Notes on Timecode and Timecode Sync for cinematographers, part 2.

workshops-275 Notes on Timecode and Timecode Sync for cinematographers, part 2.

In the first part of this 2 part article we saw how at some frame rates timecode will drift relative to a real time clock (Click Here for part 1). As well as drifting relative to real time due to the way timecode can only count the actual whole frames recorded,  the internal clocks that govern the timecode generators in many devices may drift slightly over time.

For single camera operation this drift is rarely significant but as soon as you start using multiple cameras or recording sound separately to the camera, even very small differences of just a frame or two between each device can cause problems. A one frame error is enough to cause a visible lip sync error, by two frames the sync error is pretty obvious to most people.

So, very often we need to synchronise the timecode across multiple devices so that the audio timecode matches the camera timecode or multiple cameras all have the same timecode so that it’s easy to re-align everything in post production. Most professional video cameras will have a timecode in or timecode out connector and the simplest way to sync two cameras is to feed the timecode from one cameras timecode out to the other cameras timecode in. For this to work both cameras must be set to “Free Run” timecode.

BUT YOU ALSO NEED GENLOCK OR SYNC LOCK

This is the part that often gets overlooked. If you read the first part you should understand that when a video camera is recording the timecode is generated by counting the number of frames recorded. As a result the precise frame rate of the camera will determine how many frames are recorded in any given time period and as a result the timecode for that clip. When you press the record button to start a recording the cameras timecode will match any external timecode fed to the camera. But from that point forward until the end of the recording the timecode just counts the frames recorded and will ignore any external timecode.

So the only way to ensure 100% accurate timecode sync between multiple cameras or between a camera and some other external timecode source is by providing not only a common timecode source but also a sync source that is locked to the timecode. By feeding the camera sync that is locked to the timecode into the cameras genlock input the cameras frame rate will be locked to the master frame rate so you will not get any timecode drift.

It’s amazing how many people overlook the fact that a cameras timecode generator counts frames while recording, so if the cameras frame rate is a tiny bit off, even with an external timecode source it will drift. It’s only by synchronising the camera through sync and genlock that you can be sure to eliminate any timecode drift.

SYNC SOUND:

If you are recording sound remotely from the camera you need to keep the camera and audio recorders timecode in sync. The timecode in a camera is dependant on the actual frames recorded while the timecode on an audio recorder is often nothing more than a data or audio track that records the timecode signal. It is rarely locked to the recorders sampling or recording rate. Because of this the correct way to link the timecode in this scenario is from the camera to the recorder.

If you do it the other way around (which for some reason appears to be the most common way) you cannot be sure that you won’t get timecode drift unless the audio recorder is also sending sync to the cameras genlock input. Normally a small amount of drift will go un-noticed on shorter shots. The cameras timecode will re-sync with the external timecode when you stop recording, so the beginning of each shot will have the correct timecode. As a result you will normally get away with feeding timecode only from an audio recorder.  But on longer takes, say shooting a music event it can become a significant issue as the camera and recorder drift apart over longer takes.

23.98fps.

As you should have learnt from part one, 23.98fps timecode can be particularly difficult to deal with as the timecode in a camera shooting at 23.98fps will always drift by 3.6 seconds an hour relative to real time. So be very, very careful if shooting 23.98fps but using an audio recorder that uses a real time clock. There is no way to satisfactorily sync a real time clock with a camera shooting 23.98fps. Over the course of a 1 minute clip you will see the timecode drift by over 1 frame. If you wish to do sync sound at 23.98fps you need to ensure your audio recorder supports either 23.98fps timecode or at a push Non Drop Frame 29.97fps timecode. You can only sync 23.98fps tmecode with 23.98fps timecode, but a free running, Non Drop Frame 29.97fps recorder should stay closer in sync than a real time clock.

If your audio recorder only has a real time clock I strongly suggest shooting at 24fps rather than 23.98fps where you can. 24fps is a whole number so 24fps timecode does not drift by 3.6 seconds per hour compared to real time. So any sync issues should be much reduced at 24fps compared to 23.98fps. If shooting 29.97fps (often mistakenly referred to as 30fps/60i) then you should use Drop Frame Timecode when working with recorders with a real time clock.

WHAT IF THE CAMERA DOESN’T HAVE TC IN?

There are a few pro cameras that don’t have a dedicated timecode in or timecode out port. The very popular Sony PXW-FS7 does not have timecode in and can’t be genlocked unless you add the optional extension unit to the camera. For cameras such as these, if you need to record sync sound on a separate recorder one option is to record the timecode output from the audio recorder as an audio signal on one of the cameras audio tracks. Timecode recorded on an audio track like this will rarely line up perfectly with the cameras own internal timecode so it should never be used as the main timecode for the recorded video. But there are plenty of software tools that will allow you to read this timecode in post production so that you can use it to line up your audio recordings with the video recording. This isn’t an ideal solution, but it’s better than relying on two different clocks, one in the camera, one in the recorder possibly running at quite different rates.

MULTICAMERA SHOOTS.

If you have multiple cameras or audio recorders it may be possible to loop the time code (and hopefully sync too) from camera to camera, so that every device is connected. Another option is to use a single master timecode and sync source and hard wire every camera to that. The problem with either of these is that if the venue is large you need a lot of cable. Sometimes it simply isn’t possible to use cables to connect everything together so instead of cables we connect the cameras wirelessly.

WIRELESS.

Wireless timecode connections normally work OK. If you momentarily loose the wireless timecode link the cameras timecode clock will just keep counting the frames recorded without issue. But as we have already seen, for true drift free timecode lock we also need to synchronise the camera via genlock. Sending genlock wirelessly is not normally a good idea. Any interruption of the sync signal will cause the cameras frame rate to jitter and that’s really bad. In practice it is quite common to link the timecode of several devices wirelessly without sync. Again for shot takes this is often perfectly OK. The lack of sync however can be an issue on longer takes. A good example of this would be a music concert where it really is vital that all the cameras and recorders run in sync.

Companies such as Ambient have wireless timecode and sync devices where each of the sync boxes (lockit box) has it’s own very high precision, temperature compensated sync clock.  All the boxes then sync to one master device, should the wireless signal drop out the internal sync clocks will continue to provide both a genlock sync pulse and timecode that is so precise that you should not see any timecode or sync drift over several days.

If you missed part 1 you can find it by clicking here.

5 thoughts on “Notes on Timecode and Timecode Sync for cinematographers, part 2.”

  1. Lately I’m finding that many of the companies that I freelance for are more interested in using Plural Eyes or Adobe Premiere to sync multiple cameras and dual system audio in post. This is especially true with cameras that don’t have external TC or Genlock inputs. I do find that roughly aligning each camera’s TC with the time of day (marking the TC start within a second or so) helps in organizing the clips in post. This was immensely helpful on a recent four camera shoot (Sony FS5, Canon C100, Canon 5D, and GoPro Hero 4). Much of the sound was construction related (concrete saws, jack hammers,etc.) Premiere was still able to sync most of the clips from the sound on each camera.

    1. Nothing like a lockit-box. The Tentaclesync boxes only share TC wirelessly, they do nothing for sync, the term “sync” is miss-leading here. Sync is short for “synchronise” which implies adjusting the timing to get the cameras in sync. These don’t do that, they just share the TC wirelessly. Lockit-boxes share TC wirelessly but also wirelessly share sync pluses so they can putt all the cameras on a shoot into sync, it’s a very different thing. Hence the very different price.

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