It appears that the die has been cast for post-production of film-based programming, and possibly even commercials, for HDTV. Pioneered by Los Angeles-based LaserPacific and Sony, the 1080p/24-frame-per-second format is taking hold.
LaserPacific President Emery Cohen maintains that the format's ability to downconvert to other formats and the availability of a full range of interfaces leaves nothing to be desired.
LaserPacific is no longer alone in using the format. In New York, Rhinoceros has just completed installation of an editing suite capable of 24-, 25- and 30-frame images. According to Creative Director Walter Lefler, the facility will soon begin to pitch episodic TV for HD work. But with commercials representing some 80% of Rhinoceros' Rhinoceros' workwork, he also sees application of 1080p/24 there.
"It gives us the ability to create a single master that can go to any world format," he says. "The quality is fine even going back to film from a 24-frame HD master."
"A lot of advertising has been shot in 30-frame and now can be shot in 24, while facilities are still able to do the editing, ''says Jeff Merritt, product marketing manager, HDTV products, at Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co. "Also, the possibility exists of integrating stock footage in its native 24-frame rate."
The first forays into creating a 1080p/24-fps system were undertaken by Sony and LaserPacific. Cohen was in search of a way to confront the problem of working in a multitude of formats, with NBC and CBS committed to 1080i, and ABC and FOX committed to 720p or 480p. In addition, overseas broadcasters were looking at 1080i/50fps and 1080p/25fps.
"It became obvious," he says, "that we couldn't build telecine rooms, online editing, visual effects and color correction in all these formats. Our customers needed to have a single archival master that would meet all of the delivery requirements."
Today, Laser Pacific is already experienced in the format, having used it for eight series and a number of made-for-TV series since the start of the current season-some 200 programs in all. They include Twentieth Television's Judging Amy, Columbia TriStar's Early Edition and Family Law, CBS Productions' Touched by an Angel and Paramount's Becker.
LaserPacific hasn't experienced any problems in working with 1080/24, according to Cohen. Comparing it with standard definition, he quips, "It's all hard, but this is just as easy." Having worked with manufacturers other than Sony, the facility had all the interfacing equipment assured by last July.
"We have three HD telecine rooms with Philips Spirit telecines that go to Sony tape machines," he reports, "and we use the Digital Vision HD color-correction system. Each device is critical. We downconvert to the other formats and end up with a 1080p/24 master. From that, we make a 1080i delivery copy for CBS, for example, and a 525-line copy for NTSC broadcast. On many shows, we make a 625-line PAL master for foreign distribution." His facility was to do 720p downconversion for an NAB presentation for ABC Television Network.
At Rhinoceros, the color corrector built into the Sony HD switcher is being used in the editing rooms. Lefler reports that installation has just begun on Sony's new HD film scanner with a daVinci 2K-color corrector. Three Inferno visual-effects systems and a Fire nonlinear editing system from Discreet Logic were set up for HD, along with an Antero character generator from RT Set.
The company's sound arm, Cool Beans, recently finished construction of three sound-mixing studios set up for the new 5.1 surround-sound mixing and editing format for HD. Available to clients is a Sony 700A HD camera.
"We're also putting in a Spydrr disk system," Lefler says, "which will give us the ability to transfer film to a disk and load the disk into either Inferno or Fire as well as utilizing the disk in the editing room. We'll be giving a series of seminars to advertisers and agencies on how to use HD production."
The Sony tape machines will output to standard definition in real time. Working in Inferno and Fire, the facility will be able to output a 30-frame standard master. Lefler points out that Rhinoceros will have a choice of five means of downconverting: from Fire, Inferno, a stand-alone downconverter, Spydrr or tape machines.
Although a number of manufacturers have made equipment for 1080p/24 production, it's Sony's segmented-frame (sF) concept, sometimes referred to as 24PsF, which has been at the heart of LaserPacific's work to date. Sony's segmented-frame approach involves capturing a perfect 24 progressive frame in the camera, camcorder or telecine and then processing it into a 48-Hz signal, with each frame constituting two segments. Explains Cohen, "The concept enables adaptation of existing interlaced HD equipment without having to build all-new systems from scratch."
Larry Thorpe, vice president, acquisition systems, for Sony Electronics' Broadcast & Professional Co., notes that the segmented-frame concept already has been standardized by the International Telecommunications Union (which gave it the 24PsF designation) and that SMPTE is also working on the standard. He believes standardization is important, but not necessary, for the format's future.
Sony's sF approach allowed the company to get a jump on the market and made 1080p/24 work possibly a season earlier than if the industry had had to wait for "true" 1080p/24 equipment. This true-1080p/24 approach has been taken by Panasonic, which offers an HD recorder and format converter compatible with segmented-frame, according to Merritt. He notes that customers will decide whether segmented-frame will become a U.S. standard but adds that it has some drawbacks: "It requires some vertical filtering. And, in true progressive, there is no vertical-resolution penalty."
As for 1080/24, he says, "We don't believe a single format is the format of choice, but posting in 1080p/24 in film-based material makes sense because of the possibility to convert to other formats. It also allows editing of that material on any frame without having to worry about the 3:2 pulldown. Another advantage of 24-frame is the possibility of transmitting that material at 24-frame, saving a great deal of bandwidth." He adds that the 3:2 pulldown can be inserted by the viewer's set-top box for receiving digital broadcast.
Thorpe reports, "What started out as a 24p agenda has been changed over the last year. ITU came out with the ITU 709 standard, which is a 1920 horizontal and 1080 vertical digital sampling structure. This allows a range of frame and field rates: 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p, 50i and 60i. When that standard came out, we made all our equipment switchable to any of them except 60p and 50p. This is the first time any manufacturer has been able to make internationally switchable equipment. There's no longer a concern with PAL and SECAM. This has made the 24p movement something bigger."
Switchability to 60p and 50p will come later, he says, noting, "The data rate is so high that it will require a new generation of equipment."
Sony now has its editing 1080p/24 VTRs ready for shipment, along with its production switchers, digital effects systems and studio monitors in the format.
Panasonic showed its 24-frame-capable VTR, the AJ-HD3700, at last year's NAB exhibition and is to begin deliveries in June. Its format converter, the AJ-UFC1800, has been shipping for several months. Although such companies as Leitch and Snell & Wilcox have competitive format converters, Merritt notes, the Panasonic D-5 converter is the only one that can process and delay eight channels of audio and can convert from any ATSC format to any other ATSC format.
It's generally agreed that the cost of a full-HD post-production complement runs about $2 million and that charges to facilities' clients will be affected. Says Lefler, "Our studio rates are mostly based on the commercial world, and we expect about a 20% increase to finish in HD. We expect that to hold."
Cohen observes, "Over time, there probably will be some competitive pressure on manufacturers that will reduce the cost of equipment, and there will probably be competitive pressures on our rates as well. But I don't think either will be significant."
HD telecines, online editing gear, color correction and peripheral functions, he estimates, average twice the cost of standard-definition. He adds that his facility's rates vary widely from one function to another, but the cost of posting in HD is roughly one-third more. Taking all costs of producing a TV series into account, though, posting represents only about 2%, he points out.
Thorpe is more positive, though, that equipment costs will come down significantly. And, he adds, it's a bargain already: "This new 24-frame equipment is capable of five modes of operation, but the VTRs cost about the same amount that Digital Betacam cost three years ago."