This article is a little outdated (sorry!).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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!