The struggle of making documentary films nowadays is real. Competition is high, and budget limitations can stretch a 6-year deadline to a 10 year-long production. To make a movie you need money. To get the money you need decent, and sometimes edited, footage material to show to funding organizations and production companies. And decent footage, well-recorded audio, as well as edited pieces cost money to produce. I’ve been facing this problem myself and discovered through my work at Digital Anarchy that finding an automated tool to transcribe footage can be instrumental in making small and low budget documentary films happen.
In this interview, I talked to filmmaker Chuck Barbee to learn how Transcriptive is helping him to edit faster and discussed some tips on how to get started with the plugin. Barbee has been in the Film and TV business for over 50 years. In 2005, after an impressive career in the commercial side of the Film and TV business, he moved to California’s Southern Sierras and began producing a series of personal “passion” documentary films. His projects are very heavy on interviews, and the transcribing process he used all throughout his career was no longer effective to manage his productions.
Barbee has been using Transcriptive for a month, but already consider the plugin a game-changer. Read on to learn how he is using the plugin to make a long-form documentary about the people who created what is known as “The Bakersfield Sound” in country music.
DA: You have worked in a wide variety of productions throughout your career. Besides co-producing, directing, and editing prime-time network specials and series for the Lee Mendelson Productions, you also worked as Director of Photography for several independent feature films. In your opinion. How important is the use of transcripts in the editing process?
CB: Transcripts are essential to edit long-form productions because they allow producers, editors, and directors to go through the footage, get familiarized with the content, and choose the best bits of footage as a team. Although interview oriented pieces are more dependent on transcribed content, I truly believe transcripts are helpful no matter what type of motion picture productions you are making.
On most of my projects, we always made cassette tape copies of the interviews, then had someone manually transcribe them and print hard copies. With film projects, there was never any way to have a time reference in the transcripts, unless you wanted to do that manually. Then in the video, it was easier to make time-coded transcripts, but both of these methods were time-consuming and relatively expensive labor wise. This is the method I’ve used since the late ’60s, but the sheer volume of interviews on my current projects and the awareness that something better probably exists with today’s technology prompted me to start looking for automated transcription solutions. That’s when I found Transcriptive.
DA: And what changed now that you are using Artificial Intelligence to transcribe your filmed interviews in Premiere Pro?
CB: I think Transcriptive is a wonderful piece of software. Of course, it is only as good as the diction of the speaker and the clarity of the recording, but the way the whole system works is perfect. I place an interview on the editing timeline, click transcribe and in about 1/3 of the time of the interview I have a digital file of the transcription, with time code references. We can then go through it, highlighting sections we want, or print a hard copy and do the same thing. Then we can open the digital version of the file in Premiere, scroll to the sections that have been highlighted, either in the digital file or the hard copy, click on a word or phrase and then immediately be at that place in the interview. It is a huge time saver and a game-changer.
The workflow has been simplified quite a bit, the transcription costs are down, and the editing process has sped up because we can search and highlight content inside of Premiere or use the transcripts to make paper copies. Our producers prefer to work from a paper copy of the interviews, so we use that TXT or RTF file to make a hard copy. However, Transcriptive can also help to reduce the number of printed materials if a team wants to do all the work digitally, which can be very effective.
DA: What makes you choose between highlighting content in the panel and using printed transcripts? Are there situations where one option works better than the other?
CB: It really depends on producer/editor choices. Some producers might want to have a hard copy because they would prefer that to work on a computer. It really doesn’t matter much from an editor’s point of view because it is no problem to scroll through the text in Transcriptive to find the spots that have been highlighted on the hard copy. All you have to do is look at the timecode next to the highlighted parts of a hard copy and then scroll to that spot in Transcriptive. Highlighting in Transcriptive means you are tying up a workstation, with Premiere, to do that. If you only have one editing workstation running Premiere, then it makes more sense to have someone do the highlighting with a printed hard copy or on a laptop or any other computer which isn’t running Premiere.
DA: You mentioned the AI transcription is not perfect, but you would still prefer that than paying for human transcripts or transcribing the interviews yourself. Why do you think the automated transcripts are a better solution for your projects?
CB: Transcriptive is amazing accurate, but it is also quite “literal” and will transcribe what it hears. For example, if someone named “Artie” pronounces his name “RD”, that’s what you’ll get. Also, many of our subjects have moderate to heavy accents and that does affect accuracy. Another thing I have noticed is that, when there is a clear difference between the sound of the subject and the interviewer, Transcriptive separates them quite nicely. However, when they sound alike, it can confuse them. When multiple voices speak simultaneously, Transcriptive also has trouble, but so would a human.
My team needs very accurate transcripts because we want to be able to search through 70 or more transcripts, looking for keywords that are important. Still, we don’t find the transcription mistakes to be a problem. Even if you have to go through the interview when it comes back to make corrections, It is far simpler and faster than the manual method and cheaper than the human option. Here’s what we do: right after the transcripts are processed, we go through each transcript with the interviews playing along in sync, making corrections to spelling or phrasing or whatever, especially with keywords such as names of people, places, themes, etc. It doesn’t take too much time and my tip is that you do it right after the transcripts are back, while you are watching the footage to become familiar with the content.
DA: Many companies are afraid of incorporating Transcriptive into an on-going project workflow. How was the process of using our transcription plugin in a long-form documentary film right away?
CB: We have about 70 interviews of anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour each. It is a low budget project, being done by a non-profit called “Citizens Preserving History“. The producers were originally going to try to use time-code-window DVD copies of the interviews to make notes about which parts of the interviews to use because of budget limitations. They thought the cost of doing manually typed transcriptions was too much. But as they got into the process they began to see that typed transcripts were going to be the only way to go. Once we learned about Transcriptive and installed it, it only took a couple of days to do all 70 interviews and the cost, at 12 cents per minute is small, compared to manual methods.
Transcriptive is very easy to use and It honestly took almost no time for me to figure out the workflow. The downloading and installation process was simple and direct and the tech support at Digital Anarchy is awesome. I’ve had several technical questions and my phone calls and emails have been answered promptly, by cheerful, knowledgeable people who speak my language clearly and really know what they are doing. They can certainly help quickly if people feel lost or something goes wrong so I would say do yourself a favor and use Transcriptive in your project!
Here’s a short version of the opening tease for “The Town That Wouldn’t Die”, Episode III of Barbee’s documentary series:
More about Chuck Barbee’s work: https://www.barbeefilm.com