Modernizing Unscripted Production with Notion

We've made the jump, and are here to say that you should too.
Brian V. O'Toole
12 min read

Every Production is different, and each one creates its own 'document ecosystem' over time. But common solutions have emerged, like Hot Sheets, for example. From Pre-Pro to Post, massive amounts of information are entered into documents like these and then sit there, waiting to be found or copied over to a tracking document of some kind. But what if those pieces of information were more than just text on a page, and what if those trackers could update themselves?

After doing my fair share of production, I used Notion for a side project - developing an iOS app. I became confident over time that this tool could eliminate a lot of the common issues in production that crop up on a daily basis. I, for one, have had enough of them.

Later on in this post, the text gets pretty thick, so here's a walkthrough of this post's content:

"Oh...No Way!"

I made the call to deploy Notion on a series for a major network last year. Here's what happened.

  • Daily Call Sheets were built nearly-automatically.
  • The Production Bible was easily referenced anywhere.
  • Hot Sheets became powerful and interactive.
  • Nearly all "do you have x information?" emails ceased.
  • Dashboards in post gave clarity to footage/cut status.
  • Wrapping a season was the easiest I've experienced.
  • ...and much more.

"Oh, no way!" was a common reaction as team members started to see all the different ways that Notion could help us. In fact, I think each person had two or three "Ah ha!" moments as they grow to understand the tool.

But you really need to work with it yourself, so let's dive in.

A Smart Hot Sheet

Imagine your typical Hot Sheet. Several important things are listed:

  • locations
  • on-set staff
  • shoot subjects
  • the date of the hot sheet
  • a summary of what happened that day.

In the classic way of doing things, after the Hot Sheet document is made, the info contained would probably need to be copied over to a tracker or two. But with Notion, as the producer reports the events of the day, everything in the workspace is updated automatically - the Release Tracker, Story Tracker, everything. Additionally, the process is faster and easier for the (often mobile) producer. It's pretty phenomenal.

But while the daily upkeep with Notion is easy, building your workspace the right way can be hard. Folks get overwhelmed by the deluge of little-used options in Notion, and then become preoccupied by aesthetics. Ignore that stuff for now. To start off, you should concentrate on your three main challenges:

  1. understanding the Notion basics yourself.
  2. finding a structure for your Notion which works.
  3. getting folks comfortable with the new tool.

This post is meant to make all of those challenges much easier. I'll save you time by walking you through proper workspace structure, sharing a workspace for you to study, and guiding you through a few exercises to have you learn by creating in Notion yourself

(and selfishly, I plan to use this post and video to help onboard team members in the future...🙂).

But, What is Notion?

Notion is basically a collaborative, secure, customizable website with powerful ways to organize your information.  It's clean and pretty, but it's real source of value is that Notion makes creating and editing databases remarkably easy.  

Don't let the word database scare you. If you've ever used a Google Sheet, you've used a database.  However, Google Sheets is somewhat limited, and you'll see why shortly.

To be clear, our production still uses Google Sheets for a thing or two here and there. However, Notion has taken over most of what we used to track in both Sheets and Docs.  The point is - getting over a fear of databases is well worth it.

Properly Setting Up a Workspace

I've created a complete workspace for a TV production in the model of a show like 'Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives', and I'm going to walk you through how I've set it up.  To have access to it:

  1. Click to go to Notion's Signup Page.
  2. Choose the free option, and you'll enter your workspace.
  3. Select 'Clear templates' & delete 'Getting Started' page.
  4. Go to this link, where I've prepared a template for you.
  5. Click 'Duplicate' in the top-right corner.
  6. You'll see  a page named 'Template' in your workspace.

Finally, click+drag your mouse on the white area to highlight the list of items with the 🏡 emoji next to it, and drag them into the sidebar above 'Template'.  Delete the 'Template' page.  Your workspace should now look like this:

Two Classes of Pages

Look in the sidebar and you'll see a list of six pages with icons next to them. In a mature workspace, each of your pages will have their own icon. However, for the sake of learning, it's best to think of there being two classes of pages in a properly set up workspace, and the icons are a good way to keep track of them.

  • 🏡 House Pages - where you and your team live.
  • ⚙️ Database Pages - where your information is lives.

Notice that some of the House Page icons have a house with a tree, but a couple are just a house. The ones with the tree are pages that I've filled in for demonstration purposes. The ones without are pages that you'll fill in shortly.

Click the arrow next to 🏡 The Engine Room, and you'll see five ⚙️ Database Pages underneath. This is the first major lesson of a properly set up workspace - centralize your databases.

A Third Class of Page...and 'Properties'

There is actually a third class of page, but it's a bit different from the House and Database pages. To see this third class of page, go to the ⚙️ People DB and hover your mouse over a person's name. You'll see a button appear saying 'Open'. Click it.

Now you'll see a new view. This is the Database Page view, and every person in the ⚙️ People DB has their own. You can also see that there are a bunch of things like 'Email', 'Job Title', etc. These are called Properties.

If you click outside the window in the shaded region, you'll see that all of those Properties have their own column on the grid. If you delete a column, the corresponding property will be deleted from the page view above, and vice versa. Now, take notice of the 'Group' Property.

Normally, productions might have one document with the cast contact list, and another with the crew.  When working with databases, the best thing to do is put everyone together, and sort it later, as I've done here in this ⚙️ People DB. This is the second major lesson of a properly set up workspace. In general, you should collapse things into as few databases as possible.

Now, there are all different types of Properties that you can add to your databases.  In the ⚙️ People DB example, I've included a few, and titled them.

  • 'Job Title' is a Text property
  • 'Group' is a Select property
  • 'Email' is an Email Property
  • 'Phone' is a Phone property

"Fast! Do we have Tilda's Release?"

Side note - One powerful feature to show you. Click on 'Quick Find' in the top left of your window. Type 'Tilda', and click on the item that comes up, which is Tilda Stillwell's page in the People DB. Does she have a release?

Your Turn to Build

It's time for you to work with these databases. The text gets a little thick here, so remember, I've recorded a screencast to help. Regardless, you should do these exercises yourself. We're going to focus on the Group property in the ⚙️ People DB.

  1. Make sure you're back on the ⚙️ People DB page.
  2. Click the 'New' button.
  3. Enter your name as the title of the page.
  4. Give yourself a job title, email, and phone #.
  5. Click on the Empty space next to 'Group'
  6. Select one option. Then select another. Choose one, and ignore the rest of the Properties.

If you go back to the ⚙️ People DB page, and scroll to the right, you may notice there are a lot of blank fields. This is totally normal (and proper) on Database Pages. Now, it's time for you to take over as I show you how to make this mini ocean of information much, much more palatable. I've created a blank page called 🏡 Staff Contacts list, and you're going to fill it in now.

Place the cursor on the blank page and simply type /. The slash lets Notion know that you want to place something here, and so it serves up a menu.  There are a lot of possibilities, but please, ignore all of them for now.

Type 'linked', and click on 'Create Linked Database', NOT 'Link to another page').  You'll see that you can now select from all of your databases.  Click '⚙️ People DB'. Boom.  You'll see that a (poorly formatted) instance of the ⚙️ People DB has appeared on the 🏡 Staff Contacts list page. Notice the little next to '⚙️ People DB'. That indicates that Notion is looking elsewhere in your workspace for this information.

Now, this instance of the ⚙️ People DB still has everyone in it, including people not on the staff. Let's fix that.

  1. Hover over the ⚙️ People DB
  2. Click the three dots by the 'New' button.  
  3. Select 'Filter'.
  4. Click 'Add a filter'
  5. Make the filter - Where 'Group' is 'Show Staff'

Show Only What You Need

You'll see that most of the people have disappeared, leaving only those whose property is set to 'Show Staff'. Nice. However, the list is ugly, and has a bunch of unnecessary empty spaces. Let's fix that.

Click on the name of a property and select 'Hide'.  Do this for 'Appearance Release', 'Crew Member Shoots", 'Group', 'Location', and 'Subject's Shoots'.  Now drag the remaining columns left or right to reorder them how you prefer. Voila - a clean, custom view.

Notice, though, that if you click on a persons name, their Entry Page still has those properties you've just hidden. In a properly set up workspace, you'll get used to sometimes seeing blank Property fields.

Views (A Common 'Stuck Point')

You've just created a custom Table View of the ⚙️ People DB to serve as a contact list. Let's create another view to look at this information another way.

  1. Hover over the '↗⚙️ People DB'
  2. Click 'Add a view'
  3. Enter 'Staff Gallery' in 'View Name'
  4. Select 'Gallery' from the list.
  5. Click 'Create'

A new view, labeled 'Staff Gallery' has been created. Click on 'Staff Gallery', and choose 'Table view'. You're now looking at the view you made in the section above. Let's rename it to be more descriptive. Click 'Table view', and click the three dots to the right of 'Table View' in the pop-up. Type in 'Staff Grid'. Now, click 'Staff Grid' to go back to the 'Staff Gallery' view.

Notice, though, that the Staff Gallery view has everyone in the People DB again. This is because filters reset when creating a new view. Apply a filter to once again where 'Group' is 'Show Staff'. Now you'll see a nice gallery of only your staff folks, but where is their information? In all views except table views, you need to let Notion know which properties you'd like displayed on a certain view.

  1. Hover over the '↗⚙️ People DB'
  2. Click the three dots between 'Search' and 'New'
  3. Click 'Properties'
  4. Turn the properties for the information you want on
  5. Use the six-dot handles next to each property to drag them in the order you desire on the Staff Gallery view.

Now, go to the 🏠 Shoot Schedule page.

  1. Put your cursor on the white area and type /
  2. As above, select 'Create linked database'.
  3. Select 'Shoots DB'
  4. Hover over the table and click 'Add a view'
  5. Name it 'Shoot Calendar'
  6. Select 'Calendar' from the options below.
  7. Click the three dots between 'Search' and 'New'
  8. Select 'Properties' and turn on 'Tags'

The Final Keys

If you've just completed the steps immediately above, you'll notice that there are two locations on the schedule that don't seem to have location releases. This is one of the great uses of Notion - spotting issues quickly and automatically. We do that by connecting the Databases together.

Let's say that you've been in touch with a ton of locations before whittling it down to those you plan to film in the series, and as you enter future shoots in the Shoots DB, you realize that maybe there's a Location Release or two missing. Maybe. Well, then we connect the Shoots DB and the Locations DB through a unique property...a Relation Property.

Go to the ⚙️ Shoots DB page

  1. Click on any property and click 'Insert Left'
  2. Click on the header of the new row.
  3. Hover over "Text" under "Property Type".
  4. Select 'Relation'.
  5. From the dropdown, select 'Location DB'.
  6. Title the Property 'Location(s)'
  7. Click on the header row and 'Insert Right'
  8. Hover over "Text" under "Property Type".
  9. Select 'Rollup'.
  10. Title the Property 'Release(s)'.
  11. Click on an open cell in the 'Release' column.
  12. Under 'Relation', select ↗Location
  13. Under Property, select 'Location Release'

Whew. Again, getting set up is the hardest part. Almost done.

  1. Look at 'Suki's First Interview'.
  2. Click the open cell under '↗Location(s)'
  3. A search pops up. Type 'Studio'
  4. And select 'Cambrian Studios'

Boom, the two databases are linked and, this database is looking into the Location DB to see if we have the release for where we plan to shoot. This may seem like a small bonus, but this is really how you unlock all sorts of time-saving possibilities. To fill in all other studio shoots, you can do some Command + C and Command + V magic (or you can skip it).

Final step! Connect the non-studio Shoots with their Locations to see if we have all the releases that we need. Simply look at the name of the shoot, like 'Jamy's Burger Tour', click on the open cell under ↗Location, search for 'Jamy's', and click it to connect it. If we have the location release, it will appear in the cell next to it. If not, that cell will be empty.

And this is where I leave you to your own devices. You can investigate the prepared workspace further to see more pages that I've made in order to get you thinking about possibilities for your production. Perhaps you need a 'Watercraft DB', which connects to the People DB to let you know each boat's crew members, and has an attachment property for each watercraft's executed insurance agreement.

Is it 10x Better?

As stated at the start, every production is different, and has different needs.  But Notion does solve a lot of common issues that have propped up on nearly every production I've been a part of. With Notion, it's exceedingly easy to find out exactly where everything on your production lies, and your Notion becomes easier and more powerful over time. Putting in the time to build it is truly an investment in the future of your production.

But any Production veteran worth their salt will always go with what's been proven to work rather than taking an untested course. I 1000% agree with that mindset, and only deployed Notion when I was extremely confident about its capabilities and my capabilities with it. Our Notion workspace exceeded my expectations through Pre-Pro and the Field, and kind of blew me away in Post. So maybe ask yourself, "Is our current way of doing things really working, or have we just learned how to deal with a broken system?".

Thanks! And feel free to reach out with questions.

Brian is a both veteran of television production and iOS App development. In TV, he's served as an executive producer for networks like National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Discovery's Shark Week. In the app world, he created TimeStamp Keyboard, and advises media-centric organizations on concept creation and workflow logistics.

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