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Finding the art in HDTV

As costs drop and related production benefits rise, producers find reasons to embrace it 6/24/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

HBO and HDTV

HBO and HDTV

HBO is leading the way among cable programmers when it comes to HDTV production with The Sopranos, as well as about 60% of its theatrical releases being shown to viewers in selected markets (and via DBS) in the 1080i format.

"Once you get over the hurdle of not having the massive amount of equipment, then it's a simple matter.

It's not much different than analog editing and finishing because it's similar equipment," says Deborah Pritchett, HBO's vice president of network quality control for studio and broadcast operations.

HBO uses two models of Panasonic D-5 tape machines for playback, several AJ-HD2700 interlace D-5 tape machines and the higher-end AJ-HD3700 progressive tape machine. Designed specifically for the HD-cinema market, the AJ-HD3700 preserves the original recorded resolution through multiple generations, and it offers the ability to easily convert the master to all other major formats.

Pritchett points out that, although high-definition production equipment has been around for quite some time, it wasn't that long ago that there was a shortage of post-production equipment for HD. "You couldn't finish a show in HD because you couldn't get your main titles on," she recalls.

But this has changed as manufacturers like Chyron and Pinnacle Sysytems began to offer high-definition character generators, most with the same bells and whistles as their standard-definition products.

Pritchett says, "The biggest hurdle is equipment and the fact that HD equipment is extremely expensive and [programmers] like to know there will be some kind of return on investment."

K.A.P.

When HDTV first hit the stage, there was talk of $400,000 cameras and $300,000 tape decks—enough to make program producers say, "Nice but too expensive."

Now the cost of HDTV production gear has fallen to the $70,000 level, and there's talk out of Hollywood that the producers of prime time pilots are shooting them in HDTV because it's cheaper than shooting in film.

What a difference five years can make. HD productions are beginning to become attractive. More important, consumers waiting for an attractive mix of price and programming before purchasing an HDTV set may find that the increase in HD productions (and, in turn, HD broadcasts) provides the necessary impetus to invest big bucks in a big set.

This Wednesday, daytime TV, which has always been believed to be the very last place that HD broadcasts would be offered because of small viewer numbers, will see the arrival of the first HD soap opera. The Young and the Restless
will become the first daytime program to be produced and broadcast in the HDTV format.

According to CBS Vice President of Engineering Bob Seidel, CBS is using a new technique that makes use of Ikegami dual-mode HDK-79D cameras capable of producing both HD and SD recording as isolated feeds to the control room. "Normally, when you photograph a show, you record individual cameras into a control room, and the technical director is switching which camera is on air at the moment," Seidel says.

For example, he explains, a soap episode may have 600 cuts. If 400 are switched in real time by the technical director, an additional 200 may be added later on a line-cut basis. "If you miss a switch or don't like one, you have to [go back to the] isolated cameras and pick up the necessary shot," he adds. Recording the camera feed to a Panasonic D-5 tape machine avoids having to go back to the camera to pick up a missed shot.

David Shaughnessey, supervision producer for The Young and the Restless, says the production crew is excited to be working in high definition.

"It just looks amazing. It's beautiful, and it's just a whole different dimension," he says.

Because CBS will not have an HD switcher (it is currently using a Grass Valley Group 4000 digital switcher), the technical crew is working out some new challenges, including a frame delay. If the director is calling the shot and the technical director is taking the shot online, it does not always cut on frame, Shaughnessey says.

"It's something that most of the audience would never notice," he says. "It's a rhythm that just need to be figured out."

The key driver to HD production, however, will be cost savings.

"Forget artistic integrity and being a storyteller with film or HD," says Randall Paris Dark, president of HD Vision, an HD production facility based in Irving, Texas. "For me, it's always been about follow the dollar. And if you do an apples-to-apples comparison of shooting with 24p HD vs. film, no one can dispute that it's much cheaper to use HD than 35mm."

Dark says it's less expensive for a number of reasons, including film-stock processing and transferring. "You can get actors to work at rate, you can get people to donate things, but the hard dollar is in the stock," he says. "When you look at shooting HD, 40 minutes is $76, and, in our world, that's pretty much free."

When it comes to the cost of equipment, it's a simple example of supply and demand, according to Seidel. "We've been doing [HDTV productions] for two-plus years, and, each year, there is a reduction in the cost of doing this," he says. "When you have equipment readily available, the cost per unit goes down. The cost of HD recorders and the HDCAM cameras continue in a downward pricing trend. With competitive pricing, people are choosing to do HD as the norm."

While HDTV still meets resistance from the major networks, primarily because of related costs of HD post-production and the challenge of putting new apples on the cart, there are signs that the technology may be sufficiently mature to be attractive.

"Until now, shooting HD would never be considered because it was expensive and, to be quite honest, the equipment has been user-hostile," says Dark. "And there hadn't been enough bells and whistles on the post side so that color-correcting DVE could be purchased at an affordable price point. But my feeling from talking to people is that everyone is revisiting HD. And because it's no longer dominated by Sony, the price points are dropping dramatically."

For example, even Fox has been taking some major steps in high-definition production. Until recently, the network favored 480-line progressive, not a true HDTV format, according to the ATSC. Then, in April, the network announced that it made a major investment in 720p HDTV for its Los Angeles production facilities.

Fox Television and 20th Century Fox made the move after realizing that it needed more pixels for zooming in on images and repositioning images in post-production. They selected 720p/24 as a capture format as a substitute for film in television episodic-program production, says Jim DeFilippis, vice president of television engineering for Fox.

"Three or four years ago, people were saying, 'Let's stay with film,'" he says. "The one problem is that film intrinsically has noise and grain. Excessive noise and grain has compression artifacts."

Fox bought two Panasonic AJ-HDC27V scan camera/recorders, capable of operation at 24 frames per second (as well as variable-frame-rate selectivity, including 4 f/s to 33 f/s, 36 f/s, 40 f/s and 60 f/s). This allows camera operators to overcrank or undercrank the camera for fast- or slow-motion effects, as well as to create motion-blur and warp-speed special effects in real time by shooting at very low frame rates with selectable shutter angles.

In addition, Fox purchased a compact Panasonic AJ-HD130DC dual-standard DVCPRO HD VTR for television series, comedies and specials, four LDK7000 cameras from Thomson, and four 100Mb/s D9 DVTRs from JVC.

A compatriot in the 720p camp with Fox was ABC, and it too has begun finding 720p equipment to its liking. Next fall, three new series will be produced in HDTV: Alias, Philly
and Thieves. But its primary HD offering today is Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue, shot on film. "ABC notified us literally a few days before we started shooting that they wanted us to produce in HD," says Steven DePaul, a producer for the series at Steven Bochco Productions.

According to DePaul, the biggest change was not in the equipment itself (because the show is shot on film, the move from standard definition to high definition required only a lens change), but more an artistic change. "The hardest thing was to deliver our show in the 16:9 format as opposed to 4:3," he says. "After seven or eight years of shooting our set, we kind of know our camera positions. Camerawise, we had to rethink some of the things that we do, and that made life somewhat interesting, especially because the camera moves around a lot."

Westwind Media, a new Burbank, Calif.-based high-end post-production facility founded by Steven Bochco, handles post-production for the show. Westwind has just installed two Snell & Wilcox HD1010 eight-input high-definition television production switchers in two of the facility's telecine bays.

DePaul says he and the crew at Steven Bochco Productions are excited about the change, and he believes it is a positive step in the advance of HDTV: "When you watch in HD, it's just spectacular."

THE 24P REVOLUTION

The 24p format, though relatively new to the industry, has become a reality in episodic television, with several programs now being mastered in the format and several shows being shot in 24p.

"Studios are very, very interested in it," says Deborah Pritchett, HBO's vice president of network quality control for studio and broadcast operations. "Once you create in HD, you don't have to de-interlace it for PAL [and other progressive formats], so it's something that they're very, very excited about. Progressive is something that would tie in very closely to the computer industry and allow you to display video on your computer. The film industry likes to use it because it records at 24 frames per second. Once you create the HD master, you are able to use it across most of your formats, and, when you downconvert it for NTSC, the quality is highly superior."

Most episodic programming today is shot on 35mm film and transferred to video through popular telecines like the Philips DataCine. The problem for post-production houses was that each network had selected different HDTV formats and it was not feasible for the facilities to add equipment to suit the individual requirements of the networks.

"This was a big problem," says Emory Cohen, president of Laser Pacific, the Los Angeles-based post-production house that helped innovate the 1080i/24 format. "Producers ended up with a single [format] master from which they made all syndicated master and foreign masters. After the first run, if the master ended up at a different network, they had a problem. If it were created for CBS in 1080i and then sold to ABC for 720p, there would be a problem."

Creating a 1080i/24 master makes it possible to produce a broadcast master for any of the formats (including international formats) without any quality compromise, Cohen says.

Many are also touting 24p as the best way to shoot in high definition with TV shows like Diagnosis Murder
and Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict
having been shot with Sony's Cine Alta HDW-F900 24p camera. The format has gained popularity as a production format because it produces a film-like look on video, eliminating many steps, including dailies and telecine.

GOOD FORMAT, NO EQUIPMENT

Following some HD tests with Titus, Fox wanted to experiment further with the 720p/24 format, but manufactures were not offering the equipment, DeFilippis says. So Fox adapted an older Philips camera model, the LDK-9000, to record at 24fsp and did some side-by-side tests of The X-Files.

Pleased with the results of its 24p trials of X-Files, Fox began working with Panasonic, Philips and JVC to develop equipment. "The equipment wasn't available so we stepped in and put our money where we felt our beliefs were," DeFilippis says.

Although most of the industry seems to be moving toward the 1080i/24 format, he believes he found a "sweet spot" with 720p/24. Because 720p/24 has a lower compression ratio than 180i/24p, the equipment can produce images with fewer artifacts.

One of the biggest benefits of 24p production, according to DeFilippis, is the cost efficiency. "We're not dealing with film, which is expensive," he explains.

CBS' Seidel agrees, "With electronic recording, you can see right away if you got what you intended. There is no cost for film stock, no cost for lab development, and no transfer cost from film to video."

Not everybody in the production world has had the same positive experience. Although few doubt the quality of the images that a 24p camera produces, some supporters of film-based production have been critical of the new format.

In January, Stephen Bochco Productions conducted its own test of the 1080i/24p format using the Sony CineAlta HDW-F900 camera. Some camera operators were not thrilled at looking at the camera's 1-inch black-and-white television monitor as the viewfinder, DePaul reports. "When shooting in film, you look through the lens and can see what the camera sees," he says. "You can see color; you can see depth." As for the appearance of the image, DePaul says, "It looked really sharp. In fact, it looks so sharp that the set dressing needed improvement."

For CBS' Seidel, George Lucas' use of 24p technology for the production of Star Wars Episode Two
is proof enough. "When you have someone of that caliber saying, 'This is good enough for my multimillion- dollar motion picture,' it will suffice for episodic television."

HBO and HDTV

HBO and HDTV

HBO is leading the way among cable programmers when it comes to HDTV production with The Sopranos, as well as about 60% of its theatrical releases being shown to viewers in selected markets (and via DBS) in the 1080i format.

"Once you get over the hurdle of not having the massive amount of equipment, then it's a simple matter.

It's not much different than analog editing and finishing because it's similar equipment," says Deborah Pritchett, HBO's vice president of network quality control for studio and broadcast operations.

HBO uses two models of Panasonic D-5 tape machines for playback, several AJ-HD2700 interlace D-5 tape machines and the higher-end AJ-HD3700 progressive tape machine. Designed specifically for the HD-cinema market, the AJ-HD3700 preserves the original recorded resolution through multiple generations, and it offers the ability to easily convert the master to all other major formats.

Pritchett points out that, although high-definition production equipment has been around for quite some time, it wasn't that long ago that there was a shortage of post-production equipment for HD. "You couldn't finish a show in HD because you couldn't get your main titles on," she recalls.

But this has changed as manufacturers like Chyron and Pinnacle Sysytems began to offer high-definition character generators, most with the same bells and whistles as their standard-definition products.

Pritchett says, "The biggest hurdle is equipment and the fact that HD equipment is extremely expensive and [programmers] like to know there will be some kind of return on investment."

K.A.P.

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