Jeffery Harrell

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Mar 21

But Jeff, why?

The blahg I blahged yesterday was really intended for an audience of one. So I didn’t go out of my way, when writing it, to explain a lot of the rationale behind the various givens that went into it.

Since I posted it, I’ve gotten some entirely reasonable and sensible questions about some of those givens. So lemme share a few thoughts not about the problem I ran into yesterday, but rather the rationale for doing things the way I do them that led me to that problem in the first place.

Let’s start by talking about film. You remember film, right? Probably read about it in books. It used to be this way of recording moving pictures.

Film workflow is fairly standardized, even in this day and age. Unexposed film negative comes on reels which get inserted into a special piece of camera gear called a magazine. This magazine gets attached to the camera, the film runs through it to be exposed, then the exposed (but still undeveloped, and thus light-sensitive) negative gets taken up on another reel inside the same magazine.

A film magazine, therefore, can be thought of as a contiguous length of film negative, including (in most cases) many takes of the same scene. Due to the nature of how film cameras work, each take buts right up against the take before it and the take after it; there’s no “blank space,” as it were, between takes on the same reel.

Thus we have our basic terminology: mags, rolls and reels are all essentially the same thing. They’re contiguous pieces of footage straight out of the camera.

When shooting on videotape — remember videotapes? — the same basic principle applies. You put a blank tape in the camera, roll a few seconds or minutes, stop the camera, reset to one or whatever, then restart the camera and roll a bit more. At the end of the day, you have a tape with multiple takes on it, one right after the other. Thus, you often find that in editorial the terms mags, rolls, reels and tapes are used interchangeably.

But let’s go back to film for a second, because clearly something has to happen between the part where the images are on film and the part where they’re in your computer being edited. Film reels — mags, rolls, whatever — are typically transferred to videotape all in one go. We said earlier that each reel has multiple takes on it; these takes are transferred to tape in one long pass. But here’s the cool part: The timecode on the tapes is linked to the reel number of the film being transferred.

For instance, reel one gets put on a tape that starts at 01:00:00:00. Reel two gets put on a tape that starts at 02:00:00:00. And so on, right on up to 23 (or 24 if you really want; that would be 00:00:00:00, which most people are disinclined to use for a wide variety of reasons).

Why do it that way? Because if you’re dealing with 23 or fewer camera reels, then every single frame of raw, unedited footage you’re working with gets a unique timecode number. All the stuff from reel six has timecode that starts with 06; all the stuff from real 13 has timecode that starts with 13. No two frames in the entire project have the same timecode.

Okay, but why is that important? Because it eliminates ambiguity entirely. In a setup like that, you’ll never find two frames numbered 03:22:57:06. There’s only gonna be one frame with that number, period, end of paragraph. That means when your EDL (or whatever your end product is) refers to frame 03:22:57:06 there’s no chance of getting that wrong — well, I mean aside from all the obvious technical and human-error problems that can come up, but we’re pretending both we and our tools are perfect for purposes of this discussion.

Of course, in the real world there are plenty of shows that don’t have 23 or fewer reels. In those cases, you need to track things like reel number, tape number and all that separately. NLEs typically use a combination of reel number and timecode to uniquely identify frames; you might have more than one frame with timecode 03:22:57:06, but only one of those frames is gonna be on reel 27. The others are on reels 81, 136 and 2,768 respectively. So in those cases, it’s the combination of reel number and timecode that uniquely identifies a frame … and if you’re a database geek, you’re probably thinking in terms of compound primary keys right now, and that’s good, because under the hood that’s really what we’re talking about.

But once again you ask, why go to all this trouble? What’s the big deal?

The big deal is this: Fundamentally being an editor is about communication. I don’t mean in the corp-speak “synergize our core competencies” sense of the word. I mean it literally: It’s about communicating a list of pictures. At the end of the day, the editor’s job is to say, “Gather round and attend, for here is the list of pictures that make up our show: From the reel of our Lord 37: picture the fifteenth, picture the sixteenth, picture the seventeenth, picture the nineteenth (for we removeth one frame to make the punch land harder), picture the twentieth” … and so on and so on and oh my god kill me now.

That’d be a valid way of communicating a list of pictures. It’d also be a completely stupid way of communicating a list of pictures, because it’d take so long we’d all be dead by the start of the second act. So instead we use shorthand. Shorthand like this:

001  8   AA/V  C        08:21:19:00 08:21:19:09 01:00:00:00 01:00:00:09
002  4   AA/V  C        04:00:15:00 04:00:16:02 01:00:00:09 01:00:01:11
003  7   AA/V  C        07:01:00:13 07:01:01:07 01:00:01:11 01:00:02:05

You may or may not know what you’re looking at there; depends on whether you got into editorial before or after, say, 2005. That there is an EDL: an edit-decision list. It’s a very simple way of communicating a list of frames. It breaks down into columns like this:

  • Event number
  • Source reel
  • Tracks
  • Edit type
  • Source timecode in
  • Source timecode out
  • Record timecode in
  • Record timecode out

Remember how we talked about the combination of reel and timecode uniquely identifies a frame? That’s why we can say “8 08:21:19:00” instead of “that shot of that girl looking squinty, no, not quite that squinty.” The reel-plus-timecode points to exactly one frame in the entire job, so we know once we’ve found a frame with those identifiers on it, we’re looking at the correct frame.

"Okay, fine, whatever, old man. All this talk of film cans and EDLs … it’s like we’re back in the dark ages. What does this have to do with me, a hip young editor with a 7D and a dream?"

It’s just this: Some cameras, the 7D being chief among them, do not record either reel numbers nor timecode while they’re running. In that example above, the first event in the EDL refers to reel 8, timecode 08:21:19:00. That identifies a unique frame; no other frame in the whole project has those identifiers on it. But those identifiers are only there because I put them there by hand. When that frame came out of the camera, it was reel 0, timecode 00:00:00:00. And since there are about 400 shots in this show, I had 400 different frames on my computer that were all called reel 0, timecode 00:00:00:00. They were all in different QuickTime movies — MVI_2237 or whatever — but they all had the same timecode and reel numbers. So if you said to me “reel 0, timecode 00:00:00:00,” I’d have to go “Which one?” Cause I had hundreds of those exact frame.

Remember: Being an editor is about communicating. And communicating is about being unambiguous. Two frames called “0 00:00:00:00” is bad enough; four hundred of them is absolutely intolerable.

So I grouped the QuickTimes into folders by scene — the scenes and shots fortunately having been coded for me in the shooting script — and then named them by scene, shot and take. So the QuickTime corresponding to scene 8, shot 8C, take 3 on the A camera would end up being in a folder called “8” and named “8C-3-A.”

Why code the takes this way? Because it makes it possible for me to sort them in alphabetical order and stripe them. That’s where QTchange comes in. Point it to a folder of QuickTimes and it’ll put reel numbers on them, first of all, but it also puts timecode on each shot. As I wrote previously, you can use time-of-day (or “free-run”) timecode, but I’m now even more inclined than I was before to use rec-run timecode instead. So you start with a list that looks like this:

Name          Reel    Start          End
8A-1-A.MOV    0       00:00:00:00    00:01:26:15
8A-2-A.MOV    0       00:00:00:00    00:01:59:03
8A-3-A.MOV    0       00:00:00:00    00:01:03:12

And you end up with a list that looks like this:

Name          Reel    Start          End
8A-1-A.MOV    8       08:00:00:00    08:01:26:15
8A-2-A.MOV    8       08:01:26:16    08:03:25:18
8A-3-A.MOV    8       08:03:25:19    08:04:28:13

(Note: I did that timecode math in my head just now, so odds are it’s all wonky. Take it as an illustration rather than a real example, kay?)

The first list should make any editor with any experience under his belt feel like throwing up. The second list, by contrast, looks totally normal: The timecode hour is the reel number, and the timecode is sequential and monotonic. Every frame is uniquely identified by reel number plus timecode for that frame. All is well. We can communicate.

Now, given the number of people who’ve asked me what this whole deal is about since yesterday, I can only assume that by doing things this way — a way we could charitably, think, call anal-retentive — I’m a weirdo. I dunno what to tell you, man. I’m not that experienced as a professional editor, but I’ve been editing in various non-professional and on-the-fringe-of-professional capacities for more than a decade now. In that time, I’ve had maybe three experiences (not counting yesterday) where a timecode or reel-numbering screwup caused me serious headaches. But those headaches were so serious and so painful that I now have a deep-seated Pavlovian response to this kind of thing. Seeing “00:00:00:00” anywhere gives me an immediate tummyache. Not having sensible timecode everywhere makes me feel like throwing up. Because I know if anything does go wrong — and fair point, it might well not — it’s gonna be a fucking catastrophe that probably involves my staying up all night three days in a row to redo a whole lot of work that I could’ve just taken a little extra time to do correctly in the first place.

So … yeah. My take on this stuff is somewhere between the voice of experience and the paranoia of the truly mentally ill. I make no implications about where along that spectrum it falls.


  1. jefferyharrell posted this