HD production gets the Last Laugh
In the multiple-camera world, high definition offers significant cost savings
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/9/2002 8:00:00 PM
It was only a couple years ago that Derek Grover, a digital-imaging technician and director of photography with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, would be cursed at when he appeared on-set with an HDTV camera. After all, shooting film is art. Shooting video? That's the domain of pornography and wedding videos.
Today, HD production is getting the last laugh.
"In the multicamera episodic world, meaning sitcoms, it has completely taken over this year," says Grover. "For single-camera episodics, it will be another year before it takes over."
There will always be film holdouts, he says. But, with budgetary constraints on the rise, the cost savings of HD production may leave film canisters empty. Savings for a half-hour HD production are in the neighborhood of $10,000 per camera: A four-camera sitcom can save $35,000 to $40,000 a week.
Experience is another issue. "There are not a lot of real savvy DPs and crews with this gear in the single-camera environment," Grover points out. "Until they get more experience, it can be kind of cumbersome."
Digital cinematography is still in its infancy but is undergoing a growth spurt, says Grover, one of 13 digital-imaging technicians in the Cinematographers Guild, which created its digital-imaging group last fall. This year, 30 pilots were shot in HD, he says; last year, there were only three.
This month, Showtime will premiere Odyssey Five, shot in 24-frame-per-second progressive, or 24p, HD.
"The combination of a significant amount of special effects, which merge much more easily with HD than with film, and streamlined post-production was head and shoulders above film," says Gary Levine, Showtime executive vice president, original programming. "We shot the two-hour pilot in HD and reserved the right to go back to film, but we were pleasantly surprised." The feature was produced by Columbia TriStar and Sony Pictures.
The appeal went beyond pretty pictures: It saved money. "We're all fighting the high cost of production and trying to put every dollar on the screen," says Levine. "The savings only let us do more on the screen."
Glenn Oakley, senior vice president of Showtime corporate strategy and international, expects other productions in HD. "Once the initial investment is made and people can see that they can work with the medium, that it isn't that fundamentally different from film and offers some exciting differences, more and more will go to it."
Odyssey Five is a two-camera shoot. Using HD allows both cameras to run almost all the time, allowing more editing choices. Levine likes that and the more layered depth of field.
Those depth-of-field issues are the constant battle in working in HD. Grover prefers using the Sony HDW-F900 camera outfitted with Panavision lenses. Factory-made lenses are getting better and better, he says, adding that he expects some really good factory lenses to be available by the next NAB. Right now, the difference in colorimetry between the Panavision and factory-made lenses is negligible for TV production. The difference is in handling back-focus.
"The factory lenses [from Canon and Fujinon] don't seem to hold back-focus as well. With HD, that's critical because it is so crisp and clear," he explains. "An experienced HD cinematographer will shoot these lenses wide open to limit the depth of field. So, if your back-focus drifts because the barrel heats up, you're in trouble, especially when you have a focal range of only 3 inches."
Grover uses a custom-designed rack system and cables he connects to the camera (one rack for each multicamera program). The rack has a master timecode generator, master sync generator, audio distribution amp, a small switcher, downconverters and progressive frame converters. It downconverts the HD signals to analog NTSC, so on-set monitors can be used instead of expensive HD monitors. The rack enables other cost benefits.
Grover has also designed "HD-friendly" lighting systems with Bardwell & McAllister, Burbank, Calif., and continues to refine lighting and filtration techniques for HD to better emulate the look of 35mm film.
With sitcoms shot over two days, the audience for the second day of shooting views a rough cut of the first day's shooting. That requires taking the HD master, downconverting to 3/4-inch tape or Digital Betacam, putting it into a nonlinear editing system, and then cutting the show—a process that can last into the early morning.
Grover looks to speed that process by recording directly to Avid Media Array disks. "Each camera is downconverted live on stage, and the signals are sent into the Media Array hard drives," he says. "At the end of the night, the hard drives are taken to the post suite with the Media Composers and plugged into the editing system. It may end up being a little more expensive than just taking the tapes to the post, but it's a hell of a lot quicker."
HDTV can cut costs in Hollywood. But, for sports and news, HDTV doesn't make production cheaper; it increases expenses.
With sports, the challenge is increased by the demand for two separate productions: one for the SD viewers, one for the HD viewers.
Phil Garvin, HDNet co-founder and GM (he also works for mobile production companies Mountain Mobile Television and Lonestar Mobile), has worked on an array of different HD sports production: basketball, baseball, the Olympics, and, most recently, horseracing and arena football. The "fun" in the effort, he says, is that there isn't 20 years of experience to draw on.
He has learned a lot.
An HD production doesn't need as many cameras as NTSC, he says, because cutting too much or using too many effects makes the production disorienting. Similarly, camera movement needs to be kept to a minimum. "The camera person who keeps the action centered in the screen is not ideal for HD. The action can flow through the frame" because of the wider aspect ratio.
Most important, and the issue leading to development of the hybrid truck, is that, in a number of camera angles, SD and HD shouldn't be mixed. "We're not saying there can't be any shared cameras at an event," Garvin explains, "but we don't buy the notion of a single production truck doing an event with only one director and an output that is downconverted from HD."
For now, he is using separate HD and SD trucks. In a few years, when every event is in both SD and HD, that approach will be too costly. So he and his team are designing a truck that will handle both feeds.
"You don't need 100% differentiation," Garvin notes. "Around 40% will work."
Wide shots cause the most difficulty, he says, and that can't be solved by letterboxing. It's the resolution and detail of HD that allow the wider shot in the first place, so letterboxing the HD feed for NTSC loses too much information, ruining the viewing experience.
"The beauty of high-def is the widescreen combined with the resolution so the viewer can see the whole field of play," he says. "If you don't use that feature, you're wasting HD."
And, he adds, "you're going to get calls from HD viewers saying you aren't doing it right."
Viewers do give feedback—mostly, Garvin says, on the use of wide shots that show the entire baseball infield. "If you show the whole field of play in NTSC, you can't see what everyone is doing because the detail isn't there," he explains. "On the other hand, the centerfield camera can be shared because the framing and amount of information you're trying to put on the screen is the same."
The enabling technology for Garvin's vision of the single truck is production switchers from Thomson and Sony that allow a mix-effect bank to be dedicated to HD. That means the switcher can be told, for example, that, when camera 2 is punched for the SD feed, it should punch camera 4 for HD.
"It's very tricky stuff," he says, "but we're pretty far along in the design."
HDTV sports will get a boost this fall when Philadelphia-based Comcast SportsNet offers HDTV productions of professional basketball, baseball and hockey teams in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.
Bob Ayars, the vice president of operations at SportsNet, says, "We will produce one show that will be seen by both the existing standard-definition audience and the new HD viewers. The SD audience will see a downconverted HD show and will probably not realize it."
Action will be shot with Sony cameras, including five stationary and three handheld units. Three robotic cameras will be mounted on backboards and other places. Some events will have more cameras and tape machines than current productions so that upconverted SD signals won't down- grade in quality.
"We also plan to use HD graphics generators," he adds, "as opposed to the route that some current broadcasters take, which is to upconvert an SD Chyron Infinit character generator."
One issue he notes is integrating commercials separately for the HD transmission path. "We're installing in the truck a small master-control station that will insert standard-definition commercials or, as they become available, advertisements produced in HD."
Sony Systems Integration is handling the truck's construction, which will be ready next year. The pricetag: $8 million.
One big concern is that, no matter how good the production is, it will be mangled by its delivery to the home, whether it's by cable, DBS or broadcaster.
Content distributors look for ways to maximize compression so that they can open up bandwidth for more channels. Grover says transmitting HDTV sports content at less than 19 Mb/s degrades the picture quality. "Maybe in three to five years, compression technology will be good enough," he says, "but not today.
"We play with compression systems every day," he explains. "Once you take sports below 19 Mb/s, you are hurting the quality."
So HDNet won't allow its signal to be distributed by an entity that degrades the picture quality below that delivered to the cable or DBS provider.
"On a 20-inch test monitor, it looks just as good," he points out about cheating on bandwidth, "but that won't be the case when it gets to a 60-inch monitor."
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