This article details what timecode is, how it gets broken, how to avoid this, and how to fix it.
What is timecode?
While your camcorder is recording images at about 30 frames per second (NTSC) or about 25 (PAL), it is also recording a timecode number for each frame, measured in hours, minutes, seconds, and frames.
Imagine a long street with a string of houses stretching for miles. Each house has its own unique address, just like each frame of video has its own unique timecode number. Timecode comes in very handy for many reasons. With a "reel name" (which is whatever you wrote on the white sticker label on the tape (you do label all your tapes, don’t you?), and the timecode number, you can quickly locate any shot in your entire drawer of tapes. (You do keep your source tapes in a drawer, right?
What is broken timecode?
Tapes with broken timecode can be a real headache throughout your entire project especially when logging your footage, moving a project to another computer, or re-editing a past project.
When you put a brand new tape in your camcorder and press the red record button, your camcorder looks on the tape, sees that it is blank, and starts writing timecode at 0:00:00:00 (that’s "zero hours, zero minutes, zero seconds, and zero frames").
When you stop recording, watch your camcorder’s counter carefully- you’ll see that your camcorder actually BACKS UP a second or two before it pauses the tape. Why? So, the next time you press the red button to begin recording again, your camcorder can look on the tape, see that there is timecode, and begin writing timecode exactly where it left off. That is, if you pause recording at 5 minutes (00:05:00:00), your camcorder will back the tape up to around 4:58:00. Then, when you start recording again, the timecode will pick up from the next frame, 4:58:01, and continue on from there, resulting in a continuous, seamless timecode stripe.
How does timecode usually get broken?
What if, you rewind your tape to review what you’ve shot, then accidentally let the tape play past the recorded section into the blank area of the tape? Then, the next time you hit record, your camcorder looks on the tape, sees that it is blank, and thinks "Aha! Brand new tape! I’m gonna start the timecode at 0:00:00 again!"
So with a tape with broken timecode, you might have timecode from zero to 5 minutes, then zero to 12 minutes, then zero to 7 minutes. This will be a nightmare to deal with in postproduction.
Wacky analogy: If you showed up one morning at your new job putting addresses on houses, and you saw the last three finished the previous day were 4:58:01, 4:58:02, and 4:58:03, what address would you put on the next house? Yes, probably 4:58:04, and continue onward from there. But what if you could not see the last address assigned due to a gap? For lack of a better idea, you might start addressing your house at 00:00:00:00. Imagine a street where the addresses started over every few blocks. It would be very difficult to locate a particular house!
Avoiding broken time code
Always postroll your shots. This means, after the action is finished, let the tape roll for three more seconds. That way, if you do roll back to review what you’ve shot, you can safely start recording again in the postroll area where there is already video (and timecode) recorded on the tape without the risk of erasing anything important. If you know you’ll be reviewing a take, go for an extra-long postroll- five seconds or more.
Remember, your camcorder automatically backs up a second or two when you pause recording, so you don’t have to worry about broken timecode unless:
– After reviewing some footage you shot, you let the tape play past the end of the footage into the blank, unrecorded part of the tape.
– You put a partially recorded tape in the camera and did not cue it up within the postroll of the last shot.
Striping your tapes
Some people advocate "striping"- or "preblacking"- your tapes but I don’t recommend it for the following reasons:
– Because of normal, tiny tape slippage, timecode breaks can still occur if you leave gaps in your recording, which will still throw most editing systems for a loop.
– Striping puts double the wear and tear on your camcorder, since it must go through each tape at least twice- once to stripe, and once to shoot.
– I’d like you to dedicate all of your preshoot time to doing valuable stuff- like planning your shoot!
Fixing broken time code
If you have a tape with broken timecode, do not despair! All is not lost. Here are two ways to fix broken timecode:
– Capture the tape into your editing system, then print it back to a new, blank tape and you’ll have continuous timecode on the new tape. Just watch out for video/audio sync issues towards the end of the capture with some systems, timecode breaks will throw picture and sound out of sync. You may need to capture your footage in chunks of 9 minutes.
– The surefire way to use footage on a tape with broken timecode is to plug one end of a Firewire cable into your camcorder and the other end into a friend’s camcorder (you’ll need a Firewire cable with a 4-pin connector on both ends). Then put a blank tape in their camcorder and press record on their camera and play on yours. Your video and audio will copy onto the tape in their camcorder, but their camcorder will write a fresh timecode stripe. Unlike analog copying, you won’t lose any quality with this type of copy. (A perfect digital copy is called a "clone".) After cloning your footage, your tape with broken timecode can be reused- just shoot on your tape again, treating it like a brand new, blank tape, and your camcorder will write a fresh timecode stripe as you record from the beginning, erasing the broken timecode.