Be Prepared, Pack and Black Your Tapes
People often ask if tape packing (see sidebar) is still necessary with DV tapes. I’m afraid so, maybe even more than ever. I’ve had a number of DV tapes that wouldn’t play back correctly. The tapes play with big blocks of fluorescent green or pink scattered around the screen or large horizontal black strips across the video. I’ve found that if I repack the tapes they would then play correctly in any of the previously used decks. How do you repack your tapes? Simply fast-forward all the way to the end and then rewind.
Besides packing you could also “black” your tapes. In the days of pre-digital video, it was critical that you black analog tapes in order to insure that the last frame of recorded video was synced to the next one you were going to record. If you didn’t do this and you had a tiny gap between recordings, there would be a short section of tape that appeared scrambled between your shots. Most often, this happens when you rewind and play back a scene to check and see if you got the shot, and then you play back a little too far. By blacking a tape, you set down a control track so that the video synchronizes up with that black video. To prevent this, you had to record black to your entire tape, perhaps by just leaving the lens cap on and pressing Record. Then, if you started recording a few frames after your last recording (which was synced to the original black recording), you’ll get a few frames of black, but you won’t get the nasty glitches or scrambling.
<p.It is a bit of a myth that you need to do this with DV camcorders. First, the actual technical reason why analog tapes would not sync up and scramble does not apply to DV video. Second, consumer DV camcorders always write new timecode to tape. Always. If you black your tape, it appears as if it isn't writing new timecode, since the new timecode is precisely synced with whatever timecode the camera starts with. The new timecode on a black tape, therefore, is identical to the timecode that it overwrites, but it is still new timecode. As long as you start recording to a section of tape that has timecode, the camera will continue recording new timecode from that point. If there is a gap or break in timecode, the camera will reset the timecode, and this can be (and often is) a problem with batch capture software. So it may be desirable to black your DV tapes, but it is not technically necessary. The argument against blacking DV tapes is that it results in headwear, but obviously no more that any other recording activity. This is a pretty strong argument, but in the context of organization (and this article), continuous timecode is much to be desired. It is up to your preferences and habits how you prevent breaks in timecode, either by blacking or by carefully making sure to start recording over a section of tape with some timecode already on it.
In Production and Still Organized
Now that your tapes are ready, you can shoot without needing to worry about them anymore, right? No!
Tape organization is an important part through every step of production. While you are shooting (or immediately after), someone on your crew should log all the shots and write down the timecode address for each shot (or at least for the good takes). You should label all of your tapes before you put them in the camera. This isn’t just a good idea for later: I’ve seen tapes accidentally reused on a shoot and good footage erased because the tapes weren’t labeled. You should also slide open the record defeat tab on the tape cassette as soon as the tape comes out of the camcorder.
Keeping good logs and being diligent about labeling is the best and easiest way to keep track of your footage. Try and come up with a numbering system that will make it easier to know what kind of footage is on the tape, such as a designator of R or RF for raw footage, SM for sub-master and M for master. You may also want to include some kind of date code. For example, if you’re working on a documentary about New York City, it might be helpful to know if that great wide cover shot of Manhattan listed in your database was shot before or after 9-11-01.
Tapes are getting much too small to include content notes on the label. I have trouble just getting the title and date on Mini DV labels. I suggest keeping good notes and keep them in a good database. Any home inventory program for tracking videotapes and movies will work, as will Microsoft Excel or Access. Log your scenes using the timecode numbers displayed on the camcorder.
If your database is inter-relational you can search by various fields. Try and develop descriptive keywords. For example, you know you have a great shot of wild horses running across the desert. You need the wild horse shot now, for another production, but can’t remember what job you shot it on. Go to your database and search for horses. Check the descriptions of the shots in the database report and you will find your shot. If you have a good database and have good notes, you’ll be able to find that shot right away, provided you also have a good numbering system for your tapes. All you will need to know to find any shot are the tape number and the timecode number.
Zone in on Your Climate
Now you’re ready to setup an archive vault for your raw footage and finished masters. There are basically two ways to go. You can buy a pre-made archive tape safe or vault or you can prepare a room, closet or cabinet to serve as a vault. Pre-made tape safes are available and may be the easiest way to go. Most commercially available tape safes and vaults are also fire resistant. If a commercial tape vault is out of your budget, find a safe place in your home or office where you can control the climate. Most people set up a room, area of a room or a closet for tape storage. Whatever you do, do not store tapes in your garage! Besides the problems of heat, dirt, dust and bugs, automobile exhaust is very harmful to tape. Be cautious about damp basements as well.
Ideally, tapes should be stored in an area where the temperature and humidity are both relatively low. The temperature should not be any warmer than 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Relative humidity between 35% and 45% is ideal. Some fluctuations beyond this range are acceptable, as long as it does not exceed plus or minus 5% in a 24-hour period. The air in the tape storage area needs to be clean. A sealed filtration system capable of removing any contaminants and particulates larger than 150 microns would be nice in the tape storage area.
Tapes should always be stored in a vertical position and never stored flat or lying down. Some experts recommend that archived tapes be rewound once every year. Each year, you should wind the tape once onto the other hub and leave it there until the next winding. Whether you pack your tape yearly or not, you should pack any tape that has been in long-term storage before playing it.
It’s a bad idea to store tapes in the cardboard sleeves supplied by many tape manufactures. The cardboard contains loose paper fibers and coatings that can be electro statically attracted to video tapes causing damage to the tape and possibly the heads of any video tape player the tape is played on. It is best to store tapes in individual boxes made of inert polypropylene or polyethylene. Look for boxes that have a slide lock or latch and an interlocking edge on the two halves. This helps to keep moisture and contaminants out.
The mortal enemies of any tape are heat and any device or object that emits magnetic fields. While heat is damaging to the physical characteristics of a tape, magnetic fields can damage the information stored on any analog or digital tape. Any electronic device with a power supply transformer can produce a magnetic field. These devices include VCRs, televisions, audio receivers and amplifiers. Some experts recommend that tapes should not be stored on metal shelves or containers that could conduct electricity or generate magnetic fields. Although they provide inviting horizontal surfaces that are conveniently nearby, you should never, ever put your tapes on top of your television set or your speakers.
Although we are often obsessed with the tools of our trade, our equipment is really not our most important asset. Our tapes with their irreplaceable footage is. We must protect them. Hopefully, this article has given you some good ideas and starting points to develop your own tape organization, database and archive system.
Jim Martin is Operations Director for Access Monterey Peninsula.
[Sidebar: Pack it Up…]
Tape packing is the process of fast-forwarding a tape to the end and then rewinding back to the beginning. This makes sure that the tape is wound evenly on the hub. When tapes sit on a shelf for a long time gravity has an affect. The layers of tape on top of the hub are pulled together more tightly than the tape on the bottom, where gravity has pulled the tape away from the hub. This uneven packing causes the tape speed to vary slightly while the tape is playing, affecting playback quality.