2000 feet, though there is a little bit of slack on all of these numbers. With the exception of the beginning of R1 and the end of your credits, no reel should start or end on black. Similarly, don’t cut a reel in the middle of a piece of music. The best reel breaks are between scenes that have no picture or audio transition, so that the break is as seamless as possible. You also want to avoid cutting a reel in the middle of a scene, even if there are no picture or audio transitions, since you may find that the color of your reels varies slightly and a reel break in the middle of a scene could produce a color shift.

Defining Milestones

Ok, so assuming that you decide to use this system, it’s important to know when to create a new milestone. I usually create milestones for the Editor’s Cut (EC), the Director’s Cuts (DC1, DC2, etc.), Previews (PV1, PV2, etc.), and Locks (LOCK1, LOCk2, etc.). And if you’re wondering why I allow for multiple locked cuts, I’d like to know what director you’re working for and if he or she is hiring.

You don’t want to create too many milestones or you risk confusing all of the departments that rely on your organizational system. At the same time, don’t create too few since that will defeat the purpose of organizing your reels this way and make finding old cuts much more difficult. I find that the key to creating a new milestone is to decide whether or not you’ve reached a point in the project that you want to save, including if you’re about to make a very significant change that you want to delineate from previous versions. To rephrase the question, you can also ask yourself whether you’re going to need to create an output of this sequence anytime in the future. For those milestones I mentioned above, clearly you want to have easy access to them since by the time all is said and done you will likely have needed to make more than a few outputs for the studio/director/sound dept/etc.

A final note: If you like, you can simplify the creation of milestones by sticking to a single abbreviation like “DC”.  On Hellboy 2 my milestones went from DC1 – DC7 because everything was happening so quickly and there were constantly new hires coming in for sound, so I felt it was safer to keep the system as simple and predictable as possible. The downside of this is that it’s not as clear to anyone who looks at this project later what each DC number represents, even though I know DC3 was our first preview, and DC6 was our first lock.

Defining Versions

How you elect to version your sequences is something that needs to be figured out between the editor and assistant editor. Some editors I work with prefer to manage their own versions and just rely on me to define the milestones. Others prefer that I manage everything and create new versions nightly or weekly. In the end it doesn’t really matter how you version the sequences so long as the system works for you and, at the end of a milestone, you can pop open your reel bins and see what the final version of that reel is for that particular milestone.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has been a clear explanation of how I like to organize my reels on a feature film. Please let me know how it goes if you decide to try this out, and if anything is unclear or needs further explanation, leave a comment below!

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  1. Hi Evan,

    Having just graduated film-school and looking forward to becoming an assistant. I find this post and blog to be of great help because it contains a lot of important information. Thank you for taking the time to write it and leaving it open for reader questions.

    I understand the need to break up the film into “reels” and versioning it off. What I don’t understand is how you view the film as a collective whole? do you just drop the different reels(1-7) onto a “master” timeline and view it that way? do you version off the different master timelines as well?

    so for example, if you have 3 reels, latest DC is at 3, and 2nd revision, do you just cut in…
    “R1_DC3_v2”
    “R2_DC3_v2”
    “R3_DC3_v2”
    …onto a master timeline and name it something like “MASTER_DC3” and then export it?
    what if some reels have more revisions than others? does that affect the naming convention?

    Also, what if, half-way through the editing, director decides that he wants parts of the reels, reshuffled? does that change the naming scheme? how do you split the reel? For example, the director says he wants the last 2 minutes of “reel7” thrown in the beginning of the movie, before reel1. do you, take out the segment from reel7 he wants and drop it into the beginning of reel1?

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your knowledge.

  2. Hi Salvador-

    Good questions, and I think the answer lies in thinking about the master sequences a little differently. Once you divide the film up into reels, your editor should never make editorial changes in a master sequence. Master sequences are kind of disposable, one-off sequences you create just for a one time screenings, DVDs, etc.. You don’t even have to keep track of them if you don’t want to, and there’s no point in versioning them. I usually just label my master sequence according to the date and DC version (Playout_DC3_051210, for example) and throw it into a dated bin in a folder I call Outputs. Once I’ve finished screening/exporting using that sequence, I rarely open that bin again.

    About shuffling the reels, one thing to know is that reels are a very very fluid thing. Once you divide them up initially, the editor and director can do whatever they want to them. At this point in the process the division into reels is more about making the film easier to work with than about giving it to other people in a proper format. And just in a nutshell, for single-editor setups it’s good to have reels because editing in a master sequence is slower and more likely to make most NLEs crash or run out of memory. In multi-editor setups, you have that reason plus you want other editors and assistant editors to be able to work on whatever reels the editor isn’t currently editing. But really, when you start delivering turnovers to other departments is when having defined reels is really important. Once you do that and other people start to work on your reels, then you just have to keep them informed if a scene from R7 got moved to R1.

    Once you’re entirely through the editing process and have a locked cut, or are at least very close to having a locked cut (but before you start DI and sound mixing), then you should go through and “rebalance” your reels. This means that if, in the process of editing, a reel’s gotten over 2000 feet or has some music running through a changeover (the dividing point between reels), you need to go through and make everything kosher again. And then, of course, provided an updated turnover to everyone who needs it.

    Does that answer your question well enough? Let me know if anything is unclear or if you have additional questions.

    Thanks,
    –Evan

  3. Thank you very much Evan for clearing that up and answering my questions. It makes sense.

    If you don’t mind, I have two more questions in regards to organization and maybe a suggestion for a future blog entry?

    question #1
    I am very curious about the reel concept. I have never had to do this because the projects I have worked on have been small and haven’t worked on a feature, where it might be absolutely necessary to split the film into reels.

    With that said, do you still find it important to divide the project into reels for say a 15 minute short film? For a 30/60 minute tv show, I can see splitting the show at each scheduled commercial break. But for a short-film, do you find it necessary? If so, how long do you think the reels should be? or is 15 minutes short enough to handle by itself without having to split it up.

    question #2
    How do you decide when to add a new version to a milestone? In other words, when do you switch from DC1 to DC2? I can understand getting into the habit of versioning off my sequence every time I add more than a few changes to a reel (DC1_v1,v2,v3) But it’s still unclear when to switch over to DC2. I can only assume after the director watches the cut and gives his/her input?

    —-
    In regards to the organization process, one thing I always wonder about is naming conventions for individual clips inside Bins. I’d be interested to hear your opinion in what you find ideal and best way to organize/name clips so that they are easy to find and recognize? Being able to find a clip easily is very important, especially when dealing with a large amount of footage.

    If not through a future blog entry, I would still very much like to hear your opinion and any advice you might have.

    Thank you
    -Salvador

  4. 15 minutes is short enough to not have it split up. Splitting into reels is something that is really feature film-specific. Other formats will have other requirements, and for a short particularly I’d only split up sequences if that makes it easier for you to work with it, though in the end you’d probably find yourself putting it all back into one longer sequence before handing it off anyway. The reason why reels are a requirement in film is that the physical copies of the film that are shipped to theaters are shipped in reels. So on a 7-reel film, for example, each print of the movie will be shipped to the theater in 7 containers, each one holding one reel of film. The theater then either splices those 7 reels back into one big long reel, or they keep them as individual reels and use two projectors to screen the film (one for odd numbered reels and one for even numbered ones).

    You can make a milestone at whatever point you think is best, but for me, my general rule of thumb is to make a milestone when I’ve completed a version of the film that I might want to reference later on. A save point, if you will. So for example, I would make milestones after completing the Director’s Cut, or after completing a version that’s being shown in a public preview screening, or after the first time the film is turned over to all of the other departments. They should be at ‘big event’ points, or at a time when you’re ready to say “ok that version is done, let’s go on to the next stage.”

    Re: naming for clips and bins, this also varies a lot by format and genre. For narrative features and shorts I make individual bins for each scene, and then the clips inside simply reflect the name of each take (ie. in a bin called Sc42, I would have clips called 42-1, 42A-2, 42F-7, etc.). I also keep a separate set of bins organized by dailies tape, and the clips inside are simply everything that came on each tape I received from telecine. So if for some reason a clip gets lost or misplaced, but I know that it was included on telecine tape #10, I would go to my bin for tape 10 and see if I could find the clip I was looking for. I never edit from those bins, they’re just for archival and making dailies screener DVDs, really.

    Hope that helps!
    –Evan

  5. Hi Evan,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this article. I’m a trailer editor cutting my first indie feature, and organization was one of the things I was a little concerned about. Between you’re main article and the conversation with Salvadore you’ve answered all my questions!

    Thanks so much!

    Micah

  6. Thank you for posting this! Coming from a TV background, and working on my first feature using reels, your site has been a great resource for info on feature assisting. I’m really grateful you took the time to write these articles. You rock!

  7. Hello, thanks for such good explanation. If I can ask a question:

    I reasigned clips to tracks as dialogue was mixed with FX and music in various places, so the sound designer
    wanted to keep it all separately, anyone, once I have split the reels, how do I keep track of the changes? or How can
    I preserve my work? The editor is working on a new cut and they insitst working in a Full Film version, so my first turnover is on the shelf and at some point this month I’ll have to turnover again, any advice would be appreciated. Thanks

    once I have reassigned tracks for the sound editor (as the film editors has mixed Dialogue with FX for example),

  8. Ouch, that sounds like a rough way to work. There isn’t a great way to preserve the splitting you’ve already done while also not increasing the chance that you’ll make a mistake. Your best bet is probably to split your tracks out in whatever full film sequence they’re working in, and then for each turnover you just have to split that into new reels each time. It sucks, but if that’s the way they insist on working (and you can’t demand otherwise), I guess that’s what I’d recommend. If you can convince them of all the benefits of not working in a full film sequence (it prevents more than one person from working on the film at one time, it increases processor and memory loads for your computer which can lead to software instability, and it’s much more difficult to track, just to name a few), then I would do that.