File management for motion designers
A lot has changed since I started working in motion design. Each year there are updates to every major design package, as well as new trends and techniques. While you’re always busy to stay up-to-date watching tutorials and installing new versions of your favourite software, one thing almost never changes:
The file structure of your projects
Most companies and freelancers have developed their own Digital Asset Management (DAM) over the years. Most of them are more or less similar but never identical. Everybody favours their own personal file system and file-naming conventions until they start working at a new company and experience that company’s system with all its advantages and disadvantages.
The problem is that there is no universal international standard or file language. And this again leads to the notorious problem of searching for files. File and folder-structures, as well as their naming, are like a language — if everybody would use the same grammar in a consistent way it would be easy to read a project’s file-structure. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
We generally use folders to structure our files. Other ways of organising files are tags and metadata, but I will leave this out for now, as these are not commonly used in the industry. We navigate through folders while looking for files. And this is what we actually spend a lot of time on. Too much time.
A good file-structure has a fair amount of files per folder. A folder with a single file in it is as useless as one with a thousand files of different types (except for special cases like image sequences). The structure needs to have the right balance between simplicity and granularity.
In my personal experience, somewhere between 5 to 20 files, or subfolders per folder, works best. To keep the amount of files in that range, you often need to create subfolders or depth in your project’s file structure. The right depth is crucial for a fast and smooth workflow.
Another important aspect is how to sort your files and folders. It can be:
I usually employ a mix of these. The top-level is sorted by the project phases and is roughly chronological. Files and folders can only be sorted alphabetically or incrementally, so I add a number in front of the state, to make sure it’s correctly sorted chronologically.
The assets folder contains all material for the project, either from the client, from your own archive or from the web. I usually separate the client material from all the rest. The assets folder contains mainly closed file types (png, jpeg, pdf, mov, mp3, eps, etc.). These file types cannot be associated with a specific software and therefore cannot be edited natively.
The processed folder stores asset-files that have been created or manipulated within the project. For example a photo on which the motif has been knocked out from the background in Adobe Photoshop. While the final result is saved in a non-editable file format (for example a .jpeg) to the processed folder, the editable Photoshop file (.psd) is saved to the work folder.
The processed folder can also contain completely new and custom-built assets that need to be processed again for the final look. For example, a 3D rendering that will be composited later, or an illustration that needs to be animated. The main difference between the assets and processed folders is that every file in the processed folder has been edited and therefore there is a related work-file in the work folder, while the files in the assets folder are completely untouched and raw.
The processed folder is structured by the tools that have been used to create the processed assets (PS for Photoshop, C4D for Cinema4D, etc.)
The work folder mainly consists of incremented versions of the same file. In this case the number of files within one folder can be larger compared to files with completely different contents and filenames, because you usually always work with the latest version/increment and therefore only look at the very top or bottom of the folder, instead of reading every single filename.
The preview folder contains the playouts, renderings or graphics that already have the final look, but need to be reviewed by the client for corrections. The preview folder contains subfolders with the date as a name, to make sure every version is chronologically sorted.
The preview folder can also be shared with the client via Dropbox or Google Drive. So the client can have a look at the previews whenever he wants, while the rest of the project still remains discreet.
While the previews are in low resolution to allow a quick up- and download, the final folder contains the high resolution master files. The final folder comprises the master for the archive as well as different playouts. If you’re working on a video project with titles or lower thirds, you want to make sure to have the text overlays and the video sequence (cleanfeed) separately. That allows you to easily make versions with different languages for example, without opening the project’s work-file again.
Another very important part of keeping your files organised is:
The naming of your files
The name is the key information of your file. If it is named incorrectly you can spend hours looking for the right file. There are a few things that are crucial:
However you name your files, be consistent. If you use only capital letters continue doing that, if you use abbreviations be consistent, if you use a specific order of date, client name, project name and version, again — be consistent.
Everything is English. Especially for computers and the web it is an established dogma you should stick to. When working in international teams or for international clients. it’s a must.
Never use final, new, correction or similar
You’ll find these terms everywhere, but the problem is, that the final named version rarely stays final and you end up with file-names like this:
Version and increments
Versions and incremented files are not the same. An increment of a file is showing you the chronological order of your saved files, the state of your work. While a version is a different approach or direction of your work.
If you are working in a team it can be helpful to use an acronym consisting of your initials of your name:
Vinzent Britz = VB
Use the date
It can be helpful to use the date in the name. First of all, it will be automatically sorted in the correct chronological order and second, you see your progress and the timeframe used to generate the files. To make sure the files are sorted in the correct way, the date should go like this:
Use the project number if available, the project name, and the task
Hyphens or underscores?
Make sure you never use whitespaces, as they don’t natively exist on computers and especially the web. Underscores are a bit wider then hyphens and make the filenames longer and more airy. Hyphens have a better readability since they are aligned in the middle of the letters and make the filename more condensed. They are also easier to parse for search engines. A mix of both can be helpful to create logical sections in a filename. I usually use three sections: 1 (Projectnumber, client, project), 2 (task), 3 (name, version, increment)
Keep your names short
Long names are exact, but take a long time to read and you often have to scroll horizontally to see the full name, which can be annoying. Short names are easy to read, but not exact enough to let you know what is inside the file you’re looking at. The perfect balance between detail and simplicity is key. I usually try not have more than 3 sections with around 6 word- or number-blocks.
“Saving with assets”
Often your software package allows you to ‘collect files’ (After Effects), ‘save a package’ (InDesign) or ‘save with assets’ (Cinema 4D). This is very helpful, because it collects all your linked assets in a clean folder, plus saving a version of the work-file. The only problem is that this generated folder is not sorted into your custom folder-structure. You can re-organise the saved assets into your structure, but then again you need to re-link the files in your project file.
Examples of existing file-structures
Make sure you check out: