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Time code is an electronic signal that gives each frame of video or film a unique
identification number (address). The number is in the form of a "digital clock" showing
the hour, minute, second, and frame of the recording. Time code is used for several key
maintain sync between picture and sound
govern tape speed during recording/ playback
identify edit points during post-production.
As indicated, time code is used in both video and film production.
Recording Time Code
Time code is created by a time code generator and displayed by a time code reader.
The signal is recorded in one of two ways: on a free audio track or on the video track.
Let's take a closer look at the two approaches:
Longitudinal Time Code (LTC) - is recorded one of the audio track by a standard
recording head. The recording level can be from +3dB to 10 dB, depending on the
equipment. Recording at levels above +3db can be heard on the audio, so care must be
LTC is difficult to read at very fast or slow speeds because of the shift in frequency and
amplitude as the tape moves across the reading head. In fact, the signal may disappear
completely during freeze frame because no voltage is induced at the head.
LTC can be added at any time during post-production as long as there is a free audio
Vertical Interval Time Code (VITC) - is recorded on the video track by the rotating
drum. It occurs while the electron beam is shut off, or blanked, as it moves to its starting
position for a new scan. This period is called the vertical blanking interval and appears
as the black roll bar in the video image. During this period, time code is recorded on two
non-adjacent vertical lines in both fields of the video frame.
Since VITC is recorded with a rotating drum, the time code can be read at all tape speeds
including freeze frame. This eliminates the problems associated with longitudinal time
code. Another benefit is that it frees an audio track that would normally be used for
longitudinal time code for other uses.
VITC is built into the video track, so it can only be recorded during the original shoot. It
cannot be added later in post-production.
Time Code Frame
Each frame of time code is comprised of bits of data, called atime code word. The bits
are in binary form, representing either a "1" or a "0." Longitudinal time code words
contain 80 bits of data. Vertical interval time code words contains 90 bits of data. A time
code word has three primary groups of bits:
Time Code Address - This is the identifying information of the frame. It is in the form of
a digital clock, showing hours, minutes, seconds, and frames.
User Bits - User bits are not standardized and available for optional use by the crew in
recording information like scene, take, dates etc.
Sync Word A sync word is a group of bits found at the end of each longitudinal time
code frame. These bits identify where one frame ends and the next frame begins. The first
bit in a sync word is always 0 and the last bit is always 1. These are direction sense bits
and indicate whether the time code is running forward or backward.
The reference is an electronic signal that pulsates at precisely timed intervals. It is the
system's clock and serves to maintain the speed and phase of time code. Speed is
controlled by comparing recorded time code frames to the reference pulses. The tape is
minutely sped-up or slowed-down to keep the frames in step with the reference pulse.
This process is known as resolving.
Phase is the alignment of the time code frame with the picture frame. Each frame edge of
time code must align exactly with the frame edge of picture. This prevents edit cuts from
happening in the middle of a frame. Time code is said to be in phase when this condition
The reference signal can be set at one of three frequencies, depending on the country and
59.94 Hz - used for TV broadcast in North America and Japan. Established by NTSC
(National Television Standards Committee) and adopted by SMPTE.
60 Hz - used by general production systems in North America and Japan. Established by
SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers)
50 Hz - used by PAL and SECAM video systems in Great Britain and most of Europe.
Established by EBU (European Broadcast Union).
Frame Rate vs. Frame Count
Frame rate is the number of audio, film or video frames that pass in one second of real
time. For example a frame rate of 24 fps means that 24 frames are projected in one
Frame count is the number of frames in one second of time code. In the time code
address, it is the total count in the FRAMES field before the SECONDS field increments
by one.
A common error is to confuse frame rate and frame count. Frame rate is based on real
time and is used to measure speed. Frame count is based on time code and is used for
identification purposes. This distinction is needed to understand the different time code
systems, discussed below.
Time Code Systems
There are several time code systems in use. They are defined by the frame counting and
reference frequency employed:
30 Non-Drop Frame (NDF) - NYSC time code is referenced to 59.94 Hz. The
frame count is 30 and the frame rate is 29.97 fps. Consequently, time code is .1% slower
than real time (equivalent to a lag of 1.8 frame per minute).
30 Drop Frame (DF) - DF time code eliminates the difference in NDF frame count and
frame rate, so that time code and real time match.
It is accomplished by using an alternate numbering system that drops .1% of the
framenumbers (the first two frames of every minute are not counted, except those
appearing at every ten minute increment, which are counted).
DF time code is indicated by the use of semi-colons in the address display, rather than
colons. Remember, the actual frames are not dropped, only the numbers used to count
those frames.
25 Frame EBU This system is used for PAL and SECAM systems, both of which are
referenced to 50Hz. The frame count is 25 frames per time code second and the
frame rate is 25 frames per real time second. Time code and real time are identical.
In countries that use PAL and SECAM, both video and film are shot and distributed at 25
fps, so there is a direct correspondence between video and film frames. This eliminates
the need for a drop frame system.
24 Frame SMPTE - This system is identical to 30 NDF time code referenced to 60 Hz,
except that it counts 24 frames in each time code second rather than 30. The system was
developed for the worldwide projection standard of 24 fps. It is not often used.
Drop Frame vs. Non-Drop Frame
There is often confusion about whether to use drop frame or non-drop frame time code.
The first thing to realize is that no frames are actually dropped when using drop frame
time code. The time code counter is the only thing that is modified. In most cases it
doesnt make a difference which type of time code you use.

NDF runs at 30 frames per second and will gradually differ from actual time. If you are
making a video that must fill an exact time slot, like a TV show, DF is preferred. The
reason is that DF will make slight adjustments by skipping frame numbers periodically to
keep the time code exactly synced up with real time.

For this reason, NTSC TV broadcasters prefer DF time code. The program's time code is
the same as the actual running time. In film production, it's more convenient to work with
NDF time code, which counts frames exactly.
Jamming Sync
Many time code generators have a reader than can load the time code address form an
incoming source. This is calledjamming sync and can be used to create a common starting
address for several pieces of equipment.
For example, during a concert, jamming sync between the audio recorder and several
cameras will result in all source media having the same time code. This is invaluable for
Film Production

Video cameras have standard time code settings, depending on whether the camera is
NTSC or PAL. Film production is more complex because picture and sound are recorded
separately. Complicating this is that audio recorders allow you to choose any type of time
code you want.
For film production in the US, the standard setting for the audio recorder is 30 NDF. This,
however, is not written in stone and can be changed depending on the needs of the
project. The best approach is to discuss it with the lab before production to insure trouble
free syncing of dailies.
To sync picture and sound, a smart slate is used during production. The smart slate has a
time code generator that is jammed to the sound recorder's generator.

Smart Slate
Once the smart slate is jammed to the recorder, it visually displays the recorder's time
code at the start of each take. This reference is used to sync picture and sound in post-
When the film is shot without a smart slate, time code can still be added to the picture for
video or nonlinear editing. This is done using window or burn-in time code.