Edit

Stringouts

8 minute read

A perfect edit is like the perfect outfit. Every shot goes together seamlessly and feels like it was always meant to be exactly as it is, like a perfectly-coordinated outfit. Of course, with that perfect outfit, you aren’t seeing the entire piece of clothing: a shirt is tucked into pants, partially hidden behind a jacket or a scarf. The only time you see all the items in a wardrobe, the ones that go together and the ones that don’t, is on laundry day, when they all get hung up on the line one at a time, with plenty of space between them.

That’s a stringout. It’s any time in the post process where you put together a large selection of footage in order to see it all at once and know what your options are. Back in the film production days, you got a lab roll of dailies, scanned it in and had a natural stringout that post teams could watch through. With digital production, however, you get a bin full of clips, and stringouts are the main tool used for getting a handle on precisely what footage was shot.

Because of the multi-faceted nature of post-production, there are many different situations where an assistant might be expected to prepare a stringout for different types of material, and it’s good to have a handle on all of them.

Narrative Stringouts

The most common stringout is a dailies stringout that shows you all of your shots for a given scene in order. Generally the assistant, or sometimes the lead editor, will trim the top and tails of a scene to only include the “meat” and not the slates, since often slate information is available in the audio file or the clip name and you don’t need to see the slate in the picture in the string.

However, be careful when cutting off top and tails that you don’t trim useable material. There are many performances built out of the moments after the slate leaves frame and before the director calls “action.” At the stringout stage, trim out parts of the shot that are clearly unusable (if there is a camera assistant holding a slate at the start, or after cut if the camera operator pans over to see the boom operator), but leave as much room as possible. At this stage, it’s still not possible to know precisely what parts of the shot will be used.

If multiple cameras are used, some editors are tempted to use Multicam mode and to only watch one angle of the dailies. While Multicam mode might be useful for syncing with preferred audio and as an editing tool, at the stringout phase it’s generally useful to lay out each camera one at a time. Watching through each angle, while it might occasionally be tedious, will offer real depth of knowledge for the material.

Dialogue Stringouts

A slightly less common, and more laborious, type of stringout is a dialogue stringout. This is the creation of a new timeline for every single line of dialogue in the script, which then cuts together every single angle on that line of dialogue. If a line shows up in the wide shot, a medium, a close-up, and an over the shoulder, even if it’s not focused on the key actor, you include it in this stringout.

For many first-time assistants, this can seem like incredibly tedious work. Especially since, while most top editors pride themselves on watching all of the footage, they generally watch every take in the normal way, from beginning to end, making notes. It’s rare that every dialogue stringout is watched from beginning to end.

This stringout is essential prep work that is designed to front-load effort to save valuable time later. Its biggest benefit is when the director, producer, or other client is in the suite. This in-person time is becoming increasingly valuable and hard to get, and editors want to spend as much of that time as possible on productive, creative work.

In those sessions, it’s very common to have a director say “I’m not sure that’s our best take on that line, can I see alternates?” In that moment, if you don’t have a dialogue stringout, you are left to pull up each shot, one at a time, and navigate to that line and play it. Then, do the same for the next take. By the time you play each further take, it might be hard to remember the last take. For a true comparison of performance, take to take, nothing beats a dialogue stringout.

By placing all the takes together, you get the ability to just pull up the stringout and play them all in a row. Since they are all already trimmed, it’s relatively easy to scoot them around and pair the client’s favorite two takes against each other to play back to back or on a loop. This allows the direct comparison that is often needed to make the best decision and be confident in that decision.

Of course, you might have noticed that many movies don’t cut on every line. Even on projects that favor long takes and letting the shots breathe, it is still sometimes useful to have dialogue string outs. There will often be a specific moment that a director particularly cares about, and the entire take might be chosen off of that one line of dialogue. The director has every right to want to compare against the other takes of just that line. Often the process of settling on “which take” of a master shot will be used is a lot process of looking at string outs for various lines. Only once it’s clear that a particular take has a lot of the director’s favorite performances is it chosen.

Media Composer for dialogue string outs

Media Composer has a utility called the script tool that makes the creation of string outs much easier. You import your screenplay, then you are able to tie specific lines of dialogue to specific points in a clip. Media Composer can then create string outs for each individual line based on your syncing process, which is faster and easier than doing it by hand. This is one of a few ways Media Composer continues to really serve the needs of narrative editors, and a feature that is unsurprisingly un-copied by any other major NLE.

As an option, you can even upgrade your Media Composer license to get the “PhraseFind” and “ScriptSync” tools which use voice recognition to provide similar functionality with even less work on the assistant editor. Phrase Find can be used to find every time someone says a certain phrase (such as a line from the script, or a key topic in a documentary), and play them all together. Script Sync builds on the script tool by automatically linking the script to the media using voice recognition. It’s not perfect, but it is a valuable tool that many appreciate, especially on projects that assemble a lot of footage.

Documentary Stringouts

In documentary and reality production, stringouts serve a similar purpose, helping teams watch and evaluate groups of footage. However, in documentary and reality production, it’s rare to do a stringout for the entirety of the media collected, since it is often just too much for any production to watch in its entirety. This is a shame, and if the budget allows, everything should be watched, but often budget constraints don’t allow this. This is where the field producer’s notes come in handy.

On many productions, a field producer is actively taking notes during production of what material might be interesting in post-production later. If you are shooting a long day of activity for a documentary on auto racing, for instance, the field producer would note times when races happen, times when there is drama in the pit stops, and other notable events that happen through the day.

The editorial crew will then use those field producer’s notes to assemble stringouts of likely scenes. For certain productions, this means that some of the footage shot will never be watched at all, if the field producer didn’t note that anything interesting happened.

Ideally, someone should watch every moment of video captured for the project. There are numerous examples of magic discovered in an outtake or a long tail that no one would normally watch. In television work, however, that just doesn’t happen, and the stringout, driven by a paper edit of notes from the field, is the primary method for sharing footage with the team.

VFX Stringouts

VFX string outs are a very common task for an assistant to assemble shots to hand over to VFX. While many users who have been working solo for a long time are used to simply dynamically linking to After Effects, bigger shows traditionally use VFX houses that might be all over the globe. In order to properly hand over shots to VFX, it’s common to create a stringout.

Every VFX house will have different specifications, but one common workflow involves including both the shot before and the shot after the VFX shot. This is to help give the VFX artist context for their work and better integrate it into a sequence.

The entire scene will also usually be included for reference, but at a lower resolution. VFX artists will want the highest resolution available, typically in DPX format. Depending on the artist or house, they also might want handles on their shots to help with planning momentum or to give the editors leeway in future edits.

Alternates

Often, towards the end of a project, the entirety of an edit is handed over to another department, such as handing over from editorial to sound and color, or during the final archiving steps of a film.

During this process, it’s not uncommon that there are alternate takes, often shortened to “alts,” that you want to either hand on to color or to archive. One common situation is including alts for a particular vendor, such as clean no-cursing takes for airlines and broadcasters, or alternate coverage for a specific outlet. For instance, BET has very specific rules on framing, which typically leads most hip-hop videos to produce both “web” and “BET” versions. This is often done by mastering the web version, with the shots needed for the BET version as a “stringout” at the end of the timeline.

When creating this kind of “alt” stringout, it’s important to clearly slate shots, since you can’t guarantee that future editors who are brought on the project will necessarily easily be able to find where a shot should go. A typical alt stringout will have a slate for each shot the might read “Alternate for Closeup on X at Timecode Y,” to help future assistants place the media properly when it’s needed.

Many editors will also string out at the end of the film any shots that received special treatment, such as custom plugins or even speed changes, so they have the un-manipulated shot available to them if they need it later. It is not uncommon in music video and commercial finishing, which rely heavily on effects and alts, to have a stringout with a similar runtime or even multiple times the length of the original spot, though that doesn’t show up as much in television and feature work.

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