Transferring Film to Video

In order to digitally edit your film, you need to transfer it to video so that it can be captured by the computer. There are a few ways to do this, but an overriding requirement is that there be a reliable way to match the film’s key numbers to the edited video’s timecode. This relationship allows Cinema Tools to accurately calculate specific key numbers based on each edit’s In and Out point timecode values.

You also need to make decisions regarding film and video frame rates used during the transfer. These affect the editing timebase and impact the accuracy of the cut list that Cinema Tools generates.


By far the most common method of transferring film to video is to use a telecine. Telecines are devices that scan each film frame onto a charge-coupled device (CCD) to convert the film frames to video frames. Although a telecine provides an excellent picture, for the purposes of Cinema Tools the more important benefit is that it results in a locked relationship between the film and video, with no drifting between them.

Telecines are typically gentler on the film and offer sophisticated color correction and operational control as compared to film chains, described in Transfer Techniques That Are Not Recommended. Another advantage is that telecines can create video from the original camera negative—most other methods require you to create a film positive (workprint) first. (Although from a budget viewpoint it may be a benefit not to create a workprint, workprints are generally created anyway since they provide the best way to see the footage on a large screen and spot any issues that might impact which takes you use. Even more importantly, they allow you to test the cut list before working on the negative.)

In addition to providing a high-quality transfer, most modern telecines read the key numbers from the film and can access the video recorder’s timecode generator, burning in these numbers on the video output. An additional benefit of the telecine transfer method is its ability to provide synchronized audio along with the video output. It can control the audio source and burn in the audio timecode along with the video timecode and the key numbers.

But What If You Want a Clean Master?

If you plan to conform the original camera negative, the presence of burned-in timecode and key numbers on the video clips you edit in Final Cut Pro may not be a problem, especially if you are working with a highly compressed video format.

The burned-in numbers can be a problem, however, if you intend to use the edited video for screenings or for broadcast. As valuable as they are to the editor, the burned-in numbers can be distracting when watching an edited project. There are two common methods you can use to minimize this problem:

  • Letterbox the video during capture using a 2:35 aspect ratio so that there is enough room below the video to show the numbers.

  • Flash the burn-in information on the first frame only. Although not quite as useful as a continuous burn-in, this does provide the editor with the ability to ensure that the relationship of the edge code to the timecode is correct.

In most cases, telecines produce a log file that can provide the basis for the Cinema Tools database. This allows you to automate capturing the video into the computer.

Increasingly, telecine facilities can also capture the video clips for you, providing the clips on a DVD disc or FireWire drive, along with the telecine log and videotapes.

Transfer Techniques That Are Not Recommended

There are a couple of transfer techniques that are worth mentioning just to point out why you should not use them.

Film Chains

You should avoid using a film chain if at all possible. Film chains are relatively old technology, as compared to telecines. A film chain is basically a film projector linked to a video camera. Film chains typically do not support features such as reading the key numbers or controlling video recorders, and they cannot create a positive video from a film negative. You must create a workprint to use a film chain.

Using a film chain is usually less expensive than using a telecine, although the cost of creating a workprint partly offsets the lower cost. The biggest challenge is being able to define the relationship between the film’s key numbers and the video timecode. This is usually accomplished with hole punches (or some other distinct frame marker) at known film frames.

Important: Older film chains may not synchronize the film projector to the video recorder, potentially causing the film-to-video relationship to drift.

Recording a Projected Image with a Camcorder

Because of the greatly increased chances for error and the additional time you have to spend tracking key numbers, this method of transfer is strongly discouraged and should not be considered.

Projecting your film and recording the results using a video camcorder is a method that, although relatively inexpensive, almost guarantees errors in the final negative cutting. Telecines and film chains are usually able to synchronize the film and video devices, ensuring a consistent transfer at whatever frame rates you choose. The projector’s and video camcorder’s frame rates may be close to ideal but will drift apart throughout the transfer, making it impossible to ensure a reliable relationship between the film’s key numbers and the video timecode. You will have to spend extra time going over the cut list to ensure the proper film frames are being used. Additionally, there may be substantial flicker in the video output, making it difficult to see some frames and determine which to edit on.

Because the video is not actually used for anything except determining edit points, its quality doesn’t matter too much. As with film chains, you have to create a workprint to project. Being able to proof your cut list before the original camera negative is worked on is very important with this type of transfer.

How Much Should You Transfer?

Deciding how much of your film to transfer to video depends on a number of issues, the biggest one probably being cost. The amount of time the telecine operator spends on the transfer determines the cost. Whether it is more efficient to transfer entire rolls of film (a “camera-roll” transfer), including bad takes and scenes that won’t be used, or to spend time locating specific takes and transferring only the useful ones (a “scene-and-take” transfer) needs to be determined before starting.

Camera-Roll Transfers

Cinema Tools uses a database to track the relationship between the film key numbers and the video and audio timecode numbers. The database is designed to have a record for each camera take, but this is not required. If you transfer an entire roll of film continuously to videotape, Cinema Tools needs only one record to establish the relationship between the key numbers and the video timecode. All edits using any portion of that single large clip can be accurately matched to the original camera negative’s key numbers. A drawback to this transfer method is the large file sizes, especially if significant chunks of footage will not be used.

Additionally, because of the way it is recorded, audio is difficult to synchronize at the telecine during a camera-roll transfer. During a production, the sound recorder typically starts recording before film starts rolling and ends after filming has stopped. You also will often shoot some film without sound (known as MOS shots). This means you cannot establish audio sync at the start of the film roll and expect it to be maintained throughout the roll. Instead, each clip needs to be synced individually. The Cinema Tools database includes provisions for tracking the original production sound rolls and audio timecode.

Once captured, a single large clip can be broken into smaller ones, allowing you to delete the excess video. Even with multiple clips, it is possible for Cinema Tools to generate a complete cut list with only one database record. Another approach is to manually add additional records for each clip, allowing you to take advantage of the extensive database capabilities of Cinema Tools. See Creating the Cinema Tools Database for a detailed discussion of these choices.

Scene-and-Take Transfers

Scene-and-take transfers are a bit more expensive than camera-roll transfers, but they offer significant advantages:

  • Scene-and-take transfers make it easier to synchronize audio during the transfer.

  • Because the telecine log contains one record per take, it establishes a solid database when imported into Cinema Tools.

  • With an established database, Cinema Tools can export a batch capture list. With this list (and appropriate device control), Final Cut Pro can capture and digitize the appropriate takes with minimum effort on your part.

Maintaining an accurate film log and using a timecode slate can help speed the transfer process and reduce costs.