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The HD revolution
Shooting progressive
Frame rates
HD in post
Beyond HD
Payback time

The HD Revolution - A European Perspective

by David Fox

High Definition has finally come of age. There is a selection of robust, lightweight camcorders to shoot on; a wide range of post-production equipment to choose from; and HDTV transmission is a real consideration for anyone with ambitions to sell their programmes internationally. There is also an (almost) universal standard, 24p (24 frames per second, progressively scanned at 1080 lines) which is based on the other (real) universal standard, film, which means that video has finally bridged the gap between TV and the cinema.

Although HD transmission won't be a reality in Europe anytime soon, it will be elsewhere, especially the US, Japan and Australia. But, the fact that 24p is so suitable for output to film, and the need to make high-budget programming future proof and internationally saleable, means Europe can no longer ignore HDTV.

However, there are a lot of factors to consider before making the move to higher resolution production. Not least the frame rate debate....

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Radical Progressive

David Bush, visual effects supervisor at Interactive, Milan, Rome and Naples (who also works in Cinecittá, Rome), believes that the move to progressive will have a greater impact than improved resolution. "For too long the higher resolution video formats have ignored the requirements of film. The fact that it is 24 frames per second makes it very practical," he says.

However, "visual effects are becoming so much a part of film making now, especially invisible effects, that people would rather not work with native anamorphic [squeezed ultra-widescreen] formats, so 24p being limited to 16:9 can be restrictive," which is why he feels that film is still the better acquisition medium and HD is better for post, except for higher budget productions which should go for higher resolution, which is why digital film facilities will need equipment which operates at HD, 2K and 3K (where a lot of effects work is still done).

Even so, there has been "an unusually high interest among the production community in Europe in 24p," claims Laurence Thorpe, VP acquisition systems, Sony. With Digital Betacam having been touted as an alternative to 16mm film, and far more successful in Europe than the US, he believes "those production people see the next logical step as being a step up to the equivalent of 35mm in HDCAM," especially as it results in a master which is easily transferable to any international standard. "It's a win-win situation and a way of protecting programme assets, especially now that HD is affordable and 24p has become a de-facto world-wide standard."

He maintains that 24p gives a big cost advantage compared to 35mm, or even 16mm, film (with tape cheaper than film, no processing costs and no telecine), especially where there is a high shooting ratio.

Because so much material is originated on film, there is a lot of work for 24p in post even if it doesn't originate on 24p camcorders. "The important thing that has to happen next is to see the results of significant projects, especially Star Wars and on prime-time TV," says Thorpe. "The next six months are going to be really interesting."

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The Rate Stuff

"Certainly, 24p is very important, but there are other frame rates that we believe are equally important," says David Huckfield, general manager product marketing, Panasonic "There are a lot of aspects of HD which 24p is not ideal for," especially sport. While 24p has a lot of benefits for film production, he believes its drawbacks for live TV, in particular, means that there can not be a single standard for all production.

These are not pressing matters in Europe, but in post-production, for work that has to be usable internationally (especially in the US and Australia), Huckfield maintains going uncompressed with HD-D5 is the ideal choice. Panasonic's other HD range is the 100Mbps version of DVCPRO.

Huckfield believes that DVCPRO-HD can compete with Sony's HDCAM for acquisition, and offers a migration path to existing DVCPRO users. It will be showing a camcorder, VTR and server for the format at IBC 2000. As the VTR can play back standard definition DVCPRO, as well as DV and DVCAM, and the server can stream SD or HD, he calls it "an integrated strategy" for production.

"We are not treating HD as a separate issue. People want an integrated migration to HD." The format was launched at NAB 2000 and has just begun shipping in the US [Summer 2000], but its arrival date in Europe "will very much depend on the direction Europe wants to go," and if producers choose 1080i/50 or 720p. In the US, there has been a lot of interest in 720p and in Australia some believe it would be more beneficial to use 720p for the Olympics than 1080i.

Like HDCAM, DVCPRO-HD is a compressed format, but many feel uncompressed is necessary for post, where Panasonic is aiming its HD-D5 as a mastering format. Unlike the other two, it doesn't sub-sample. It also records and replays all the main standards: 1080i/50 and 60, 720/60i and 30p, NHK's 1035i/60, PAL and NTSC, and 1080/24p and 25p. It hasn't been available in Europe yet, because it hasn't had CE approval, but the HD2700 VTR shipping in the US is being upgraded to the HD3700 (showing at IBC) at the end of the year, when it will be available here. The VTR doesn't do 720/50i or 25p, which Australia will need if it goes for 720p, but that will be added as soon as it is needed. Both the HD-D5 and the DVCPRO-HD VTRs can have an optional up- and down-converter and an optional aspect ratio convertor built in. SD output is standard for monitoring.

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Feel The Force...

Besides its HDCAM camcorder, Sony is also offering a HD studio camera and a companion portable, which all deliver 1080 24/25/30p and 50/60i. The existing HDC-700 studio camera was only available in a 60Hz version, but the new HDC-900 will work in Europe also. Both it and the new HDC-950 (for use with either CCU or with separate portable VTR) are available after IBC 2000. "Being switchable, it does make them a worldwide product, so we can sell it in all markets and gain economies of scale, which is something new in television," says Thorpe. Although its cameras don't originate 720p, there is a board that will fit in the studio camera's CCU to downconvert to 720p.

As the volume deliveries of HDCAM have just started, not much programming has moved to it, but he points to the experience of the US' Tribune Broadcasting Corp., who tested HDCAM just before NAB, "and were so enchanted with what they saw they switched immediately" for their sci-fi series: Earth - Final Conflict, and he says are very happy with it. In New York, Sidney Lumet is shooting a new crime series on HDCAM. George Lucas began shooting on the next Star Wars at the end of June, using 6 HDCAM camcorders, and is also said to be happy with the results.

In Paris, Luc Besson's former effects supervisor, Pitof, has just begun shooting Vidocq, a period drama starring Gérard Depardieu, and chose 24p as a lower cost way of recreating Paris 200 years ago (which will involve lots of invisible effects).

Das Werk's American/German co-production, Rave Macbeth, is just one of three 24p movies being shot in Germany. Two more are being shot in Sweden and one in Spain. By IBC, Sony should have between 25 and 30 HD camcorders in use in Europe and at least 80 VTRs. It should also have delivered more than 100 of its new 24p-capable D Series monitors, which being multi-format and high quality, are selling even to users who are not interested in HD at present.

"Almost all of the production chain is in place now: switchers, VTRs, displays, telecines, computer systems, Snell & Wilcox converters, Evertz keycode/timecode, etc.," says Thorpe. Already, he claims, there are eight post-production facilities "doing serious business" in the US, with more coming. Because the equipment is switchable, most users have installed multi-format, multi-frame rate suites so they can handle any type of work.

If it is as successful as he believes it will be, he predicts the next move will be to make more film-friendly camcorders, so that each production community will have equipment designed for its ways of working. Sony's cameras will split into two lines: full 24p and a lower cost switchable 50/60Hz line aimed purely at TV work. Despite his enthusiasm for HD production, Thorpe admits there is a lot of life still left in SD, as "HD will grow slowly and steadily."

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HD Posts Results

The benefits of HD will be felt first in post. Three facilities offer their opinions.

Bristol's Broadcast Film & Video completed its first HD edit in February (2000), and is working on other HD projects for US and Japanese companies, and its managing director, David Blackham, believes that "any facility thinking seriously about the international market" has to consider upgrading to HD. "The price and quality of HDCAM make it an attractive proposition. It is a lower quality alternative to 35mm film and 1080 progressive HD is an ideal standard for programme interchange," he says.

However, he doesn't believe 24p is appropriate for use in the Europe. He'd rather shoot at 25 fps progressive, then do pull-down for delivery to the US. "Think carefully about where your programme is to be delivered," he says. If it is primarily for transmission in the US at 60 fps interlaced, would it not be better to shoot it like that?, he asks. There is also a big problem with how best to integrate archive and other footage into HD, both from old film and the latest specialist (miniature) cameras which are not available in HD format.

"HD is not easy to deal with because of the amount of deliverable formats there are and the number of frame rates we have to deliver to producers in the future," with the different HD transmission standards in the US, although these problems are diminished with 24p, where the VTR does its own down-conversion, says Blackham.

"We think film has a great future and is going through a resurgence. It has a long shelf life and it does have a higher resolution," but you do need to choose the film stock and the telecine carefully, he says.

Because the camera is so sensitive (compared to film), you have to stop down on most shots, which means the neutral density filter has to be of the highest quality - to match the lens. "High Definition is about lens to screen production. You can't shoot HD with poor quality lenses on the camera," he says. Similarly, HD post requires all the same tools available in 625, to avoid disappointment.

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Beyond HD

The sort of work Interactive's David Bush does typically goes beyond HD, doing colour correction for movies at 2K, but some of Interactive's equipment can also do HD. "We're finding more and more interest on the part of large fiction productions to master them in 1080 24p," says Bush. As facilities offer HD mastering services for fiction, Bush believes there will be an awful lot of use for it in Europe.

"On one film being shot in Cuba, Paco Chevrolet, we convinced them to shoot it on Super 16, transfer to HD and do colour correction etc., then transfer to 35mm. They wanted a way to produce it more economically and had toyed with the idea of shooting it on Digital Betacam, as this was too early for HDCAM, but the director of photography preferred film." However, the quality of the HD he showed them convinced them to use it for post. To get the best results Interactive use Philips D6 uncompressed 1.5 Gigabits per second VTR, which will record and playback all the HD formats. It also has a Philips Spirit telecine, with HD and 2K options, which is connected to a Spectre Virtual Telecine disk storage, which plugs into the colour correction system, which plays out to the D6. It also has Infernos, Domino and Cineon systems.

"I'm definitely happy with the results you can get from HDCAM for shooting, but not with the results after multiple compressions. With colour correction it is fairly critical to have as much bandwidth as possible," he says. Also, Philips is developing a data interface for the D6, making it a data recorder working at very high data rates, which Interactive hopes to upgrade to during the Autumn to record and playback 2K data. It will probably also get a HDCAM VTR as people are starting to shoot HDCAM productions in Italy and The Movie Factory, a rental company in Rome, has bought eight camcorders.

Bush believes that the killer application for digital film is colour correction, as an entire film can be done at 2K, "with an enormous amount of colour correction intervention in a week. This is not just fixing shots on dull days, but creatively enhancing it, which you can't do with traditional colour correction in the lab."

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Payback Time?

London facility, VTR has a Spirit with HD output. It normally uses 1080i, "because that's the majority of requests we've had, but we don't have any HD editing at the moment because the number of requests we've got is so low that it isn't economical yet," says Mick Vincent, its head of telecine. It is waiting for the HD i/o cards for Inferno to become available to move further.

"I'd imagine we will be doing more HD work a year from now, but not as a delivery format, but to work at higher resolution within the facility," he says. VTR has transferred a few movies to HD for the US [by mid 2000] but because the HD-D5 VTR has not been CE approved, it can't yet buy one, but has had to hire it in.

Like Bush, Vincent is also doubtful of how HDCAM will stand up under multiple generations of compression. VTR uses Philips Voodoo VTR (a follow on from D6 with new electronics), which can handle 24 and 25p uncompressed, although he says it is very expensive.

At present, VTR mainly does either SD or data at 2K (RGB 10-bit rather than 4:2:2 8-bit), with very little HD in between. The main problem with data is that nothing happens in real time, except grading, as the files are about 12.8MB per frame "and HiPPi can only work at 6 frames per second flat out." Clients love the quality, but it's so complex that it is difficult for them to see what they are getting for their money, whereas HD is real-time.

One of the biggest limitations of HD for Vincent is that it's only 16:9. Although you can do anamorphic, it isn't standardised. He believes only a few specialist facilities will do HD, mainly as an internal format, delivering SD. But, if electronic cinema takes off, he feels that's where HD will be used in Europe.

At present, the expense of going HD makes it a difficult proposition. A facility would need to buy three HD VTRs, a HD i/o card for Inferno (as well as a matrix and other hidden kit), which would require an investment of about £500,000. And if they haven't already got the HD option on Spirit, that's another £100,000. "So, you've got to think there is an awful lot of work before you are going HD, to get payback on that," says Vincent.

He believes it will be 18 months before that becomes practical, but it may be worth building the facility now, to boost your company profile, and the business may emerge more quickly, although he doubts it. "When it happens, we can be very quick to respond, because it will only take about a month to move to HD."

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© 2000 - 2010

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David Fox