Timecode is not a movie from 1994 starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and his right or left foot. No, that’s Timecop. But I bet you Timecop was shot with timecode. Why? Because timecode is the standard for keeping things organized on big film shoots—and also, little film shoots.
See, three cameras and one audio recorder don’t automatically coordinate with each other. Let’s say some neophyte labels their video file “day 1 scene 1 take 1,” while some other noob goes with “sc1tk1-d1” on the audio recorder’s file. What kind of fresh hell does this make for the editor assembling the footage? Fifth or sixth circle, to be sure.
Add timecode to the mix, and every file is now coordinated. Things are easy to find. Your editor enjoys one more day outside a room without padded walls.
What is Timecode?
Timecode was originally an audible signal that, recorded alongside video tape or other audio tracks, would allow editors to know where they were within any given piece of media. This facilitated better editing.
That’s a boiled-down reduction of timecode’s origins, and I don’t suspect that defines much for you. Indeed, the history behind timecode is long, and the different kinds (LTC, VITC, etc) are difficult to explain in plain English.
But the value of timecode isn’t hard to describe. Neither is the operation.
Timecode allows you to utilize a panoply of cameras and recorders, even though they may not be plugged into each other. They can all operate and move about the set at will. Yet each device will produce files marked and tagged by a unified system of governance, one which lays down a single temporal law: “Be it known to you, Mr. Recorder, and you, Ms. Camera, that you are hereby synced to 31 minutes and 11 seconds after the eleventh hour, at exactly 17 frames.”
Do I Need Timecode?
It depends. How many cameras are you using? And what exactly are you doing? Is this a YouTube haul or your first feature film? Is this a run-and-gun documentary or a music video shoot?
The YouTube haul does not really require timecode. If you’ve got one mic and one camera, you can achieve synchronicity with a clapperboard at the outset of every take—or a simple clap in front of the camera. Some people crave exactitude and need a little help from their software; here PluralEyes can be of help syncing your camera audio to your field-recorder audio.
However, if you’re using your single camera setup to shoot multiple takes, multiple scenes, or a whole movie, well, that’s a different kettle of fish. And, if you’re using multiple cameras to shoot a scene from different angles, then you really need something to tie the room together, as The Dude might say.
When editors assemble a scene, they select among different takes, or different camera angles. They’re also responsible for pulling the audio. That’s a lot of disparate media to coordinate at once. Luckily, timecode comes in and makes everything easier for the editor.
Provided all the units have been synced, and there has been no drift (drift is unlikely if the cameras and recorders have been freshly synced or jammed), the timecode will be exactly the same for each camera and recorder—for every camera angle, and for any microphone. So looking at the timecode, the editor can select every piece of media perfectly, stitch them together, and ensure the sync.
Say scene two was shot across Day Three and Day Four of a film shoot. The bulk of the scene occurred on Day Two and insets were filmed on Day Four. Say the best overall take comes from three hours, twenty minutes, four seconds, and nine frames into Day Two. Timecode will help the editor piece it all together.
Timecode is great for syncing multiple microphones and multiple cameras—unless you’re doing something fancy like attempting to shoot in 3D. For that, you need something else: you need something like Genlock.
What Audio Stuff Should I Buy?
If this sounds like your setup—multicamera with a single field recorder—we should talk timecode options.
Honestly, even if you’re only using one camera, a professional film that makes use of extensive editing should make use of timecode, if only to make your editor’s life easier, for their life is hard.
So, let’s talk.
First, you must ensure your field recorder offers timecode functionality. The Zoom F6 and F8n both have timecode inputs and outputs. Similarly, the Sound Devices MixPre-3 and MixPre-6 have timecode inputs, letting them easily sync to a timecode source and imprint your files with the coordinating information.
Now, how do you sync everything together? A popular option comes by way of Tentacle Sync. Tentacle Sync makes a small, lightweight unit that generates timecode, and furthermore, dictates timecode to your cameras and recorders. With the Tentacle Sync and the right cable (3.5mm on one side, whatever your camera’s timecode input connection is at the other), you can “jam sync” your cameras and recorders—force them to take your timecode, no questions asked.
You route the output of the Tentacle Sync to the timecode input of your recorder or camera. You generate timecode from the Tentacle Sync, and you proceed to jam sync the connected device.
You know in heist movies, when all the honorable thieves sync up their watches at the start of the robbery? Jam sync is like that: you’re “setting the watch” of each device, and it will tick-tock along with the master clock accordingly (in this case, the Tentacle Sync would be the master clock).
However, you don’t just jam, sync, and walk away. Each device still runs with its own, internal sense of time. It’s quite possible for one camera’s clock to drift away from the others—in fact, you can pretty much count on this happening after a few hours of operation. So, it’s safe to repeat the jam sync process every three hours or so.
Back to our heist movie analogy: our ringleader isn’t just synchronizing the watches. He’s also counting on the dumbest guy working the job to have a really crummy watch. So, every few hours, he calls everybody up, and they all sync their watches again… over a huge conference call… because that’s a great plan… okay, maybe we’re stretching this analogy to its breaking point here.
More complicated systems abound that deliver precision beyond the scope of the Tentacle Sync, but for your initial needs, this will work.
Once your editors find themselves in post-production, timecode will make everything easier for them as they work in their NLE (non-linear editor). Whether they’re using Apple FCPX, Adobe Premiere, and Avid Media Composer, they’ll have the options to sync the audio to video with relative ease.
So ends our discussion of Timecode, and whether or not you need it. We haven’t gotten into the history of timecode here, but that’s outside our scope for now. If you want us to tell you whether or not you, personally, need timecode, please describe your setup/project in the Comments section, below, and we’d be happy to advise!