Given the fast paced advancements in tech, DSLR cameras are revolutionizing filmmaking in swarms, and often too quick to keep up with. When millions of content producers out there who have many stories to tell, have made their livings completely on the DSLRs, it can be a bit of a surprise that high end DSLR/Mirrorless have still not adapted to filmmaking standards. This is obviously with good reason: Timecode circuitry can often be quite expensive to integrate, and a large number in the user base actually know it even exists, let alone how it is used. Another good number are still-photographers.
DSLR and mobile filmmaking have completely overlooked one key aspect – Sound. They have pampered the insanely artistic filmmakers who are invariably left just under the bar, because of the lack of access to understanding the logistics of data in production. WHY? because 9 out of 10 cases, it is one lapel mic, running straight into the camera, or a sound mixer friend feeding the camera straight. That has been the audio industry’s answer to the DSLR film-maker, which basically says, “forget about double system recording”. But really, all those half baked products are more or less designed to keep the Prosumer filmmaker, always a Prosumer filmmaker. So here’s the deal: If you’re anything above Prosumer, you need timecode. Now, if you’re all pumped, but are wondering what timecode is, here is a basic primer.
Here’s a chapter outline so you can skip on ahead:
- How the Big Boys do it
- Bringing Timecode to DSLR workflow
- When you have access to a good recordist
- Going to war without a rifle (OR) If all the recordists in town were eaten up by monster Zombies
- A few notes on responsible filmmaking
- Final Words
So let’s begin:
Myth no. 1: Timecode is only intended for sound, and it makes the production look cool.
Timecode was standardised for film and TV production, years ago, by SMPTE (Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers). These guys knew what they were doing. The figured out a system to keep everything organised in such a way that multiple challenges could be addressed, right from production to post-production, ranging from things like managing huge amounts of data, multiple cameras, multiple editor workflows, integrating dialogue with post-production sound, DI Colour grading, etc, with one silver bullet. However, for some reason, it hasn’t made the vocabulary of the filmmaking lightweights. Probably because having timecode is like having the holy-grail in post-production, and most of the people talking it’s lingo, are somewhat veteran filmmakers with a few scars and stories to tell on how they got there.
On the other side of the fence, there’s a huge number of production sound recordists and mixers who have always known timecode, because they frankly can’t work without it; but have no choice but to adapt to lesser efficient tools like *Plural Eyes*, which really just encourage a completely unreliable and inconsistent way of workflow. It goes like this: If you were suddenly signed to produce a 10 million dollar film, and you march ahead to find your sound man assuming plural eyes is the transition tool when going into post, you’ll probably be laughed out of the room. There’s a right way to do this.
Myth no. 2: Timecode just happens on big budget productions.
Interestingly, depending on how you’re set up, it can cost somewhere between $20 – 100 to integrate basic timecode into your workflow. If you’re thinking that’s too much, then here’s some perspective: That’s about what Plural Eyes costs. If it were completely up to me, I’d also say a little investment in Timecode gear goes a long way for any one in the filmmaking pipeline, especially for those going the DSLR route.
1. How the big boys do it
Before we try to adapt a professional workflow into a ‘prosumer’ situation, it’s worth understanding how the professinals with access to the big gear do it. The ideal use case is where a sound recordist feeds timecode to the cameras’ timecode inputs, either via a well insulated timecode cable, or a wireless timecode system; which brings us to the whole point of this article. DSLRs don’t have timecode inputs. This is where all the problems begin, and your footage is bound to become a complete menace to work with, and since you’re obviously still a small budget production, you’re bound to be doing everything yourself later.
Myth no. 3: All professionally used cameras savvy timecode.
Interestingly, a lot of professional choice cameras don’t accept Timecode. If one did a round up of cameras that shoot with timecode, it would pretty much boil down to RED, Arri and a few other honourable mentions. However, for the sake of a better understanding, let’s assume in this chapter, that we only have devices that can speak the timecode lingo, i.e., have timecode sending and receiving capabilities.
1.1 Breaking down the Timecode signal and staying in sync
For all practical purposes, Timecode is a just digital stream that is constantly being generated somewhere, and received everywhere else on set. It is often known as LTC (Linear Timecode), which refers to the physical aspect of timecode interpreted as being transmitted linearly as time passes. If one were to plug a speaker to a device that outputs Linear Timecode, it would sound like an internet modem screeching its heart out. Instead, if one were to connect a Timecode output to a recording device, it would simply record the digital stream as an audio file. At this stage, it is good to mention that recording Timecode to an audio track is an often practiced strategy, but isn’t a 100% fool proof. However, one can expect things to run fairly smooth while recording at 24-bit::48000 Hz LPCM formats.
The goal while using Timecode at production, is to somehow have the same snapshot of numbers across all devices, at one given instance in time. That means that all the recording units (audio and video), bear the same timestamp as on the generating unit. If the sound begins to roll at 03:04:05:04 (hh:mm:ss:ff), and the video recorder begins to roll exactly 3 seconds later, then the video time stamp, would begin at 03:04:08:04 (3 seconds later and 4 frames in), accounting for the lack of any video information at the audio’s starting Timecode. So one would basically need to find a way to record that frame snapshot information onto the audio or video clip. This brings us to the modes of a Timecode device:
- Jam Sync: The most popular form of syncing Timecode devices which involves one device being ‘jammed’ with a constantly running generator. What that means is, one master device generates Timecode without ever stopping. Any slave device that accepts Timecode, is fed the master Timecode, and the slave’s internal Timecode locks on to the master’s Timecode. Once Jammed, it is disconnected and the slave continues to follow the Timecode of the master so long as it has an accurate crystal. For less accurate devices, frequent jamming helps overcome slip errors to a good extent.
- Record Run: In this case, the generator only runs Timecode once record begins. This requires the generators and slaves to be connected at all times.
- Free Run/TOD: This mode is usually how jam sync is established. The Timecode is let to run freely, and can begin at 00:00:00:00 (any user defined timestamp), or mimic the time of the day (TOD).
There are other modes of Timecode which allow for more complex film gear to communicate more intricately with each other, but the above mentioned are the most common and most important to understand. The others are often derivatives of the above methods.
2. Bringing Timecode to DSLR workflow
Alright, so let’s get to it. The goal here is to get usable Timecode information onto the DSLR. Let me state right off the bat that with mobile devices, it’s impossible to get Timecode to automatically be embedded into the metadata of the clip, during the filming process. That said, there are some alternatives depending on the available budget, and what you’re set out to achieve. The bonus here, is that these workflows can also be adapted to filming on the iPhone. All you need is to make sure you use the same frame-rate everywhere. Imagine that! Timecode on an iPhone.
For the sake of production integrity, these are listed in a decreasing order of preference. I’ve also assumed 24 fps for the examples here, but what’s important to note is that all the recording media on set should be set to the same frame-rate in their SMPTE timecode settings. Directors, Producers and DOPs often have good reasons to prefer one frame-rate over the other. The important thing to remember here is that SMPTE timecode can only ID as far as 30fps. Basically, If you’re shooting 120fps with sync dialogue, you better have a very good reason for that.
Now, one can bring Timecode to the equation in a couple of ways…
2.1 When you have access to a (good) recordist/well-equipped recordist
Assuming you have a recordist who can provide you with a Timecode output, you can make the best of the situation by using one of the following methods:
2.1.1 The world of the MovieSlate app
This very handy app allows one to jam sync an iPad, or iPhone or mobile device with the sound man’s Timecode generator. This allows us to have a faithful time-locked T/C signal displayed on the mobile device’s screen. One would then hold the mobile device in focus with the cameras before rolling. If done correctly, when you import these clips into an NLE, the first frame of this clip would read as a numbered frame. Once the footage is imported into an NLE, the numbers displayed on the first frame have to be manually entered into the start Timecode fields of the metadata. This can also be populated in a 3rd party application like QtChange by VideoToolShed.
If not the MovieSlate app, there are alternatives on iOS or Android which will provide the same or similar functionality. The ‘Timecode toolbox’ app by Denecke is one such option. Bear in mind that mobile devices don’t have very precise onboard clocks. In time, they will drift apart, so it is advisable to jam sync for each take when using this method.
It can be a bit painstaking to enter each clip’s Timecode manually but this will later save immense time and effort, allowing complex round trips with DaVinci Resolve, or Sound Editors. Remember to also enter a ‘ReelID’ or ‘Tape Name’ in the metadata as you populate it. It’s simple: All clips on one memory card correspond to one unique reel number. This allows you to distinguish between footage bearing the same Timecode, but shot on different cameras etc. Unfortunately, these are unavoidable because DSLRs just don’t permit for these nitty gritties to be dealt with at production stage, but taking the time before you begin edit is crucial. Maybe have a friend over for some beer, and take his help dealing with the job. Production credits can help add to the list of perks.
Pro-tip: Keep all Reel IDs short in length, without spaces and special characters and all in uppercase (For accurate EDL generation).
One other thing to mention here is that as an alternative to mobile apps, one can rent or invest in a roadworthy smart-slate, which is also more rugged and accurate to be on a production set. Even better, they can sometimes stay in sync over Wi-Fi networks, and often needn’t be re-jammed for up to 12 hours. Apps like movie slate also allow the Timecode to be mirrored across multiple devices over a local WiFi network, without the need for expensive wireless Timecode gear and may still be the preferred choice when using a multi-cam workflow, given budget constraints.
2.1.2 HDMI recorders
One saving grace is that some DSLRs allow for an external HMDI screen/recorder to be interfaced. With a little extra budget on hand, one might be able to make the whole job go a lot easier. The video data is recorded directly onto the external recorder, and sometimes these devices allow for a Timecode signal to be fed to them. This is not only closest to optimal, but also effective because Timecode is embedded into the metadata (Ok, I lied about it earlier). Some worth mentions for HDMI screen options are the Atomos Shogun, or Video Devices Pix E5, or E7. Most cinematographers would kill for these, because it also gives them the advantage of a larger and clearer picture to work with. However, it is unlikely that these recorders have internal clocks and it is highly probable that they require a constant feed of input timecode, so Jam Syncing is an unlikely affair.
2.1.3 Working with recorded LTC
Another option is to feed the recordist’s Timecode output into the mic input of the DSLR. If done correctly, one can later employ tools like ‘Tentacle Sync Studio’ (Mac Only), or ‘AuxTC’ to read the recorded Timecode and embed it in the metadata of the clip. Another great freeware tool out there that does this (Windows Only) is DSLRSync
Something worth noting is that Timecode generators output the signal at certain standardised operating levels. It is worth knowing whether you’re receiving a mic level or line level output from the recordist. If it is a line level, this needs to padded/attenuated down to a mic level. If not done correctly, the signal will be too high (hot) for the DSLR’s mic input and get distorted. Considering you have already lost the audio when you plugged in the Timecode cable, you officially have nothing to work with. The ‘Timecode ToolBox’ app by Denecke is a great way to check levels before running into a DSLR camera. If the signal hits the red bars in the app, it is distorting and needs to be toned down in order to work like it should.
It is especially essential to have a tech run with the team before shooting any material in this case. If for some reason things don’t work consistently, it is advisable to abandon the approach and pick another alternative.
2.2 Going to war without a rifle (OR) If all the recordists in town were eaten up by monster zombies
If for some reason you don’t have access to a recordist, there are still something to try, once again in decreasing order of preference:
2.2.1 The Tentacle Attack
Assuming the worst, Ulrich Esser and Maximilian Kaiser bring us another marvel of German Engineering and Design that they call ‘Tentacle Sync’. The tentacle sync is a pocket sized device, which generates and syncs to timecode. The device integrates perfectly with almost any sound kit and camera, and also allows recording timecode on DSLRs using the Mic inputs. They provide their own post production tool called ‘Tentacle Sync Studio’ which later allows the data to be synched up.
Every filmmaking professional should ideally own one of these devices, allowing each device on set to be independently capable of timecode. This is method has been known to be quite foolproof and has also been receiving rave reviews ever since it released. The best part of the Tentacle sync is that it integrates perfectly well with a sound kit, if you manage to find a sound recordist who survived the apocalypse.
2.2.2 The final fail-safe in Timecode workflows
If all else fails and you have no choice at all, then try this: It is far from ideal, but will still help optimize much of the workflow, especially in post-production. Good DI colourists, and Sound Editors can work wonders for less than ideal footage, but without Timecode, they are really doing sleepless nights, for much less than what they bargained for. Bogging the crew down with technical insufficiencies can only lead to an inefficient creative output.
This method is basically an adapted version of the recorded LTC approach. In order to achieve this, you’ll need a device that can play back an audio file (phone, or wave player). One would then download a 24hour long audio file of pre-recorded Timecode and load it on to a player. From there, the output of the player is fed to the camera’s mic inputs and the recorder where audio is being recorded separately. Later, at the edit table, we’d use tools like ‘Tentacle Sync Studio’ or ‘AuxTC’ to bring the data into sync. Alternately, the recorder playing the timecode file can be used to jam sync with the Movie slate app.
There’s also one extra failsafe, when the audio recorder has an in-built mixer and a Phono output, like a Zoom H4n, or H6. The mixer can be used to mix all audio channels to the right channel and leave pure Timecode in the left. This allows one to retain some audio recorded in the camera.
3. A few notes on responsible filmmaking
Filmmaking isn’t one person’s making. It is more often tons of people each contributing immensely. It isn’t one person’s responsibility to manage Timecode entirely, and it is more of a distributed responsibility. Here are some practices on working with Timecode:
- Always Always ALWAYS use a clapperboard to provide a failsafe sync point. If one or two clips fail to have accurate timecode, one can still sync manually. This is Double System Audio 101.
- A sound recordist is not the only one expected to know how to work with Timecode, though sometimes responsible for generating accurate timecode on set. It would be unprofessional to hold the sound man accountable for all sync and Timecode responsibility. It is equally important knowledge for a good producer, editor, cinematographer or practically anyone else in the production pipeline.
- Timecode needs to be addressed at Pre-Production, along with a tech run.
- In most well organised productions, sticks/clapperboards are the 2nd AD’s responsibility. No matter what, be sure to have someone around who can work sticks and take notes. When you do a tech run, be sure to familiarise the 1st and 2nd ADs on the right way to use sticks – It’s embarrassing and time consuming to be found struggling on set for sticks; and yes, there is a right way to use sticks.
- Always consult with the Sound Supervisor and DOP on which Timecode mode would work best for everyone. It is their job to know.
- Choosing a Timecode workflow may have implications in post. Wherever possible, perform tech runs and verify that things work as expected.
- Ensure Timecode is padded where needed.
- When connecting multiple devices to a line level output, padding the timecode is usually not necessary. The line level output was engineered for this very purpose.
- A bad reputation and a spent budget is much worse than not having synched footage. It is wiser to admit defeat and pass up the opportunity than risk valuable money in the effort to execute an inefficient workflow.
4. Final Words
Timecode is certainly possible on DSLR and iPhone or Mobile workflows. More importantly, it shouldn’t be a hindering factor when so much can be accomplished so easily. Moving on, The MovieSlate app approach, and the Tentacle Sync approach are extremely reliable and will suit almost any situation just fine. In the movie slate app, sometimes frame numbers can appear fudged, when inspecting in NLEs like Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro. Nevertheless, entering the approximate frame number usually works fine when populating the start timecode metadata field. If one encounters an inaccurate sync in one of the files, it can be addressed individually using the clapperboard sound to adjust sync.