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When years worth of work can disappear in an instant, no precaution is too much.

It's a truism that professional animator, filmmaker and professor Eric Patrick knows well. His recent work includes Retro Cognition, an 18-minute film that took five years to complete. But a data disaster two decades ago on a nationally syndicated children's show almost derailed Patrick's professional career. That experience led to an overhauled data protection process — and a poignant lesson to share with his students. 

Patrick is currently an associate professor at Northwestern University where he teaches film, narrative production, editing and animation, among other courses. In addition to teaching, Patrick recently created the Citizen Primer series, an animated collection of infographics that explain government policies and functions in layman’s terms. He is also collaborating on a Northwestern Medical School grant to develop a series of videos to teach kids about reproductive health.

With so many ongoing projects to manage, Patrick must prioritize the protection of both his — and his students' — work.

The Protection

Patrick says Northwestern has a server students can use to back up their school projects, but they can't work directly from the server. Patrick encourages students to get their own hard drives, but a hard drive is not always a priority purchase for a college student.


They also upload work to Vimeo and YouTube, but Patrick points out that these sites lack video quality and don’t give students access to their original files. Patrick's archival solution? The humble DVD.

“This is the only semi-permanent way to store student work,” he says.

For his personal projects, Patrick uses the same backup process he’s relied on for the past 20 years. He begins by creating a specific file structure to arrange his project. Backgrounds go in one folder, for example, and Illustrator files go in another. Each time he opens a project, he does a save-as of that file with the day’s date.

“That way, if a project gets corrupted, I’ve only lost a day of work, and if a client wants me to back up to an earlier stage, I can go right back to that point in time,” Patrick says.

Once his file structure is established, Patrick begins the transfer process.

“I put files in various places: the drive I’m working on, a backup drive, a second backup drive, and a third backup drive,” he says.

He will keep one active and one backup drive in his office, a second drive at his house, and he'll send the third drive to his sister in Texas for safekeeping. It's a process that Patrick repeats every few months, though he also uses a Northwestern-sponsored cloud program and a USB drive to back up current files every day or two. 

“If the whole town of Evanston were to burn down, I’d still have a copy of my project,” he says, only half jokingly.

Biggest Data Disaster

Before delving into academia in the mid-2000s, Patrick worked as an animator for Nickelodeon's popular children's television show "Blue's Clues." Facing a deadline for a Thanksgiving episode — a huge moneymaking episode for the network — his drive stopped mounting and crashed. 

“That changed my life,” Patrick admits.

Frantic, he searched all over town looking for someone who could help but was unable to recover the footage.

“Basically, I had to start over. I had to go home and call my boss and tell him I was back to square one. I was frightened for my future, actually,” he says, knowing the air date wouldn't change. “I shut everything out of my life that moment and went through a period of two to three weeks where I worked day and night to catch up.”

Patrick met the deadline, and then he invested in new drives and changed his backup method.

“Since then, I always go in and give the same spiel to my students: Look, this happened to me, and it will happen to you,” he says.

Patrick stands by his now tried-and-true backup method.

“It sounds like too much, and it probably is too much, but I just think that because I’ve gotten burned before, I’d rather have too much than not enough."

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Images via Eric Patrick

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