Avid ScriptSync – Automating Script Based Editing

Script continuity is the basis of organizing any dramatic television production or feature film. The script supervisor’s so-called lined script provides editors with a schematic for the coverage available for each scene in the script and is the basis for the concept of script based editing. As a scene is filmed the supervisor writes the scene and take number at the dialogue line on the script page where the shot starts and then draws a vertical line down through the page, stopping at the point when the director calls “cut”. As the director films various takes for master shots, close-ups and pick-ups, each one is indicated on that page with a scene/take number and a corresponding vertical line.


Script based editing for nonlinear systems has its origins in Cinedco’s Ediflex. To prepare dailies, assistant editors used a process called Script Mimic. They would draw numbered horizontal lines across the script at every sentence or paragraph of dialogue. Once dailies were available, the assistant would next enter timecodes that corresponded to this script breakdown for each scene and take. Ediflex used a unique lightpen-driven interface and a screen layout similar to the appearance of an edit decision list. Clicking on the intersection on the screen of a vertical (scene/take) and horizontal (dialogue line) entry permitted the editor to instantly zero in on the exact line of dialogue from any given take loaded by the assistant.


After the demise of Cinedco, the intellectual property of Ediflex’s Script Mimic ended up in the hands of Avid Technology. This formed the basis of Avid’s own Script Integration feature, first introduced in 1998 as a function within the Media Composer and Film Composer product family. The script based toolset has continued to be developed ever since and is available in both Avid Media Composer and Avid Xpress Pro software. Since this is a patented technology, Avid is the only nonlinear editing company to offer this feature and no competitor has anything to offer that’s even remotely close.



Script Based Editing Becomes Faster Than Ever


To date, Avid script based editing has generally stayed in the domain of episodic television shows and feature films. These are productions that budget the time and money for assistant editors, who in turn take over the responsibility of getting dailies ready for the editor so he or she can take advantage of these tools. Until recently this has been a time-consuming process. A year ago, Avid released ScriptSync as part of the Avid Media Composer 2.7 software (not included with Avid Xpress Pro). ScriptSync uses voice recognition technology licensed from Nexidia to automate the match of a media clip with the text of the script.


Here’s a quick overview. To use script based editing you first have to import the script. This has to be an ASCII text file with the document formatting maintained. Most film and TV writers use Final Draft to write their scripts and this application already has an “export for Avid” function. Inside the Media Composer interface, open the script bin and corresponding clip bin. Highlight a section of the script with the dialogue for those clips and then drag-and-drop one or several clips onto the highlighted section of the script. Now the script bin is updated to display the same vertical lines drawn through the text as you would see in a script supervisor’s lined script. In addition, if there are portions of the dialogue that are off-camera for a character, the software lets you highlight those dialogue lines and add the same sort of squiggly notation for that sentence or paragraph as you’d see in the supervisor’s hand-written notations.


Now the true magic happens. Once you’ve established the link between the text and the media, highlight the clips and select ScriptSync from the pulldown menu. At this point voice recognition analysis kicks in. According to Avid’s explanation, phonetic characters are generated for the text in the script and these are matched to the waveforms of the audio tracks. There are various preference settings that can be adjusted, which will affect the results. For example, first pick one of the nine languages that are recognized so far. You can select from audio tracks A1, A2 or both, in the case where different speakers are separated onto different channels. Lastly, there are settings to skip or ignore certain text conditions, like capital letters, which might be used for character names or scene descriptions in the script.


Several clips can be analyzed simultaneously at a rate far faster than real-time. Once this is completed, each vertical line descending from a media clip will have a series of nodes at each line of dialogue. By simply clicking on one of these points, the editor has instant access to that exact line of dialogue on any one of the applicable clips. A process that used to takes hours has literally been reduced to minutes and is probably one of the greatest productivity gains of any new NLE feature to come along in years.



Avid ScriptSync In The Real World


Avid’s script based editing is a tool that many experienced editors have never used, but it’s also one that other editors simply can’t live without. I had a chance to explore this with Brian Schnuckel and Zene Baker, two film and television editors who rely on it for their projects. Schnuckel has most recently been editing Just Jordan, a Nickelodeon sitcom that’s in its second season. In the first season, this was a single-camera show and the assistant editor handled script preparation manually. Season two is a multi-camera show shot in two days. One of the biggest challenges for script based editing is with ad libs or dialogue changes.


According to Brian, “When there are relatively simple changes, like a few words that are different, it’s not too bad and ScriptSync is smart enough to skip over these and catch up to the right point in the dialogue. However, it’s tougher when whole lines of dialogue are different. Then my assistant has to sync these areas by hand again.” The Avid software does permit you to cut, copy and paste changes directly in the script bin, but you can only work with lines or paragraphs, not individual words. Since you cannot undo these changes, Avid recommends making such changes in a word processor and then pasting the new text into the script bin.


Schnuckel continued, “Restarts are the biggest problem. Avid is working on ways to tell the software to ignore certain areas, but for the time being, these issues have to be fixed by hand. Depending on the production, these fixes offset the gains offered by ScriptSync’s automation, so you might not end up saving as much time as you’d hoped.” Surprisingly ScriptSync doesn’t have too much problem sifting through less-than-pristine audio. Editors even report that there’s little or no issue with actors who are speaking English but with a heavy foreign accent. In spite of a few issues, Schnuckel reports, “I’ve really come to rely on this feature and would have to change my whole workflow if I were editing with another system.”


Zene Baker is currently cutting a low-budget, indie feature with the working title of She Lived. He reports his preference for Avid Media Composer over Apple Final Cut Pro, because “there’s less to worry about and it’s easier to be your own assistant.”  Baker is cutting She Lived on what he describes as a “poor man’s Unity”. Two Media Composer systems connected via Ethernet and each working with a set of duplicate media files. Baker explained his experience with script based editing. “I was familiar with the old manual way prior to ScriptSync and found it to be very time-consuming, but I tried it on a few short projects and liked it. I have the luxury of an assistant editor on She Lived, as well as receiving digital dailies on hard drives.  This frees up some of the more tedious operations an assistant would normally be busy with and allows her to prepare the material more thoroughly with Avid’s script based editing and ScriptSync.  The weakest area is still with restarts and script page changes.  Features films that are shot rigidly according to the script work the best and comedy, with its ad libs, is still the toughest.”



Working Smarter


Both editors pinpointed the same software weaknesses, such as restarts, but Baker suggested that first subclipping the takes that had restarts was a good workaround. Another tip he offered was to create numerous bins with a smaller number of scenes in each bin. “It just gets to be too much data for the system to handle efficiently if you try to work in a single master script bin with all the clips tied to the film script. Instead, import the script into several bins and then just work with one to five scenes in each bin.”


Although the software continues to evolve, both Baker and Schnuckel pointed out one key advantage. As Brian put it, “It makes you look smarter! The session just goes more smoothly when you’re in the room with the director and every take is at your fingertips.” Zene added, “If you don’t have an assistant, you’d really have to weigh the advantages against the schedule. You spend more time on the front end, but you really make it up on the back end. It’s a real time-saver when people are in the room. I just love the feature of highlighting a section of dialogue and quickly being able to see and hear every bit of coverage for that line.”


Generally script based editing pops up among scripted TV drama and film editors, but it’s a great tool for other productions, too. For example, documentaries and reality television shows typically transcribe all the spoken raw footage, such as interviews. This type of footage becomes a natural for script based editing and Avid’s ScriptSync. Just think, with one click you can find any word or sentence within a lengthy interview and better yet, the script bin works with Media Composer’s internal Find and Find Next commands. Avid’s script based editing and ScriptSync form a clear advantage over the competition, so if you cut on Avid NLEs and have never tried it, you’re only the next project away from making this a key part of your workflow.


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)