Bright Lights, Big City
The Casino rolls the dice with HD and VariCam
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/13/2004 8:00:00 PM
Reality never looked so good. The June 14 premiere of Fox's The Casino kicks off the HD age in reality programming. It's only fitting that TV's latest production gamble is set in Las Vegas.
The production team of Mark Burnett and Conrad Riggs have chucked traditional standard-definition gear in favor of HDTV equipment, a first for reality TV. The production used 22 Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam HD Cinema cameras, along with DVCPRO HD videotape recorders (VTRs).
The team tapped Varicam after an extensive testing period to make sure the format was a good match. "Some of the reality shows don't lend themselves to HD, but this was a perfect fit," says Chris Campbell, Burnett Productions' executive in charge of post-production.
According to Kevin Harris, supervising producer for The Casino, adopting the HD format became a priority for Mark Burnett Productions, which is responsible for reality hits like The Apprentice and Survivor.
Why? HD assures better images and enhances the overall production quality of reality shows. An added bonus: The price is dropping.
Although the program was acquired in HD, it won't be broadcast in HD until August. The Fox Network and affiliate stations are still finalizing the installation of the equipment needed to broadcast its lineup in the 720 progressive format. (It currently broadcasts some series, such as 24, in 480 progressive widescreen.)
Traditionally, reality programs have relied on standard-def videotape formats, even as the vast majority of sitcom and drama programs make the move to HD. First, the inherent look of SD videotaped content has a softness and picture quality that viewers instinctively register as "reality." Second, reality programs can include a variety of lighting extremes that can be tricky for HD cameras to handle. And third, the rugged pace associated with some reality programs isn't ideal for expensive, cutting-edge equipment. The bumping and grinding of an Amazing Race or covering Survivor challenges would be brutal on the gear.
But The Casino, which was shot in Las Vegas at The Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, proved ideal: a controlled environment that suited the format. "It's the closest tool, next to film that provides the creative freedom to create beautiful colors and images in the camera," says cinematographer Scott Duncan.
That's thanks, in part, to the VariCam camera, which provides variable frame rates. A film look can be gained by shooting at 24 frames per second (fps). "Overcranking" the frame rate to 60 fps could allow the use of special effects (the camera can be dialed to any frame rate between 4 and 60 fps).
"When we knew a dramatic moment might be coming, we were prepared to shot at 60 fps to capture it in slow-motion," says Duncan. "The variable frame rate caught The Strip's flickering neon lights."
With more than 5,300 hours of tape brought in for editing, it was important that material acquired at 60 fps be flagged. Working in HD adds about 25%-30% more time to the editing process. So losing time to find the right tape isn't an option.
An Avid Media Composer edited The Casino; the additional production time is because the editing system takes longer to render images. The 5.1 surround sound also takes extra time, as does creating the final master tape.
Campbell says the company is interested in HD for reality shows, although shooting environment and financial considerations will be factors. "But it's something that will happen sooner," he promises, "rather than later."
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