How to Use Interview Transcripts as an Editing Tool
I was introduced to the benefits of interview transcription a surprisingly long time after I’d started learning about documentary filmmaking. Tired of introductory-level film classes and spending hours discussing editing theory between screenings of Koyaanisqatsi, I decided to take a Journalism 101 course in the hope of gaining some actual, practical knowledge. The first thing I learned, and still probably the most helpful advice I’ve ever received about doc work, was to transcribe every interview, no matter how short or seemingly inconsequential. You’re probably already familiar with this process if you’ve ever produced non-fiction of any kind, but if not, here’s the gist of it: You create a written record of your taped interviews by typing out every question and response so you can refer to them later. It’s a pretty simple task and one that’s so mind-numbing that it’s typically delegated to interns, or outsourced to online services at pennies per word. But it’s an invaluable tool that will, without question, make you a better editor. I’ve been at it for a while now (without interns), adjusting my workflow whenever I find a technique or piece of technology that makes things easier. I’m not saying this is the be-all end-all best way to transcribe your interviews. It’s just the way I do it right now. Hopefully, especially if you’re just starting to figure out the way you like to work, there’s an idea or two here that you might find helpful.
The absolute most important thing to my workflow, regarding both transcription and editing overall, is that every clip I shoot for a project has a different filename. Personally, I stick with the camera’s clip naming system from beginning to end, just changing the reel name every time I switch cards. It’s simple enough and pretty much automatic. For example, the project I’m currently working on was shot on the Arri Amira. I only shot two cards, both on the same day, so everything is relatively straightforward. As you can see, I have my files split up by reel, with the reel number represented in the first four characters of the file name. The first clip on reel one is A001C001_160528_R56S.mov. That’s camera A, reel 001, clip 001, shot on 5/28/16. R56S is the camera ID, which I can use to determine the serial number of the Amira that recorded the clip. Those 20 characters give you pretty much all the information you need. From there, I import all of my footage into Adobe Premiere Pro.
My personal workflow from here on is pretty dependent on having access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud service. If you use Premiere too, then you can follow along step-by-step. If not, though, you may just want to skim the rest. Sincerely, though, and I say this having never received any promotional compensation from Adobe, it’s the best. If you’re reading this as a beginner and still questioning what program to invest in, I can’t recommend Creative Cloud highly enough. On to the specifics:
Once everything is imported safely into Premiere, I use Adobe Media Encoder to export audio-only versions of every clip I want to transcribe. For many people, this will be only the sit-down interviews. Personally, though, I like to have every scene with dialogue of any kind. I use color labels to identify these clips. Just right click the clip, scroll down to “label,” and change it to something noticeably different from the default. I’m a mango man, myself.
Once the dialogue clips are labeled, just select them all (or do it in batches, whichever is easier) and hit Command-M to open the export menu. Next, select MP3 from the “Format” dropdown. You can change whatever settings you like here, of course, or even export a different audio codec, but I’ve always been happy with the defaults, and most programs you’ll use to transcribe will work with MP3 files. The blue “Queue” button will send everything to Media Encoder so you can continue editing in Premiere while the clips are processed.
Unless you adjust the file name setting in Media Encoder, the resulting files should have the same name as your video clips, but with a different file extension, A001C001_160528_R56S.mp3, for example. This will help keep it clear which audio files and transcript text files are associated with each clip. The next step is to open them in whichever application you’d like to use to transcribe. Personally, I like Express Scribe for this. It’s free, easy to use, and available on multiple platforms, which is helpful. I do all my Premiere work on an impossible-to-move iMac with a connected working drive and RAID backup, so it’s nice to be able to put Express Scribe on a laptop or something, transfer the tiny MP3 files over, go to a coffee shop (or beer shop) and still be somewhat productive. If you find another application that fits your needs better, though, go for it. This part of the process is just generating text by whatever means you like best.
Whichever application or device you choose, this is the time-consuming part. Just hit play and type away using start/stop hotkeys and variable playback speed to eventually get to the point where you never have to stop typing. You’ll want to identify speakers, including the interviewer, in the transcript. That’ll make it much easier later on when we connect transcripts back to clips. You may also want to timestamp the transcript, depending on the length of your clips. I typically keep my clips short by quickly starting and stopping recording during quiet points in interviews, though, so I usually skip it. Make the transcript file name the same as the name of the clip that you’re transcribing, and the following steps should be quick and straightforward.
Here’s where having access to Creative Cloud actually becomes an essential part of my work: the next step is copy/pasting the transcribed text into a little-used Adobe application called Story. Story is Adobe’s solution for scriptwriting, production scheduling, and report generating. I don’t often have use for many of those features, so I didn’t use it much myself until I figured out how helpful it could be for organizing transcribed interviews. You start by creating a new project. Call it whatever you want. Mine, for example, is 1606 because it’s my sixth video project of the year 2016. I keep all my projects organized with that number system, but if you’re more creative than me and have an actual name for the thing you’re working on, have at it. Next, create a new script within the project using the “Film Script” template. Call it something like “Interview Transcripts-Project Name,” or whatever floats your boat.
Adobe Story helpfully formats your script for you by automatically recognizing scene headings and character names. We’ll use this feature to our advantage by replacing standard scene headings, such as EXT. PARK – DAY, with clip names. In my script, the first scene, my first clip with recorded dialogue, is A001C011_160528_R56S. The next scene is A001C012_160528_R56S, and so on. Every clip with transcribed dialogue has a corresponding scene in my Adobe Story script.
My main reason for choosing Premiere over some of the other NLE options out there is how seamlessly it works with Adobe’s other applications. Story is no exception. Once my clips are transcribed and copy/pasted into my Story script, I can open Premiere and import the transcribed “scenes” directly into the metadata of the video clips in my Premiere project. Just switch to the “Metalogging” workspace in Premiere, open the Adobe Story window, load your script, and drag and drop the script for each “scene” onto its corresponding clip. For some reason, this only works in Icon View. The transcribed dialogue is now part of the clip’s metadata and is visible directly in Premiere, which means I can view it while editing without having to open another application or refer to a printed transcript. I can also send any or all of my video clips to a colleague or client without having to worry about also finding and sending transcript files. It’s part of the actual .mov file now, so the transcript goes wherever the video goes and is accessible as long as the application the other person is using can recognize the metadata.
This may seem like a lot of work to go through, and honestly, it is, but once you consider how fundamentally this improves the editing process, I think it’s well worth it. Obviously, it allows me to print out and read all my interviews, which is undeniably helpful. Now that I work this way I do just as much editing with a highlighter and pen as I do with my computer. But it’s also handy in smaller ways that present themselves on a case-by-case basis. Story can generate “reports” on different parameters that make it really easy to identify and organize information in your script. You can separate out every piece of dialogue spoken by a particular interviewee, for example. There’s also a “find,” function, just like in Microsoft word. So, if you want to identify every clip in which a particular subject or person is mentioned, it’s just a matter of typing it into the script rather than having to scrub through every single interview. Overall I’d say that it saves way more time than it costs.
Finally, and more broadly, it’s really opened up when, where, and how I’m able to edit. Adobe makes a Story app for tablets and phones, and it’s available online through a web portal. Every script syncs automatically, so I have access to text versions of my most relevant video clips everywhere I go. Sure, not every documentary project is dialogue-focused, but the vast majority are. Thinking of the work as text and working with it that way means that I can still edit on a layover, review dialogue at the DMV, organize a rough cut with index cards on my kitchen table, or work from bed, which is really all any of this is about. And, again, it’s not dependent on using Creative Cloud. With a few workarounds you could accomplish pretty much the same thing with Final Cut and just about any word processing program. If you’re not a meticulous transcriber already, try it on your next documentary project, and I guarantee it’ll be worth the effort.
If you have any questions or want to share some of your own transcription techniques, feel free to comment.
LensRentals.com Video Technician
Author: Ryan Hill
My name is Ryan and I am a video tech here at Lensrentals.com. In my free time, I mostly shoot documentary stuff, about food a lot of the time, as an excuse to go eat free food. If you need my qualifications, I have a B.A. in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University in beautiful downtown Carbondale, Illinois.