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How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?

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Tom MountfordHow long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 6:58:25 am

Hoping this is not too off-topic, I'm thinking many of you guys cut long-form projects and may be able to offer some insights.

I specialise in cutting commercials, with short corporate work making up the rest of the job. Yesterday I was in a long meeting with some guys picking my mind about a documentary series they currently have in the planning. It would comprise of 6x 50-minute episodes, plus all teasers, trailers, EPKs and multiple TX masters. They asked 'how many days' it would take. Wry smile. I took a broad stab at it and said they'd be looking at many weeks, if not months, of post-production, and to consider that I'd have to spend a week or more just watching all their rushes to get familiar with the project (I figured that for 5 hours of programming, there could easily be 25+ hours of material to ingest).

So, here's the question - how long would you likely be in your suite if a client gave you all the post for a 6x 50-minute documentary series? This would be a dream gig for me (commercials are fun, but I usually finish the edit within a dozen cuts!) but I'm well aware I'm not able to base my estimates on anything I've done before.

Thanks all!

Tom Mountford
Business Development
The JMS Group Ltd


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Shane RossRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 10:46:23 am

I cut long form docs for a living, and mine, while "hour long," are actually about 44-45 min. The majority of the ones I cut have producers who write scripts based on interviews and including narration. Even the reality shows I cut have story producers who write rough narration, and pull selects for scene pods. So...given that...we get about 5 weeks for a rough cut, and then another 1-2 to address notes and lock picture. If you add another 5 min to that, you might add another week and a few days...so just over 8 weeks. Per episode.

6x8= 48 weeks. So alone...almost a year. Perhaps longer since you aren't experienced cutting long form, and might take time to get to speed. I know that it took me time to figure out promos and short form cutting.

Now, the shows I work on have 3-4 editors on one show, so we might get the rough cut done in 2-3 weeks, and then another week to address notes and lock picture.

Now, there are other docs that aren't written by producers. But are a collaboration between them and the editors. We have "scenes," which are basically sections that the producers have outlined...that we put on index cards and figure out the best order, and then edit the "pods" or "scenes." And then I'll cut those scenes and see how they work in that order...and then maybe go back and re-arrange. These take longer to do...can be between 6-7 weeks for the rough cut.

Now...add teasers and trailers and EPKs and you are tacking on another week or two...you know how long those take, that's your territory.

Shane
Little Frog Post
Read my blog, Little Frog in High Def


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Jon DoughtieRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 12:54:28 pm

Another thing to consider is - have THEY done it before?

If they are also new to multi-part long form dynamic, you will both be learning a lot of things while attempting to complete the project.

It will be a good idea to ask even seemingly obvious questions, and close as many communication gaps as possible.

System:
Dell Precision T7600 (x2)
Win 7 64-bit
32GB RAM
Adobe CC 2014 (as of 7/2015)
256GB SSD system drive
4 internal media drives RAID 5
Typically cutting short form from HD MP4 and P2 MXF.


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Tom Vaughan-MountfordRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 1:25:19 pm

Hi Shane, Hi Jon -

Thanks for the input, it's very helpful indeed. The guys pitching the idea to me are (thankfully) both very experienced in directing and financing large projects, but haven't had much day-to-day experience of post-production for perhaps twenty years or more. I rather look forward to the mutual learning experience as some of their past projects are rather enviable!

I work with two other editors, and also know a couple of good freelancers - so it's handy knowing how to break into pods/scenes. Getting a better idea now of how this could work.

Tom Mountford
Senior Editor
JMS Group Ltd


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James StrawnRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 10, 2015 at 7:54:53 pm

(I know I'm late to the party, but...)
Excellent reply by Shane up there!


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walter biscardiRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 1:50:16 pm
Last Edited By walter biscardi on Aug 7, 2015 at 2:03:47 pm

So many questions need to be answered. Logs? Transcriptions? Producer working with you or not? And that's just three of about 50 questions I would have to ask the client.

I'll tell you this. We cut two feature documentaries here. Each had over 300 hours of raw materials for a 90 minute feature. Each had zero transcriptions, notes or scripts.

Each was cut over a 4 year period. Took 6 months just to create the first cut of each.

Over that 4 year period, we probably actually worked just over 2 years to create the features. I was actually working on "Good Eats" at the time so I would have to leave the documentary for 6 - 8 weeks at a time when that show was in production. I also had an Assistant Editor working with me, and for finish enlisted a Colorist and sound designer.

Depending on how many notes and materials the client is providing me. If I'm working by myself I would expect about 2 years of work to deliver that IF the client is providing with me a lot of notes and help. I'd want at least 2 AE's working with me on a project like that.

Walter Biscardi, Jr.
Editor, Colorist, Director, Writer, Consultant, Author, Chef.
HD Post and Production
Biscardi Creative Media

Craft and Career Advice & Training from real Working Creative Professionals

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Tom Vaughan-MountfordRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 3:26:38 pm

Hi Walter - I learned Apple Color with your tutorial discs many moons ago!

I definitely think the client may have underestimated the amount of material they will accumulate between now and late 2017 (their anticipated delivery deadline) especially in consideration of interviews - from my experience in corporate video I've got accustomed to viewing twenty-minute takes of a stumbling speaker, trying to extract just a couple of decent soundbites out of them!

It's very interesting to understand how much more work is going to be required with regards notes and transcriptions - the transcription alone is something I'd definitely consider outsourcing to another agency. I'm usually just given a thirty-second guide-track and a single sheet of instructions to work with!

Tom Mountford
Senior Editor
JMS Group Ltd


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David Roth WeissRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 3:50:40 pm

Have the transcripts done by pros, and with timecode. It's not cheap, but the ROI on transcripts is invaluable. Keep in mind, that every person working on the project can have a copy of the transcripts on their computer, their phone, their iPad, etc., enabling everyone to research sound bites with timecode from anywhere. Transcripts literally allow everyone you're working with to be "on the same page" at all times, and they allow you to locate and select sound bites much quicker, because you don't have to play clips in realtime to listen to what's being said other than the first time when you select good sound bites an use a highlighter to mark them up on the pages.

David Roth Weiss
Director/Editor/Colorist
David Weiss Productions


David is a Creative COW contributing editor and a forum host of the Apple Final Cut Pro forum.


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Jon DoughtieRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 3:56:21 pm
Last Edited By Jon Doughtie on Aug 7, 2015 at 3:56:57 pm

Delivery in 2017? Nothing shot yet? A yellow flag at the very least.

If they have been "out of the pool" post-wise for a couple of decades, they *might* be thinking currently technology will speed the process up markedly. I always tell folks any time gained in the tech gets consumed in the exploration of creative options. Potentially better end product, but seldom any significant time savings.

System:
Dell Precision T7600 (x2)
Win 7 64-bit
32GB RAM
Adobe CC 2014 (as of 7/2015)
256GB SSD system drive
4 internal media drives RAID 5
Typically cutting short form from HD MP4 and P2 MXF.


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Tom Vaughan-MountfordRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 4:05:31 pm

Indeed! I think the schedule for progressing the project will largely be decided by the access to funding and broadcaster commitment, but I have a feeling late-2017 will creep considerably further back - and I'm pretty confident in telling them that, from a post-production perspective, they're going to need to allow more time!

Yes, non-linear editing = more time for clients to agonize for hours over decisions you used to make on their behalf in a split second! :-)

Tom Mountford
Senior Editor
JMS Group Ltd


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walter biscardiRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 6:36:00 pm

It's very interesting to understand how much more work is going to be required with regards notes and transcriptions - the transcription alone is something I'd definitely consider outsourcing to another agency. I'm usually just given a thirty-second guide-track and a single sheet of instructions to work with!

It took over a month to have everything transcribed, at least what I had at that time. Then I sat and read everything like a book for about 6 weeks before I looked at one frame of video.

Just the media management alone is a massive project. Even though I was working through Good Eats and had a great handle on that workflow at the time, managing something this large was daunting and I did a lot of things wrong for the first 6 months which I got corrected.

Now managing near petabytes of material is a breeze, but at the time, boy howdy that was a wake up call. No matter how much planning the clients say they are going to provide, it's never enough. 6 x 50 is going to be a ton of work and require a ton of media management. If either side is weak, the project will get ugly in a hurry. Good luck on both fronts.

Walter Biscardi, Jr.
Editor, Colorist, Director, Writer, Consultant, Author, Chef.
HD Post and Production
Biscardi Creative Media

Craft and Career Advice & Training from real Working Creative Professionals

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Andrew KimeryRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 6:56:16 pm

The kind of doc it is will impact things a lot as well. For example, a historical documentary (where it's easier to script/plan since you are recounting things that have already happened) should require less work than a more cinéma vérité style doc where you follow people around for days/weeks/months hoping to capture enough relevant moments in their lives that you can craft an engaging story out of it in the edit room.

Documentaries tend to have much high shooting ratios than scripted. If I had to guess I'd say the long form docs I've worked on (not counting unscripted TV shows) had shooting ratios in the ballpark of 250:1 (and that's not uncommon at all). It can easily take weeks/months just to watch down all the footage and the logistics of handling and tracking that much footage is a job in and of itself.

A few years ago I was an AE for an very experienced (and fast) editor and it took him about 8 months to go from cards on the wall to a locked, 90min film. The producers/directors were very experienced too but it was a more vérité style doc so there was a lot of footage and a lot elbow grease used to tell the story w/o any narration. Narration is another big thing, if you chose to use it it can certain speed things up, but not every feels it is appropriate (really depends on the project).


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Shane RossRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 7, 2015 at 6:58:19 pm

HIRE AN AE! This is a must. Just FYI, Andrew was an AE at a company that I still work at, and they do a LOT in terms of managing the media, and there is a LOT of it. On a series you are describing, an AE is a must....through the whole process.

Shane
Little Frog Post
Read my blog, Little Frog in High Def


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Tom Vaughan-MountfordRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 10, 2015 at 9:53:50 am

Hi all,

Thanks for all the input, it's been tremendously helpful.

We've put together an estimate for the client which is in the region of a year's residency in our suites - and we've saved the grade and mix for a whole other discussion! Suffice to say, I think they'll be taking another look at their budget for the 'days' of editing before they head off on their search for funding for the series. I wish them the best of luck as I've long wanted to break into long-form cutting.

Cheers,

Tom Mountford
Senior Editor
JMS Group Ltd


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Jon DoughtieRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 10, 2015 at 5:07:02 pm

Not only not yet shot, but not yet funded? Holy cow.

Like you, I wish them well. But IMHO, you have dodged a bullet.

System:
Dell Precision T7600 (x2)
Win 7 64-bit
32GB RAM
Adobe CC 2014 (as of 7/2015)
256GB SSD system drive
4 internal media drives RAID 5
Typically cutting short form from HD MP4 and P2 MXF.


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Duke SwedenRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Aug 13, 2015 at 3:30:53 am

Me too! I was gonna throw 'em a couple of bucks ;-)


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Jon FrostRe: How long would it take you to cut a six-part documentary series?
by on Oct 24, 2015 at 4:12:08 am

This sounds like a pretty serious undertaking from the get go. It would likely become a marriage of sorts, with everyone learning by doing. I would certainly be considering whether the client has the funding for this projected series first and foremost. None of the footage has been shot yet and the client wants to be viewing this series on their home theatre system in 2017??? Good luck with that.

Is there funding for even one part of the series yet?
Is there even a script written for part one? What is the plan for shooting the first part as far as timeline, locations, crewing, feeding and housing the 'crew'? If you are thinking about doing this series alone for post production, then I would think long and hard... Seems like there are too many unanswered questions even before the project gets off the ground.

I have worked with a number of 'producers, directors, etc. who had grandiose ideas while having no idea about how much it costs in real hard dollars to house, feed, manage a cast & crew of 25 people for 3 weeks in a remote location.

You might be able to use your workflow in the past on smaller projects and scale things up to a 1 hour long documentary. The workflow will be similar from pre-production, scripting, shooting and posting a smaller project, but things like HDD capacity, rendering, exporting are going to be exponentially larger/longer.

I think you are going to learn very quickly that you will need to leverage the talent and expertise of others during the post-production phase for things like After Effects, graphics, color grading, etc. This level of production/post-production over six 1-hour episodes is not something that I would take on alone. I would figure something like 3-6 months from receipt of the original media for editing, audio sweetening and things like After Effects and color grading for each episode. You have to coordinate with the client on a regular basis and if they are located across the country, there is a whole other level of logistics to keep everyone in the loop and obtain client approval at regular stages during post.

Jon Frost
Easthampton MA


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