You’ve got a free weekend–nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in. What would any
right-thinking videomaker want to do with 48 hours of free time? Log tapes, right?
Yeah, right. You’d have more fun at the dentist.
OK, logging your tapes isn’t the most glamorous job in the world, but if you can
quickly put your finger on the shots you need, you’ll save time and ease the burden of this
What follows is a quick survey of the products and methods that allow you to use your
computer to help relieve the tedium. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to spend that
free weekend doing the things that videomakers ought to do with their free time–shooting
video, editing and (heaven forbid) hanging around with your family and friends.
Time Code: Almost a Necessity
Everyone takes a different approach to tape logging, but the basic idea is to gather all
your footage together and create a list of the clips you want, along with their starting and
ending points (the ins and outs). These in and out points are often established using a time
code recorded on the tape which addresses each frame of video with a specific number.
It’s simply time in the format of hours, minutes, seconds and frames, usually represented
as HH:MM:SS:FF. If you want frame-accurate editing, you’ll need time code.
Most consumer equipment doesn’t offer time code. This is really too bad, because life
is miserable without it. Let’s say you have the best sunset ever laid onto video and you
know it’s 35 minutes into reel 3. Only when you grab reel 3, you find some idiot (usually
you) forgot to rewind the tape. Without time code, the best way to find your magical
sunset is to rewind the tape, reset the counter, then fast-forward to 35 minutes. This an
annoying and time-consuming chore. It isn’t frame-accurate. As a final insult, all that tape
shuttling eats up your tape deck.
Time code is one of the reasons that professionals shell out the big bucks for
professional machines. Of course, high resolution and high signal-to-noise ratios are the
real reason behind the sticker-shock. Time code itself is not that hard or expensive to
It’s possible to log with real-time counter information alone. You’ll need to zero out
your real-time counter and rewind each tape before logging. While you’re editing,
don’t pull out any of your source tapes without rewinding them to the start. If you
do, your logged control track counter numbers will be completely off when you start
editing again. Clearly, time code logging is the way to go.
So what if you don’t have professional editing decks with SMPTE time code? Are you
flat out of luck? Not quite. With Horita’s VG-50 ($289), you can add vertical interval
time code (VITC) to your tapes. Some Sony and other Hi8 consumer equipment offers
Rewriteable Consumer Time Code (RCTC). Most VHS decks can add LTC (longitudinal
time code) using the mono, or normal, channel. And you can easily add LTC or RCTC to
your tape after the shooting is over–called post-striping–so you don’t need a fancy
camera to lay down the code while you’re taping.
The Myriad Ways
Once you have some kind of time code, you’re ready to log.
It might surprise you to know that some professional videographers create a log with a
pencil and paper. Often, their video is so well-scripted that the only task is picking which
take to use. For this, you can pretty much assemble edit on the fly. But most people are
up to their armpits in tangled tape within minutes of an edit session. They inadvertently
scatter their source clips among dozens of cassettes. Hair is pulled. Confusion reigns.
There just has to be a way to manage this nightmare.
If the redundant job of video logging isn’t a perfect task for the computer, then I don’t
know what is. To a computer, doing the same thing over and over again is something like
nirvana. Keeping track of SMPTE time code puts a computer into ecstasy. But before you
can indulge your computer’s desire to get to know your tape deck, you need to get them
talking. Specifically, the computer needs to get the current time code from your deck.
You just need to provide the right cable to connect your deck and your computer, then
stand back as they lock into their digital embrace.
Professional tape decks often come with an RS-422 or RS-232 port that can both send
and receive time code. This protocol is available on a wide range of professional
equipment. You can see that a computer (with the proper interface) connected to one of
these tape decks can be a powerful coupling.
The Consumer End
But if you don’t have a big budget, are you still out of luck? Nope; again, there’s a ray of
hope. For years, a lot of Sony video recorders have come equipped with Control-L
(LANC) connectors. If you have a Control-L connector, your computer (again, with the
proper interface) can check with your video deck to find out what frame it’s currently
Control-L is rather sophisticated control for consumer equipment, and I congratulate
Sony for including it in their products. It’s not quite frame-accurate, but it can usually get
to within three frames of what you want, and for most purposes, that’s good enough.
Control-L is available on most 8mm and Hi8 machines, and a few Sony S-VHS
Panasonic has a similar control system provided by a five-pin connector on some of its
industrial S-VHS decks. Called Control-M, it offers two-way communication and
controls the edit mode, such as assemble, insert or audio dub.
The RS-232 port is trickling down from the high-end equipment to the consumer level.
Sony uses the VISCA protocol to communicate over an RS-232 line. VISCA in turn gets
support from manufacturers such as Abbate and many others.
So check the back of your deck–you may already be computer-compatible. If so, you
just need to call a manufacturer for some software and a cable that will run into your
Of course, if you don’t have some kind of controller jack on the back of your deck, then
you must really be out of luck, right? Well, amazingly enough, there’s still hope. As a
last-ditch effort, your computer can control your deck with an infrared emitter. You won’t
have access to accurate time code, but you can still have computer software control your
VCR, and that’s part of the battle.
And what if you don’t have a remote-controlled VCR? Yes, this time you’re finally out
It’s Logging Time
Once you have time code and a computer connection, you’re ready to roll. All you need is
some software to help automate the process.
There are many programs available that allow you to enter the SMPTE time code for
the in and out points of a clip. And programs like Premiere (Adobe) can output an edit
decision list (EDL) that’s basically a list of those time codes and what kind of cut or wipe
you want between those clips.
Pipeline Digital is also developing a lot of products for this market. The company,
located on the windward side of Oahu, is making waves with its logging software and
hardware. They sell a product called ProVTR ($99). It includes a cable that connects a
Mac to a professional VCR (with an RS-422 port), and comes bundled with a software
plug-in for Adobe Premiere. A plug-in is a piece of software that can wedge into another
application like Premiere or Adobe Photoshop. You can start it up within the application
and it can insert itself into the data loop. The ProVTR software plug-in lets you control
your tape deck from within Premiere.
Pipeline has another product called AutoLog ($195) that works with professional
recording decks. At the click of a mouse button, it grabs the time code off of your deck
and inserts it into your list. As it logs each cut, it increments the take number and lets you
type a description of the clip. Another product along these lines is MediaLog from Avid
The DQ-TimeCoder ($295) and DQ-Animaq ($1995) from Diaquest are also capable
of controlling a tape deck with plug-ins for Premiere and Photoshop.
For logging clips and more, Abbate Video offers the Video Toolkit 2.1 ($279). Like
the ProVTR, it can control VCRs and it includes a plug-in for Premiere. It supports every
communications protocol you’re likely to come across, from consumer to pro level. If you
have a video capture card, it can also digitize your clips and create a QuickTime movie
from them. These products pack a lot of power.
Add Frames to your List
A list of time codes may be ambrosia to your computer, but it’s not very revealing to most
humans. You can go blind searching through a text-based log for that perfect shot. Even
those cryptic notes you typed for each clip can leave a lot to be desired. Some logging
software allows you to add little images to your list. These images, which you capture
from the tape itself, will unambiguously identify that clip months or even years later.
Of course, you need some kind of hardware to capture the frames. For beautiful, high-
res (up to 1500×1125 pixels) screen shots, it’s hard to beat Play Inc.’s Snappy ($200). You
can use these sharp shots for your logging purposes, or you can use the imported images
as still backgrounds or textures for 3D or titling work.
A somewhat more expensive alternative is Digital Vision’s ComputerEyes/1024
($600). This program can capture images up to 1024×512 resolution and can also capture
video. It doesn’t compress the video on the fly, however, so don’t expect miracles in this
Since you really just need the pictures for jogging your memory, you don’t need a full-
featured video capture card. You don’t even need color. In fact, if you’re going to print out
your log, black and white is all you get out of most printers anyway. Digital Vision’s
ComputerEyes/RT Monochrome ($300) is a black-and white card, as is International
Computers’ ImageCapture Plus ($269). Prices vary wildly here, but remember: you
should try not to spend too much money on a monochrome capture card.
Fully Automated Logging
For full-featured automated logger, check out Dubner’s Scene Stealer ($800). It looks at
your tape and automatically finds all the cuts. Now that’s a good trick, especially for a
computer! Then it notes the time code for each cut and captures a picture of the start of
each clip. These pictures are only medium resolution black & white images, but they
are certainly good enough to recognize the clip. The images are purposely compact so
that you can carry around a lot of them on a floppy. In fact, you can get about 80 frames
on a floppy, which can be a real godsend for moving your logs from computer to
As well as automated clip logging, you can set the Scene Stealer to capture one frame a
second. That way, you can cram an hour of video into a small 60-megabyte file that you
can use for a fast preview of the material.
You can print out the log, along with the attached photos, so you can have every bit of
video you’ve ever shot carefully referenced in hard copy. A log like this can make your
life much easier. You may even get to spend a little time at home on occasion.
A feature to look for in the better software offerings is some kind of search command.
If you’re careful with your clip descriptions, you can use the search command to group
your takes into several categories. You might want to break out the interior and exterior
shots, for example. Or you might want to group all shots made at one location, no matter
when you shot them. A good search technique can help you assemble your first pass at an
If a search command doesn’t exist, at least look for a way to export and import the log.
That way, you can use your word processor to search and sort the list.
After the Logging
When you’ve finished logging the clips for your opus, you have basically created a cuts-
only EDL. A good logging program will be able to output an edit decision list that a non-
linear editing system, like Avid, VideoCube or Media 100, can understand.
In addition, some of them, like the Scene Stealer, Video Toolkit or AutoLog, can
output an EDL in the popular CMX format for professional editors. Some programs can
even go the other way. AutoLog and Video Toolkit, for instance, can take an EDL and
use it as a guide to automatically digitize a series of clips.
So whether you want a hard-copy listing of your entire video library, an automated
tape log of your dailies or a cuts-only EDL, check out these products. They may be
humble entries in the digital video pantheon, but they can make your life a lot sweeter.
Scott Anderson is an author, software developer and president of a
computer graphics development company.