Not in your XL1 Manual: Color Bars & Time Code
an article by Chris Hurd

Upon discovering that RES magazine sliced an important paragraph from my XL1 column in their Spring '98 issue, I decided to copy it in full here, for the benefit of anyone who read the thing in print and got the feeling that something was missing. The paragraph in question is the next to last one, which ties the seemingly separate topics of color bars and time code together.

In my review of the Canon XL1 (RES Winter '98), I had mentioned that the camcorder included a set of color bars as one of its many features. But new XL1 users across the country are reading owner's manuals that have no reference to generating the bars -- no indication of the feature at all. What happened?

It seems that for "true" SMPTE color bars, a license fee must be paid (per unit manufactured) to SMPTE for their industry-standard color bars, sort of like a copyright royalty. Apparently Canon bailed on this shortly before going into production, perhaps in an effort to lower the cost of an already expensive product. The color bars are even mentioned in press releases just prior to the camera entering the market.

So, officially, NO color bars in the production models. End of story, right? Not exactly. There ARE color bars in your XL1 that your manual isn't telling you about, and I'm going to explain how to get them onscreen and what they can be used for.

First, the trick -- it's an easy one. Turn the camera on in "Green Box" (full auto) mode. Press and hold the two shutter buttons for about five seconds -- that's all there is to it. To turn off the bars, press and hold the two shutter buttons again.

What you'll see in your viewfinder aren't really SMPTE color bars, but full-field color bars instead. There's a big difference between the two. Actual SMPTE color bars extend halfway down the screen (split-field), followed by an a thin wedge of reverse display colors in the middle and brightness levels within the black box at the bottom. They're used for accurately adjusting brightness on video monitors during tape playback. The full-field color bars in the XL1 (and VX1000 and other prosumer camcorders) are virtually useless for this purpose, though, because the chroma levels in particular are way outside the normal range of proper calibration settings.

So what could these non-SMPTE full-field color bars possibly be good for? One answer lies in the way the XL1 records time code, and this is another bit of information that isn't in your owner's manual. If you need time code on your tapes (a good idea for anyone who desires frame-accurate editing), then it's important that you don't wind up with time code breaks, or worse, the numbers resetting to zero several times on one cassette. This can happen if you remove and re-insert the same cassette during the course of shooting.

But there's an easy way to keep your time code consistent no matter how many times you power down or remove the tape. Just make sure you add a few seconds of video at the end of every shot (this is called "post roll" and your editor will be thankful for it). Then for your next shot, use the review buttons and cue the tape to start recording a few frames before the end of the previous shot. By starting each new shot just before the break point of the prior shot, you can keep continuous time code on the whole tape.

If you find it difficult to use the review function when you're trying to shoot fast out in the field, then here's where those color bars will help you out. Before your shoot, take the time to generate the color bars and record them throughout the entire cassette. Not only will this give you consistent time code that will remain on tape during your shoot, but the bars also give you an easy visual reference between shots, especially if you don't have the time to add some post roll like you're supposed to.

One final tip involves the time code number display. You'll always see the time code numbers running in the viewfinder, they can't be switched off. However, you may not want the number display to go out over your cables (to a remote recording deck during a multiple-camera shoot, for instance), which they will unless you've remembered to bring along your XL1's wireless remote control. Aim it at the back of the camera and press the "on screen" button. This will toggle off (or on) the display information going through the video outputs. The manual doesn't make this very clear, either! Reading it thoroughly is a must, though, because of the many complex features on this innovative and amazing digital camcorder.

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Thrown together by Chris Hurd

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