Misbehaving Clocks: A Primary Pathology of Timecode Troubles

by Gautam Pemmaraju

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
– St Augustine

Of the many professional vexations that I have encountered, there are a few that remain implacable. TC01 They appear unannounced, lurk in the shadows, thief-like, and seek out opportune moments to manifest, bringing a unique set of anxieties, afflictions and injury. There is a quality of mystery to some: their appearance is seldom anticipated, the torments they unleash may or may not be prior detected or prevented, and their severity may not be accurately assessed until after the damage is done.

So when, a few months ago, I took the tapes back from the two-day Mahindra Blues Festival to the edit studio for post-production (the multi-camera TV production of which I had directed), I was to soon realise to my utter dismay, the anguish that was in store for me. A multiplicity of timecode issues – drift, break, sync, control track – appeared on the master tapes and I was confronted with the horror of the loss of automated synchronization amongst other devilry. This perfidy cannot be overstated – the prospect of trying to achieve/repair sync, the flaws of which are in turn mischievously asynchronous, begins with the acceptance of many, many edit hours of painful remedial work. Someone or something fucked up and I had to pay for it. I need also to mention here that generally, post-production suites are vile, dank, freezing holes-in-the-wall inhabited in many instances, by overworked, underpaid editors with frightening dietary habits and appalling personal hygiene. Editors and directors, as in other symbiotic partnerships, have no alternative but to rely on one other and any breach of protocol or even some unknown impedance in their delicately calibrated fellowship, can lead to disastrous consequences.

The technical/historical aspects of this revolutionary innovation1 are reasonably well chronicled but there are literary and artistic ideas in the invocation of timecode – from its utility, its flaws and tempers, the consequential effects thereof, to its intriguing presence in mediated reality.

Read more »