Category Archives: Workflow

Downloadable User Guides For The PXW-FS7 and FS7M2

quick-guide Downloadable User Guides For The PXW-FS7 and FS7M2

I was recently asked by Sony to write a user guide for the PXW-FS7 and FS7M2. Well it’s now complete and available for free download from Sony. The guide does not replace the manual but should act as a useful point of reference for those unfamiliar with the cameras. It should also help guide you through the use of the CineEI mode or change the various gammas settings in custom mode to suit different types of scene.

There are sections on exposure tools and controls, the variable ND filter, exposure tools and controls. Custom mode paint settings, Cine EI and LUT’s and additional information on the various shooting modes and functions.

There are two versions of the guide. One is an ePub book that can be displayed and read by may book reader programs such as iBooks and the other is an interactive PDF formatted for use on a mobile phone or tablet.

Click here for the ePub version and Click here for the PDF version.

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What is HLG and what is it supposed to be used for?

While we wait for Sony to re-release the version 4 firmware for the FS5 I thought I would briefly take a look at what HLG is and what it’s designed to do as there seems to be a lot of confusion.

HLG stands for Hybrid Log Gamma. It is one of the gamma curves used for DISTRIBUTION of HDR content to HDR TV’s that support the HLG standard. It was never meant to be used for capture, it was specifically designed for delivery.

As the name suggests HLG is a hybrid gamma curve. It is a hybrid of Rec-709 and Log. But before you get all excited by the log part, the log used by HLG is only a small part of the curve and it is very agressive – it crams a very big dynamic range into a very small space – This means that if you take it into post production and start to fiddle around with it there is a very high probability of problems with banding and other similar artefacts becoming apparent.

The version of HLG in the FS5 firmware follows the BBC HLG standard (there is another NHK standard). From black to around 70% the curve is very similar to Rec 709, so from 0 to 70% you get quite reasonable contrast. Around 70% the curve transitions to a log type gamma allowing a dynamic range much greater than 709 to be squeezed into a conventional codec. The benefit this brings is that on a conventional Rec-709 TV the picture doesn’t look wrong. It looks like a very slightly darker than normal, only slightly flat mid range, but the highlights are quite flat and  washed out. For the average home TV viewer watching on a 709 TV the picture looks OK, maybe not the best image ever seen, but certainly acceptable.

However feed this same signal to an HDR TV that supports HLG and the magic starts to happen. IF the TV supports HLG (and currently only a fairly small proportion of HDR TV’s support HLG. Most use PQ/ST2084) then the HLG capable HDR TV will take the compressed log highlight range and stretch it out to give a greater dynamic range display. The fact that the signal gets stretched out means that the quality of the codec used is critical. HLG was designed for 10 bit distribution using HEVC, it was never meant to be used with 8 bit codecs, so be very, very careful if using it in UHD with the FS5 as this is only 8 bit.

So, HLG’s big party trick is that it produces an acceptable looking image on a Rec-709 TV, but also gives an HDR image on an HDR TV. So one signal can be used for both HDR and SDR giving what might be called backwards compatibility with regular SDR TV’s. But it is worth noting that on a 709 TV HLG images don’t look as good as images specifically shot or graded for 709. It is a bit of a compromise.

What about the dynamic range? High end HDR TV’s can currently show about 10 stops. Lower cost HDR TV’s may only be able to show 8 stops (compared to the 6 stops of a 709 TV). There is no point in feeding a 14 stop signal to a 10 stop TV, it won’t look the best. From what I’ve seen of the HLG curves in the FS5 they allow for a maximum of around 10 to 11 stops, about the same as the cinegammas. HLG can be used for much greater ranges, but as yet there are no TV’s that can take advantage of this and it will be a long tome before there are. So for now, the recorded range is a deliberately limited so you don’t see stuff in the viewfinder that will never be seen on todays HDR TV’s.  As a result the curves don’t use the full recording range of the camera. This means they are not using the recording data in a particularly efficient way, a lot of data is unused and wasted. But this is necessary to make the curves directly compatible with an HLG display.

What about grading them? My advice – don’t try to grade HLG footage. There are three problems. The first is that the gamma is very different in the low/mid range compared to the highlights. This means that in post the shadows and mid range will respond to corrections and adjustments very differently to the high range. That makes grading tricky as you need to apply separate correction to the midrange and highlights.

The second problem is that the is a very large highlight range squeezed into a very small recording range. It should look OK when viewed directly with no adjustment. But if you try stretching that out to make the highlights brighter (remember they never reach 100% as recorded) or to make them more contrasty, there is a higher probability of seeing banding artefacts than with any other gamma in the camera.

The third issue is simply that the limited recording range means you have fewer code values per stop than regular Rec-709, the cinegammas or S-Log2. HLG is the least best choice for grading in the FS5.

Next problem is color. Most HDR TV’s want Rec-2020 color. Most conventional monitors want Rec-709 color. Feed Rec-2020 into a 709 monitor and the colors look flat and the hues are all over the place, especially skin tones. Some highly saturated colors on the edge of the color gamut may pop out more than others and this looks odd.

Feed 709 into a 2020 TV and it will look super saturated and once again the color hues will be wrong. Also don’t fool yourself into thinking that by recording Rec2020 you are actually capturing more. The FS5 sensor is designed for 709. The color filters on the sensor do work a little beyond 709, but nowhere near what’s needed to actually “see” the full 2020 color space. So if you set the FS5 to 2020 what you are capturing is only marginally greater than 709. All you really have is the 709  with the hues shifted and saturation reduced so color looks right on a 2020 monitor or TV.

So really, unless you are actually feeding an Rec 2100 (HLG + 2020) TV, there is no point in using 2020 color as this require you to grade the footage to get the colors to look right on most normal TV’s and monitors. As already discussed, HLG is far from ideal for grading, so better to shot 709 if that’s what your audience will be using.

Don’t let the hype and fanfares that have surrounded this update cloud your vision. HLG is certainly very useful if you plan to directly feed HDR to a TV that supports HLG. But if you plan on creating HDR content that will be viewed on both HLG TV’s and the more common PQ/ST2084 TV’s then HLG is NOT what you want. You would be far – far better off shooting with S-Log and then grading your footage to these two very different HDR standards. If you try to convert HLG to PQ it is not going to look nearly as good as if you start with S-Log.

Exposure levels: If you want to get footage that works both with an HLG HDR TV and a SDR 709 TV then you need to expose carefully. A small bit of over exposure wont hurt the image when you view it on a 709 TV or monitor, so it will look OK in the viewfinder. But on an HDR TV any over exposure could result in skin tones that look much too bright and an image that is unpleasantly bright. As a guide you should expose diffuse 90% white (a white card or white piece of paper) at no more than 75%. Skin tones should be around 55 to 60%. You should not expose HLG as brightly as you do Rec-709.

Sure you can shoot with HLG for non HDR applications. You will get some slightly flat looking footage with rolled off highlights. If that’s the image you want then I’m not going to stop you shooting that way. If that’s what you want I suggest you consider the Cinegamma as these capture a similar DR also have a nice highlight roll off (when exposed correctly) and do use the full recording range.

Whatever you do make sure you understand what HLG was designed for. Make sure you understand the post production limitations and above all else understand that it absolutely is not a substitute for S-log.

2020 Color Clips from the PXW-FS5 Crash Adobe Premiere CC 2017-1

This is not good. Unfortunately any clips recorded in the FS5 using the Rec2020 color option in the new Picture Profile 10 cause Adobe Premiere CC 2017.1.2  to crash as soon as you try to play them back.  The clips play back fine in Resolve or in earlier versions of Premiere CC, but with the latest version of Premiere CC you get a near instant crash no matter what your playback settings.

If you are running an earlier version of CC then stay with that for now if you want to work with the new HLG clips and 2020 color. Rec 709 color works just fine so you can shoot HLG with Rec709 color and edit that in Premiere CC, but HLG + 2020 color will crash Premiere CC 2017.1.2. Hopefully this will get resolved soon by Adobe/Sony.

Want to shoot direct to HDR with the PXW-FS7, PMW-F5 and F55?

Sony will be releasing an update for the firmware in the Sony PXW-FS5 in the next few days. This update amongst other things will allow users of the FS5 to shoot to HDR directly using the Hybrid Log Gamma HDR gamma curve and Rec2020 color. By doing this you  eliminate the need to grade your footage and could plug the camera directly in to a compatible HDR TV (the TV must support HLG) and see an HDR image directly on the screen.

But what about FS7 and F5/F55 owners? Well, for most HDR productions I still believe the best workflow is to shoot in S-Log3 and then to grade the footage to HDR. However there may be times when you need that direct HDR output. So for the FS7, F5 and F55 I have created a set of Hybrid Log Gamma LUT’s that you can use to bake in HLG and Rec2020 while you shoot. This gives you the same capabilities as the FS5 (with the exception of the ability to add HLG metadata to the HDMI).

For a video explanation of the process please follow the link to my new Patreon page where you will find the video and the downloadable LUT’s.

Why you need to sort out your post production monitoring!

One of THE most common complaints I hear, day in, day out, is: There is banding in my footage.

Before you start complaining about banding or other image artefacts ask yourself one very simply, but very important question: Do I know EXACTLY what is happening to my footage within my computer or playback system? As an example, editing on a computer your footage will be starting of at it’s native bit depth. It might then be converted to a different bit depth by the edit or grading software for manipulation. Then that new bit depth signal is passed to the computers graphic card to be displayed. At this point it will possibly be converted to another bit depth as it passes through the GPU and then it will be converted to the bit depth of the computers desktop display. From there you might be passing it down an HDMI cable where another bit depth change might be needed before it finally arrives at your monitor at goodness knows what bit depth.

The two images below are very telling. The first is a photo of a high end TV connected to my MacBook ProRetina via HDMI playing back a 10 bit ProRes file in HD. The bottom picture is exactly the same file being played back out of an Atomos Shogun via HDMI to exactly the same TV. The difference is striking to say the least. Same file, same TV, same resolution. The only difference is the top one is playing back off the computer, the lower from a proper video player. I also know from experience that if I plug in a proper video output device such as a Blackmagic Mini-monitor to the laptops Thunderbolt port I will not see the same artefacts as I do when using the computers built in HDMI.

And this is a not just a quirk of my laptop, my grading suite is exactly the same. If I use the PC’s built in HDMI the pictures suck. Lots of banding and other unwanted artefacts. Play back the same clip via a dedicated, made for video, internal PCI card such as a Decklink card and almost always all of the problems go away. If you use SDI rather than HDMI things tend to be even better.

So don’t skimp on your monitoring path if you really want to know what your footage looks like. Get a proper video card, don’t rely on the computers GPU. Get a decent monitor with an SDI input and try to avoid HDMI for any critical monitoring.

20170620_091235-1024x576 Why you need to sort out your post production monitoring!
Shot viewed on a good quality TV via HDMI from the computers built in graphics card. Notice all the banding.
20170620_091347-1024x576 Why you need to sort out your post production monitoring!
Exactly the same shot/clip as above. But this time played back over HDMI from an Atomos Shogun Flame onto the very same TV. Not how all the banding has gone.

 

Thinking about frame rates.

Once upon a time it was really simple. We made TV programmes and videos that would only ever be seen on TV screens. If you lived and worked in a PAL area you would produce programmes at 25fps. If you lived in an NTSC area, most likely 30fps. But today it’s not that simple. For a start the internet allows us to distribute our content globally, across borders. In addition PAL and NTSC only really apply to standard definition television as they are the way the SD signal is broadcast with a PAL frame being larger than an NTSC one and both use non-square pixels. With HD Pal and NTSC does not exist, both are 1280×720 or 1920×1080 and both use square pixels, the only difference between HD in a 50hz country and a 60hz country is the frame rate.

Today with HD we have many different frame rates to choose from. For film like motion we can use 23.98fps or 24fps. For fluid smooth motion we can use 50fps or 60fps. In between sits the familiar 25fps and 30fps (29.97fps) frame rates. Then there is also the option of using interlace or progressive scan. Which do you choose?

If you are producing a show for a broadcaster then normally the broadcaster will tell you which frame rate they need. But what about the rest of us?

There is no single “right” frame rate to use. A lot will depend on your particular application, but there are some things worth considering.

If you are producing content that will be viewed via the internet then you probably want to steer clear of interlace. Most modern TV’s and all computer monitors use progressive scan and the motion in interlaced content does not look good on progressive TVs and monitors. In addition most computer monitors run by default at 60hz. If you show content shot at 25fps or 50fps on a 60hz monitor it will stutter slightly as the computer repeats an uneven number of  frames to make 25fps fit into 60Hz. So you might want to think about shooting at 30fps or 60fps for smoother less stuttery motion.

24fps or 23.98fps will also stutter slightly on a 60hz computer screen, but the stutter is very even as 1 frame gets repeated in every 4 frames shown.  This is very similar to the “pull-up” that gets added to 24fps movies when shown on 30fps television, so it’s a kind of motion that many viewers are used to seeing anyway. Because it’s a regular stutter pattern it tends to be less noticeable in the irregular conversion from 25fps to 60hz. 25 just doesn’t fit into 60 in a nice even manner. Which brings me to another consideration – If you are looking for a one fits all standard then 24 or 23.98fps might be a wise choice. It works reasonably well via the internet on 60hz monitors. It can easily be converted to 30fps (29.97fps) using the pull-up for television and it’s not too difficult to convert to 25fps simply by speeding it up by 4% (many feature films are shown in 25fps countries simply by being sped up and a pitch shift added to the audio).

So, even if you live and work in a 25fps (Pal) area, depending on how your content will be distributed you might actually want to consider 24, 30 or 60fps for your productions. 25fps or 50fps looks great on a 50hz TV, but with the majority of non broadcast content being viewed on computers, laptops and tablets 24/30/60fps may be a better choice.

What about the “film look”? Well I think it’s obvious to say that 24p or 23.98p will be as close as you can get to the typical cadence and motion seen in most movies. But 25p also looks more or less the same. Even 30p has a hint of the judder that we see in a 24p movie, but 30p is a little smoother. 50p and 60p will give very smooth motion, so if you shoot sports or fast action and you want it to be smooth you may need to use 50/60p. But 50/60p files will be twice the size of 24/25 and 30p files in most cases, so then storage and streaming bandwidth have to be considered. It’s much easier to stream 24p than 60p.

For almost all of the things that I do I shoot at 23.98p, even though I live in a 50hz country. I find this gives me the best overall compatibility. It also means I have the smallest files sizes and the clips will normally stream pretty well. One day I will probably need to consider shooting everything at 60fps, but that seems to be some way off for now, HDR and higher resolutions seem to be what people want right now rather than higher frame rates.

Why do I always shoot at 800 EI (FS7 and F5)?

This is a question that comes up time and time again. I’ve been using the F5 and FS7 for almost 5 years. What I’ve discovered in that time is that the one thing that people notice more than anything from these cameras is noise if you get your exposure wrong. In addition it’s much harder to grade a noisy image than a clean one.
Lets take a look at a few key things about how we expose and how the F5/FS7 works (note the same principle applies to most log based cameras, the FS5 also benefits from being exposed brighter than the suggested base settings).
What in the image is important? What will your audience notice first? Mid-range, shadows or highlights?
I would suggest that most audiences first look at the mid range – faces, skin tones, building walls, plants etc. Next they will notice noise and grain or perhaps poor, muddy or murky shadows. The last thing they will notice is a few very brightly highlights such as specular reflections that might be clipped.
The old notion of protecting the highlights comes from traditional gamma curves with a knee or highlight roll off where everything brighter than a piece of white paper (90% white) is compressed into a very small recording range. As a result when shooting with conventional gamma curves ALL of the brighter parts of the image are compromised to some degree, typically showing a lack of contrast and texture, often showing some weird monotone colors. Log is not like that, there is no highlight roll off, so those brighter than white highlights are not compromised in the same way.
 
In the standard gammas at 0dB the PXW-FS7, like the PMW-F5 is rated at 800 ISO. This gives a good balance between noise and sensitivity. Footage shoot at 0dB/800ISO with the standard gammas or Hypergammas generally looks nice and clean with no obvious noise problems. However when we switch to log the native ISO rating of the cameras becomes 2000 ISO, so to expose “correctly” we need to stop the aperture down by 1.3 stops. This means that compared to 709 and HG1 to HG4, the sensor is being under exposed by 1.3 stops. Less light on the sensor will mean more noise in the final image. 1.3 stops is the equivalent of 9dB. Imagine how Rec709 looks if it is under exposed by 1.3 stops or has to have +9dB of gain added in. Well – thats what log at 2000 ISO will look like.
 
However log has lots of spare headroom and no highlight compression. So we can choose to expose brighter than the base ISO because pushing that white piece of paper brighter in exposure does not cause it to become compressed.
If you open the aperture back up by 1.3 stops you get back to where you would be with 709 in terms of noise and grain. This would be “rating” the camera at 800 ISO or using 800 EI. Rating the camera at 800EI you still have 4.7 stops of over exposure range, so the only things that will be clipped will in most cases be specular reflections or extreme highlights. There is no TV or monitor in existence that can show these properly, so no matter what you do, they will never be true to life. So don’t worry if you have some clipped highlights, ignore them. Bringing your exposure down to protect these is going to compromise the mid range and they will never look great anyway.
 
You should also be extremely cautious about ever using an EI higher that 2000. The camera is not becoming more sensitive, people are often misslead by high EI’s into thinking somehow they are capturing more than they really are. If you were to shoot at 4000 EI you will end up with footage 15dB noisier than if you were shooting the same scene using 709 at 800 ISO. That’s a lot of extra noise and you won’t necessarily appreciate just how noisy the footage will be while shooting looking at a small monitor or viewfinder.
 
I’ve been shooting with the F5 and then the FS7 for almost 5 years and I’ve never found a situation where I going to an EI higher than 800 would have resulted in a better end result. At the same time I’ve seen a lot of 2000 EI footage where noise in the mid range has been an issue, one particular example springs to mind of a high end car shoot where 2000 EI was used but the gloss and shine of the car bodywork is spoilt because it’s noisy, especially the darker coloured cars.
 
Of course this is just my opinion, based on my own experience, others may differ and the best thing you can do is test for yourself.

San Francisco/Bay Area Private Workshop, 4th of March, 2 places left.

I’m looking to fill the last 2 places on this intermediate to high level full day workshop. Please note: All participants signed up so far are seasoned pros with at least a decade of professional experience. Topics covered will be:

Scene Files and Paint Settings – Gamma Curves, Dynamic Range, Matrix and Color.
Gain and ISO, what do these really mean. Understanding the signal to noise ratio.
S-Log, S-Gamut and Exposure Indexing.
LUT’s and Looks, LUT creation and LUT use.
File handling and backup.
Grading introduction including color managed workflows such as ACES.
HDR – Introduction to HDR, what we need to know and how will it effect us.

This is a private workshop and there is a fee to attend. Please use the contact form if you are interested.

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.

Notes on Timecode and Timecode Sync for cinematographers.

This is part 1 of two articles. In this article I will look at what timecode is and some common causes of timecode drift problems. In part 2 I will look at the correct way to synchronise timecode across multiple devices.

This is a subject that keeps cropping up from time to time. A lot of us camera operators don’t always understand the intricacies of timecode. If you live in a PAL/50Hz area and shoot at 25fps all the time you will have few problems. But start shooting at 24fps, 23.98 fps or start trying to sync different cameras or audio recorders and it can all get very complicated and very confusing very quickly.

So I’ve written these notes to try to help you out.

WHAT IS TIMECODE?

The timecode we normally encounter in the film and video world is simply a way to give every frame that we record a unique ID number based on the total number of frames recorded or the time of day.  It is a counter that counts whole frames. It can only count whole frames, it cannot count fractions of frames, as a result the highest accuracy is 1 frame. The timecode is normally displayed as Hour:Minute:Second:Frame in the following format

HH:MM:SS:FF

RECORD RUN AND FREE RUN

The two most common types of timecode used are “Record Run” and “Free Run”. Record run, as the name suggests only runs or counts up when the camera is recording. It is a cumulative frame count, which counts the total number of frames recorded. So if the first clip you record starts with the time code clock at 00:00:00:00 and runs for 10 seconds and 5 frames then the TC at the end of the clip will be 00:00:10:05. The first frame of the next clip you record will continue the count so will be 00:00:10:06 and so on. When you are not recording the timecode stops counting and does not increase.

With “Free Run” the timecode clock in the camera is always counting according to the frame rate the camera is set to. It is common to set the free run clock so that it matches the time of the day. Once you set the time in the timecode clock and enable “Free Run” the clock will start counting up whether you are recording or not.

HERE COMES A REALLY IMPORTANT BIT!

In “Free Run” once you have set the timecode clock it will always count the number of frames recorded and in some cases this will actually cause the clock to drift away from the actual time of day.

SOME OF THE PROBLEMS.

An old problem is that in the USA and other NTSC areas the frame rate is a really odd frame rate, it’s 29.97fps (this came about to prevent problems with the color signal when color TV was introduced). Timecode can only count actual whole frames, so there is no way to account for the missing 0.03 frames in every second. As a result timecode running at 29.97fps runs slightly slower than a real time clock.

If the frame rate was actually 30fps in 1 hour there would be 108,000 frames. But at 29.97fps after one real time hour you will have only recorded  107,892 frames, the frame counter TC, won’t reach one hour for another 3.6 seconds.

DROP FRAME TIMECODE.

To eliminate this 3.6 seconds per hour (relative to real time) timecode discrepancy in footage filmed at 29.97fps a special type of time code was developed called “Drop Frame Timecode“. Drop Frame Timecode (DF) works by: every minute, except each tenth minute, two timecode numbers are dropped from the timecode count. So there are some missing numbers in the timecode count but after exactly 1 real time hour the time code value will increment by 1 hour. No frames themselves are dropped, only numbers in the frame count.

WHEN TO USE DROP FRAME (DF) OR NON DROP FRAME (NDF).

Drop Frame Timecode is only ever used for material shot at  29.97fps, which includes 59.94i. (We will often incorrectly refer to this as 60i or 30fps – virtually all 30fps video these days is actually 29.97fps). If you are using “Rec Run” timecode you will almost never need to use Drop Frame as generally you will not by syncing with anything else.

If you are using 29.97fps  “Free Run” you should use Drop Frame (DF) when you want your timecode to stay in sync with a real time clock. An example would be shooting a long event or over several days where you want the timecode clock to match the time on your watch or the watch of an assistant that might be logging what you are shooting.

If you use 29.97fps Non Drop Frame  (NDF) your cameras timecode will drift relative to the actual time of day by a minute and a half each day. If you are timecode syncing multiple cameras or devices it is vital that they are all using the same type of timecode, mixing DF and NDF will cause all kinds of problems.

It’s worth noting that many lower cost portable audio recorders that record a “timecode” don’t actually record true timecode. Instead they record a timestamp based on a real time clock. So if you record on the portable recorder for lets say 2 hours and then try to sync the 1 hour point (01:00:00:00 Clock Time) with a camera recording 29.97fps NDF timecode using the 1 hour timecode number (01:00:00:00 NDF Timecode) they will be out of sync by 3.6 seconds. So this would be a situation where it would be preferable to use DF timecode in the camera as the cameras timecode will match the real time clock of the external recorder.

WHAT ABOUT 23.98fps?

Now you are entering a whole world of timecode pain!!

23.98fps is a bit of a oddball standard that came about from fitting 24fps films into the NTSC 29.97fps frame rate. It doesn’t have anything to do with pull up, it’s just that as NTSC TV runs at 29.97fps rather than true 30fps movies are sped up by 0.1% to fit in 29.97fps.

Now 23.98fps exists as a standalone format. In theory there is still a requirement for Drop Frame timecode as you can’t have 0.02 frames in a timecode frame count, each frame must have a whole number. Then after a given number of frames you go to the next second in the count. With 23.98fps we count 24 whole frames and the increment the timecode count by one second, so once again there is a discrepancy between real time and the timecode count of 3.6 seconds per hour. The time on a camera running at 23.98fps will run fast compared to a real time clock.  Unlike 29.97fps there is no Drop Frame (DF) standard for 23.98, it’s always treated as a 24fps count (TC counts 24 frames, then adds 1 to the second count), this is because there  is no nice way to adjust the count and make it fit real time as there is with 29.97fps. No matter how you do the math or how many frames you drop there would always be a fraction of a frame left over.

So 23.98fps does not have a DF mode. This means that after 1 hour of real time the timecode count on a camera shooting at 23.98 fps will be 00:01:03:14. If you set the camera to “Free Run” the timecode will inevitably drift relative to real time, again over the course of a day the camera will be fast by almost one and a half minutes compared to a real time clock or any other device using either drop frame timecode, 24fps or 25fps.

So, as I said earlier 23.98fps timecode can be painful to deal with.

24fps timecode does not have this problem as there are exactly 24 frames in every second, so a video camera shooting at 24fps should not see any significant timecode drift or loss of timecode sync compared to a real time clock.

It’s worth considering here the problem of shooting sync sound (where sound is recorded externally on a remote sound recorder). If your sound recorder does not have 23.98fps timecode the timecode  will drift relative to a camera shooting at 23.98fps. If your sound recorder only has a real time timecode clock you might need to consider shooting at 24fps instead of 23.98fps to help keep the audio and picture time codes in sync. Many older audio recorders designed for use alongside film cameras can only do 24fps timecode.

In part 2 I will look at the correct way to synchronise timecode across multiple devices.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2