Digitally Sorting and Processing Payroll Files

We receive a huge amount of paper from many different places (inbox, email, dropbox, under the door, etc) when processing payroll and that’s not going to change any time soon. It may one day all be digital, but right now, only a portion of the paper is collected digitally. The payroll services offer digital time cards and some documents are collected digitally in start packets, but their offerings are inadequate and doesn’t reduce our rate.

We receive a huge amount of paper from many different places (inbox, email, dropbox, under the door, etc) when processing payroll in accounting and that’s not going to change any time soon.  Collecting paper from cast and crew is a requirement.  It may one day all be digital, but right now, only a portion of the paper is collected digitally.   The payroll services offer digital time cards and some documents are collected digitally in start packets, but their offerings are inadequate and doesn’t reduce our rate.

My biggest complaint about all of these systems can be summarized in two points:

  1. The payroll services are not really giving us a break on our expenses.  Their software isn’t substantially helping us; it’s designed to cut their costs – AND THEY DON’T REDUCE OUR COSTS.  They are shifting the data entry to us (production) and not lowering our fees for service, worker’s comp or SUI.
  2. Their process for start paperwork and time cards is rigid.  It’s designed to help them and not us.  It doesn’t include NDAs and it doesn’t include start paperwork from the producer.  It really is just for W-4, I-9, and start cards for the payroll service.

Some payroll services may allow other documents like a producer deal memo or NDAs but they are slow, cumbersome and not easy to add on the fly.  You have to ask them to add your docs and wait for some dude in a cubicle to finish his work.

Sorting Payroll Files Digitally

The reality in 2018 is that we still get a lot of paper in the accounting office.  To sort them digitally, I create a folder within my digital structure called Payroll.  Within that payroll folder I have additional folders that are deal memos, invoices, SAG, start packets, and time cards.


I also keep a folder, on the same level as the Show Name, called “Original Doc (delete after show)” as a resource for all the documents we get digitally.  More about this in the Workflow section.

Deal Memos

Deal memos are documents we get from production that detail any non-standard crew deals.  We get them for Above The Line (actors, writers, producers, directors), Below The Line (DPs editors, production designers, wardrobe, etc).

When I get these files, I put them in the deal memo folder so I can find and reference them.  I store deal memo in alphabetical order by last name.  So at the beginning of the file I will put the last name of the person the deal memo references, followed by the person’s first name and then the name of the project and whatever guild or union they belong to.

At the end of the file, using all capital letters, I write EXECUTED if it’s been signed.  If it hasn’t been signed, I don’t put “executed” at the end.  That way I can quickly see from the file name whether or not I have an executed agreement so I know to issue their last payment.


I store the payroll invoices the exact way they come from payroll services.  That way I have them digitally and I don’t have to request or download them because; sometimes I need to reference them and, they can be a hundred pages or more.  I want them quickly and don’t want the paper, I just want to see the digital copies.



I also keep two separate folders in the SAG folder.  The first is the folder for SAG Starts and the seconds is for Vouchers.  The time sheets that I create from the Exhibit Gs are in the SAG folder and I use the starts folder to store the SAG files as described.  The voucher folder is where I keep all the extras vouchers.  Although they’re not all SAG, I still keep the vouchers in one place and put, in the file name, whether it’s union or non-union.

Start Packets


That obviously contains all the start packets we received for everybody arranged alphabetically in the following order: last name, first name, if they are a loan out (I put the name of the loan out in parenthesis) and I include the show we are on.  And finally “start form” after that.

Sometimes I’ll get versions such as a revised start card.  To differentiate the revised document from the original, I’ll call it version one, version two, version three, or whatever fits.  Usually the original version doesn’t have a V1 at the end even though it’s the first version, but the rest have V2, V3, V4, etc. 

Occasionally, the payroll service might send a note requesting an occupation code from me.  If this happens, I’ll simply put the occupation code on the start and add OCCCODE at the end after “REVISED” in all caps.  That gives me a quick reference of what happened and why that document or start form was revised rather than just telling me it’s revised and having me go through the trouble of figuring out what I changed.

Time Cards


Next is the time cards folder.  I store time cards by weekending.  So my files, will say times heets, an acronym for the show I’m working on (three or four digits) the weekending; year first, month second, date third (always Saturday weekending).  For example, 2018-03-10, would be weekending March 10th, 2018.  At the end of it, it will specify whether it’s version one, version two, or version three.  If it’s DGA, IA, teamster, or non-union, I segment them in terms of how I want my invoices to come out of payroll and how I want to get edits.

A general note: when I send a document to payroll, the studio or the producer I consider that version “Published” and always keep a copy in the form that was sent so I can refer back to the document if asked questions by the person receiving the document.


In this section I will go over how I use the computer’s built in file manager and Adobe PDF Writer to sort and build the start packets and time cards I receive each week.  The file manager in every computer and every type of system (PC, Mac, Linux) is designed to sort and alphabetize faster and more efficiently that a human will ever be able to.

I put all the documents that I receive into the payroll folder the first day I receive them.  Two things go in that payroll folder; time cards and start forms.  I scan everything regardless of whether it’s a single document or a stack of documents.  Sometimes I scan time cards individually and other times I get a scan with 20 or 30 people’s time cards in it. 

BACKUP is key:

The first thing I do when I receive these documents and put them in the payroll folder is copy the file into the “Original Docs” folder.  I store them in another folder outside of the payroll folder I name “Original Doc (delete after show)”.


The reason for that is I want to have a record of everything that everybody has ever sent to me in the form and with the file name that they sent to me intact.  I also want to delete them once the movie or the project is over,

This allows me to go back at any point in the project and see who sent me what and research the source it I need to.  So, basically, it shows me how the document was when it first came to me before I dismembered it, changed it or added to it.

Having the original documents is super important.  They don’t take a lot of digital drive space.  Most of the documents are some megabytes large, not gigabytes.  A single gigabyte of storage from Dropbox, One Drive, Google Drive, or some other cloud platform can store what we get and gigabytes of storage is like $6 to nine bucks a month depending on where you go.  Google Drive offers 15 Gigabytes free (in 2018 terms).  Having a few gigabytes of digital storage allows you to keep both the original file as it came to you and the modified or dismembered file.  You need to keep everything and be able to reference what was sent to you so you can cover your ass.

MONDAY The Week Begins:

With the starts and time cards in the payroll folder and a backup copy in original docs, it’s easiest to begin with sorting and preparing start forms.  I take the documents  (starts and time cards) and I rename them so that they can be separated alphabetically within the file manager.  I add the last name and sometimes the first name to the file name of each start, and I let the computer do the data sorting to arrange the files alphabetically. 

I let the computer put the items in order because it’s really good at sorting – it sorts things alphabetically and numerically really fast.  I have the software show at least two columns in the file manager; one for file name, and the other for date modified.  This allows me to put the folder items in either filename order or date modified order.  That way I can get things quickly and I can move things around and very quickly to see what has been processed and what hasn’t.

Then I open and modify each start so they can be ready to be sent to the payroll service.  As I prepare each individuals start packets, they get proofed, they get edited and they have data added (like occupation code, rate, etc) in the payroll folder. 

If they’re not complete, they stay in the payroll folder.  Once they are complete and they’ve been sent to the payroll service, I then take that document out of the payroll folder and put it into the folder where it belongs, whether it’s a crew time card, start form or SAG time card. 

Shortcut Hack de-skewing a file: if you get a file that is completely catawampus you can quickly de-skew the image by running a character recognition (OCR) routine across the file.  The OCR routine first de-skews the image and then adds the text it can find and populates the text layer of the PDF.  Doing this will not substantially change the image, it will only add a few text bytes to the file on a layer you can’t see – it won’t make the file size dramatically bigger or change the image, but it will de-skew the image as a byproduct of OCR.

When I receive time card files with a page(s) in it, the first thing I do is I put the weekending date on the front of the file name.  The reason I do that is because I want to segment the old time cards from the week in which I’m working and then process the old/late time cards last.  In other words, I want to segment them by weekending.

When I turn in time cards to the payroll service, I give them all the current weekending and all the past weekending in separate files.  I also get separate edits for each weekending.  Arranging them this way helps me figure out and segment what’s current and what’s past.  I want to make sure the current time cards get paid by Thu or Fri.

In the payroll folder, I rename all of those files with the weekending in which the documents belong.  If there’s multiple weekending in a file, I will pull out the pages that are not in the current weekending documents within that file and add the weekending date to the front of the file (ie: 03-10 or 03-03 or 03-17, etc).

After this, I will break up every multipage file into individual pages.  When I do that, using Adobe, it allows me the option to later add the employee’s name to the file so the file manager can alphabetize each time card.  In some cases, when I breakup the multipage files, I will have to put a number at the end of the separated page when extracting; ie I might put _1 and _2 at the end of whatever I’m extracting.  Adobe will mostly to that for me, but sometimes it does not so I add if needed.

Once we get all of the time cards separated and classified into weekending, I use a software called File Renamer to rename the files so each file has matching core detail in the front of the file name.  The File Renamer is easy to get on the internet and it’s free.  If you are only going to use if for renaming files, just get File Renamer basic.

RENAMING for weekending consistency:

I’ll rename all of the files that have the weekending at the front of them using two or three-digit codes so that the computer can sort them all by weekending and then lump them into one file.  Next, I take all of those files by weekending, I display them in the file manager and after the weekending date I added to the file name.  I add a union designation (IA, TM, D, S, non, etc) plus the individual’s last name to the file name.  The reason for doing that is it will put all of my time cards in alphabetical order by weekending, by union segment and by last name on screen in the file manager.


Then once I get them named and sorted, which only takes me about 5 or 10 minutes.  I can clip through a couple of hundred time cards and put people’s names at the front of the file name pretty quickly.  All I have to do is view the file, look at the name, and add it to the file name. 

Shortcut Hack: If it’s a long name: I put in the first five or six characters.  For example, if the last name begins with “Q”, there’s likely not going to be very many last names starting with “Q” so I won’t type out the whole name.  It doesn’t really matter what the intermediate file names are before you combine them. 

I’m simply going to input a few characters and let the machine do all the work as far as the sorting and the alphabetizing of those documents.  Once they’re in alphabetical order by crew name, I then take all the time cards in a given type (IA, TM, etc) and weekending and combine them back into a single PDF file by weekending and union type.

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To combine the files, I simply highlight all the files, right click, then select “combine” in Adobe or whatever PDF software I am using and it’ll combine all of those files in alphabetical order.  Now I don’t have to move stuff around.  The machine has done all the work.  All I have to do is check the file to see if things are the way I need them to be within the file.  If the combining is correct, I save the combined file and delete the individual files that were used to combine.

Now that everything has been combined, I simply save it with the filename I want for that final file that will go to payroll. 

I name the combined file a Time sheet and give it a three-digit or a three-letter identifier or acronym.  If the show has a five-letter name or a five-word name, I give it an acronym or whatever winds up percolating up as far as the naming, I give it a weekending (WE), and then I give it a four-digit year, two-digit month, two-digit weekending, and then I give it the name with distinguishing characteristics of what it is I’m doing.  So if I’m doing writers, for example, I name it writers.  For example: Timesheets CoN WE 2018-03-17_Show Name.pdf

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The reason I put the date into that format is because the computer will sort by number first.  So we want all 2018, 2017, or 2016 to show up first before the month which comes second, and then the weekending date, third.  That way, when you go to file these documents by weekending, the machine will do all the work for you so you don’t have to spend hours searching for stuff.  You can very quickly identify in chronological order what document you’re fishing for.

The final step before sending the time cards and start packets to the payroll service is to reduce the file sizes as much as possible.  I run the file reducer routing that comes with Adobe PDF writer.  It works, it usually will reduce the file in half and not affect the images.  If the file is huge (over 4MB), I will also break it up so the each file is only about 4MB or less.

Sorting and Send To The payroll Service

I will segment and separate the versions of weekending.  So if I’m on a current weekending in the beginning of March and someone turns in a time card from a weekending in January, I give that January time card the exact same name as the previous weekending that I already processed, and then I give it a version; V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7, or any other number higher than the previous version.

The computer stores the files by name and by the date modified.  So, if I’m looking for stuff that’s old that I need to process this work week, I sort the files by date modified and those new time cards from the current and old periods will show up at the top of the list.

At the end of the day or the end of the week (more realistically by Thu evening), the payroll folder should be cleared out of all the documents that were delivered by noon on Monday a few days earlier.  When it’s emptied, that means all the time cards and starts slips that I received on Monday and Tuesday have been sent to payroll.  If I get any documents on Wednesday or Thursday or Friday, I don’t look at them.  I don’t even put them in the Payroll folder.  I bring them in on the next Monday for processing next week and the cycle repeats itself all over again.

The reason for cutting off on Tuesday is; if someone turns in a late document, they are going to have to wait until next week.  If I get their stuff by Monday at noon or possibly Tuesday morning, I can process with the normal payroll cycle.  Otherwise, crew is going to have to wait until next week. 

Closing Thoughts

So, basically, that’s how I use the sorting functionality that is built into the file manager in any operating system when processing payroll files – let the computer do the work for me.  There’s no reason to alphabetize by hand.  There’s no reason to put anything in chronological date order; the computer does that for you and quickly.

Note: You need to get yourself a license of Adobe PDF Reader.  It allows you to mark documents up, take pages apart, and put pages and documents together.  It’s absolutely important and it costs only $15 per month.  So, get yourself a copy and have the production pay for it.  If not Adobe then get some other open source or cheaper PDF software that allows you to add pages, remove pages, extract pages, add comments, highlight certain areas.  Whatever you would normally do with a pen and paper can be done digitally using a PDF reader/editor/creator.  It’s super important.  So, get yourself a version of it.  I use it on every single start packet and time card.


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