HD: Rough and ready

Arnett's Afghanistan reports for BNN, HDNet deemed a success

In the past, when veteran reporter Peter Arnett headed into an area of conflict, the goal was a clear one: Keep safe and get the facts. His recently completed assignment for the Broadcast News Network (BNN) and HDNet added another component: Get pretty pictures.

Well, maybe not pretty. After all, in an area of conflict, beauty is often of a different sort. Nonetheless, because he and the crew were working with HD gear, Arnett, who filed seven 20- to 30-minute reports for broadcast on HDNet, found the medium's improved resolution made for improved story telling.

"I think this is the way to tell the story," he says. "I truly enjoyed being in this medium. I never looked better, although I look like shit anyway. But I felt I looked good and pretty dramatic. Not quite Clint Eastwood but..."

Steve Rosenbaum, CEO of news division BNNtv, says he was skeptical going into the HD experiment. He felt that the additional weight and complexity wouldn't warrant what he thought would be only a slightly better picture. But, he says, he may have been proved wrong. And he expects to have BNNtv working in HDTV again—soon.

"What HD news may really mean is the end of MTV-style news editing," he says. "With that much detail on the screen, if it cuts too early, it's a little bit like being rushed by paintings in a museum. You find yourself wanting to pay attention to the images in a way that is much more thoughtful than the way we've been trained to look at wallpaper news images."

Given the landscape of Afghanistan, which Arnett likens to the American landscape used as a backdrop for countless movie Westerns, shooting in HD was a revelation and a new way to tell a story for TV news. "There's a cast of characters, local people, which are fabulous to photograph," he explains. "To be able to sit down at the end of the week and be able to tell the story at length over the most fantastic pictures was an enormous thrill."

The camera used by BNNtv's crew was a Sony HDW-700A (which Sony been discontinued in favor of less expensive HD cameras).

Tapes with each week's program were sent to HDNet's editing facility in Denver, Colo. Once there the programs are transferred from a Sony HDW-500 HDCAM deck onto Rorke Data MaxArray 1-TB servers. A low-resolution version of the program is cut on Macintosh G4 computers with Targa CineWave HD cards (for uncompressed HD editing) using Apple's Final Cut Pro editing software. Once editing was complete a high-resolution version was digitized and put back onto HDCAM tape. PixelPower's Clarity HD is used for character generation and an SGI Octane with PowerAnimator for the show's open.

Arnett says the crew treated the camera as if it were a newborn baby, which "was not easy as you bump around the Afghan landscape over the worst of roads."

But the care did the trick.

"I think we proved that you can cover conflict produced with dramatic pictures," he says. "It may have taken five days to get to air, but the way we could tell the story made it still valuable."