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Working in HD, Protecting SD

For cable networks, image quality and speed are the driving factors 6/15/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Hollywood has never been known to embrace technological change. Mike Rauch, Showtime executive vice president of production, remembers the days when the production community moved from editing on movieolas to editing on flatbeds: It was a long process full resistance. HDTV, however, has proved a different story.

"HD is no longer the bogeyman it was three or four years ago," he says. "Crews wanting to learn about HD, and equipment people want to teach about HD."

Showtime offers an example of how networks and producers are not only dabbling in HD production but actually beginning to embrace it. The newest season of The Chris Isaak Show
has made the transition from 35mm film to HD tape-based production, and the upcoming series The L Word
was also shot on HD tape. These are the only two Showtime series to be shot on HD. Six others are shot on film and then mastered in HD.

"This season, The Chris Isaak Show
went from film to HD, and the look of the show is so much better than it was before," says Rauch. "And the upcoming movie DC9/11
mixes in a lot of non-HD footage with HD and smoothes out the look. That's incredible because, only a couple of years ago, matching stuff was something you couldn't do."

He advises that the switch from film to HD tape should be made for one reason only: to get the best image quality possible. Cost saving should not be the driving factor. "The danger with producers saying they want to shoot with HD so they can save money is, it's simply not true. HD can record in much lower light levels than film, and, if you don't light it properly, it looks terrible."

There are, however, some cost benefits. Rauch says the advantage of shooting with HD tape instead of 35mm is that it saves the cost of creating an HD transfer from 35mm film. Those costs can typically run about $50,000 per episode, an expense that adds up quickly for a 13- or 20-episode run. And there are also cost savings related to the cost of tape vs. 35mm film.

"We find that the cost of shooting on HD is about a wash when it comes to shooting on 16mm film," he adds. "So, with no cost factor for working in HD, it made sense to do it."

Discovery HD Theater also has embraced HD tape, particularly Sony's HDCAM format. Discovery Networks has standardized on HDCAM as an acquisition format for all of its channels, and about 20% of the productions have an additional HD budget for creating an HD master.

Adding HD typically adds 12% to 41% to the budget, according to Clint Stinchcomb, Discovery HD Theater senior vice president and general manager. "What kills us are rendering the graphics and post-production. That's where a lot of the extra cost comes in."

There is one area, however, that HD does offer benefits in post-production: special effects. Rauch says integrating special effects into a tape-based production is much easier than in film. "It's cheaper, easier and faster. You can stick to schedules more easily because you don't have to go from negative to an effect and then back to a negative."

Showtime's technical setup involves a Panavision package that includes Sony HD cameras with Panavision lenses. The content is typically captured on Panasonic D5 decks.

"Panavision reconfigured the camera so the controls pretty much match a film camera," Rauch explains. "They moved the focus rings so the film crew is more comfortable with the HD camera."

A long-term relationship between Showtime and Panavision has made the transition easier. Also helping is that Panavision holds classes to explain HD-production techniques to the crews.

Because HD-production gear is still in its relative infancy, there are still some compromises compared with film or traditional video. Stinchcomb notes that doing something like going up in a plane and sticking the camera out the window or putting a lipstick camera on a demolition-derby car is still impossible given the HD camera's size and weight.

Camera mobility is an issue for Showtime as well. But Rauch sees some advances, with manufacturers working on systems that allow a small wire to run from the camera to the recording device as opposed to having the recording device in the camera. "Plus," he adds, "five years from now, HD cameras will be half the size they are now."

One of the most interesting changes that using HD tape has brought to the set is the ability to instantly review a take. With 35mm, the film needs to be processed before it can be reviewed, known as dailies. HD tape allows for a new process: "minutelies." But directors are quickly learning that the ability to instantly review is a double-edged sword.

"We have a big monitor that the DP uses to make sure the lighting is correct," says Rauch. "But you almost never do playback because you'll start getting into situations about the performance quality."

Lighting is one of the big issues with HD. He explains that, while HD is much better in blacks and dark situations, allowing the richness and gradations of blacks to show through, the quality falls apart in bright light and bright sunlight.

Those most affected by HD's new capabilities—lighting designers, production designers, even makeup artists—aren't flinching. "What I've found is they're embracing the challenge rather than running away from it," Rauch says.

While HD productions for Showtime and Discovery pose their own challenges, so do live productions, which are typically sports events and concerts. HDNet will soon offer Major League Soccer in HD, and HDNet General Manager and COO Phil Garvin sees something else on the horizon this summer as well: live HD news and weather.

"We've started experimenting with flyaway HD uplinks, and we think we have one that works," he says. "It uses a 2.4-meter dish, which is very big. But there's a tradeoff between the size of the dish and the size of the amplifier." To keep power demands down, the larger dish is the answer.

HDNet has already covered news in HD, with reports from Afghanistan and Iraq topping the list of exotic and war-torn locals. "We'll be able to bring live HD pictures back from hot spots around the world," adds Garvin.

As for the weather service, one aspect he finds appealing is that the HD resolution allows the weather coverage to bring the same amount of detail found on the USA Today's newspaper weather map to television. The broad brushstrokes used for current national weather maps on TV will be a thing of the past.

Garvin says the today's gear lessens the challenges of HD production. But the HD workload can quickly change that.

The strain placed on ESPN-HD's production crew is an example. Over the past two weeks, ESPN-HD covered both the NBA Finals and the NHL Stanley Cup for ABC. "We're completely maxed out doing both the finals in HD," says Senior Vice President and Executive Producer Jed Drake.

ESPN and ABC caught a break, he says, with both the New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils in their respective finals. That means the networks can get by with only three trucks instead of four. But it does introduce a new challenge.

"The full setup for the NBA is completely different from that for the NHL," says Drake. "So, on June 5, we sent a technical crew out of San Antonio at 6 a.m. [from the NBA Final] to New Jersey so they could start the turnaround at 6 a.m. on June 6 [after the NHL Final]."

Helping simplify the turnaround is the use of Thomson HD cameras on all three locations. But even that has introduced a wrinkle: The viewfinders are 4:3. That means that doing an HD telecast requires a 16:9 area marked off within the 4:3 viewfinder. But because the SD telecast is derived from the HD feed, there is a 4:3 safe area within the 16:9. It's the TV production equivalent of the doll within the doll within the doll.

"Thomson is working on rewriting some code that will allow for a fundamental change in the way the viewfinder operates," he says. "So we may be shooting with the 4:3 but just recognize that there are extensions left and right for 16:9."

That wrinkle is indicative of the overall challenge facing HD production today. Even though the technical directors and producers love the enhanced resolution and wider aspect ratio, all networks are confronted with the reality that nearly 97% of their viewers watch on standard-definition TV sets.

"Eventually, there will be a much larger audience, and we'll be able to fully take advantage of 16:9," says Drake. "But right, now we have to worry about the millions of people watching in 4:3."

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