Highdef Overview

Update: December 7th, 2009

by Conrad Denke

the Victory Studios

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High Definition Revolution

High Definition was the future. Suddenly, it has become the present. With a growing demand for high definition programming in broadcast, cable, and satellite, companies are scrambling to take advantage of the new dynamics in digital content creation and produce programming in HD. They are finding that the picture clarity, the wider screen, and high quality surround sound add a new dimension to their programs, and viewers everywhere are becoming acutely aware of this dramatic new home-viewing experience. High Definition is also taking electronic program creation to a place never seen before… the big screen. You simply have to see HD projected on a large screen and you’ll know it belongs there, too. With the introduction of 24P, the “film-like” highdef format, film production, as we know it now, is already changing dramatically. 24P brings the best of the film and high resolution digital video worlds together. It has the excellent qualities associated with film, but also offers the ease of use, consistency of picture and sound quality, and the control associated with digital video. It is no longer a question of whether the market will embrace Highdef production technology – it’s now simply how fast the change will occur.

History of HD

If we look historically at the process, the advent of Highdef has been a long journey. The earliest work in high definition began in Japan in 1964. NHK, the Japanese broadcasting company, began producing prototypes and by 1984 had developed an analog HD production chain that was sufficiently mature to begin serious program production. By 1991 NHK was transmitting via satellite the 1035 line high definition “Hi-Vision” format to viewers in Japan. About the same time in the United States, KCTS TV, a local public television station, was experimenting with the format. In spite of the cumbersome equipment, the station managed to produce some impressive programs. Hollywood experimented with the format also. In 1988, CBS produced a made-for-TV movie in the Hi Vision format. There were problems with working with high definition at this stage of its development, however. Cameras and recorders were large and heavy and required lots of cable and power to operate. On complex productions, every time a camera position changed, hundreds of feet of cable had to be moved. Engineers were constantly needed to keep the early cameras and decks running properly. The experiences of these early HD pioneers, working with this cumbersome equipment and little understanding of the format, ultimately helped the technology mature and laid the groundwork for the digital revolution to follow.

As Highdef was developing, the companion digital technology necessary for it to grow was in its infancy. The ability to transmit and store the large amounts of information that a digital HD format would need was cost prohibitive, if not technically impossible at the time. Also, early HD pioneers were restricted by the large size and complexity of equipment used to acquire high definition footage. Advances in camera technology and digital processing were emerging rapidly however, and within a few years, everything was to change.

The HDCAM Format

The breakthrough came in 1997 when Sony introduced the HDCAM videotape format and the first truly portable HD camcorder. The HDCAM format was a radical departure from the earlier analog systems. It was compact, portable and all digital. The clarity was incredible, and its pricing was dramatically below all previous HDTV program origination equipment. With the advent of the HDW-700 camcorder and a complete line of high definition production gear available, it was clear that digital HD had finally arrived.

The new format was introduced as a turnkey system, from camcorder to post production. Everything was in place. Rental companies like Bexel, Plus 8, Fletcher, Panavision and others bought cameras and made them available. Panavision developed their own lenses, and other manufacturers like Fujinon and Canon created new zoom and prime lenses for the cameras. Pioneers like Victory Studios and Laser Pacific were the first to offer full post production in Highdef. Many other companies followed with special accessories and companion equipment in production and post. About the same time, Panasonic also created a digital high definition videotape format. Based on the highly successful D-5 machines, HD-D5 found a market in telecine and post production work as well, but the company never produced a camcorder for the format. Early digital HD formats were based on the first SMPTE HD Production standard – SMPTE 240M and its accompanying digital standard SMPTE 260M. Accordingly most cameras and tapes were 1920(H) x 1035(V). Because SMPTE later advanced to the SMPTE 274M production standard and the high definition transmission standard for the US later called for 1920(H) x 1080(V), Sony and other manufacturers adapted quickly and updated their products to support the higher line count.

First Waves

The first wave of business came mostly from broadcasters. The “1080i” format was the best video anyone had ever seen. Television stations from around the country were experimenting with production and broadcasting in HD. Unfortunately, set sales did not follow. The prices were still too high, and the lack of programming prevented buyers from having any incentive to be pioneers. PBS stations produced a number of documentaries. Chihuly Over Venice, a beautiful documentary about glass art in Italy and many others were made available. Even a public affairs series National Desk was produced in HD. One of the most striking programs was produced by Canadian Gary McCartie called Over Canada. It was the effort of two years of shooting HD across Canada. NBC switched the Tonight Show to 1080i, and CBS changed their soap The Young and the Restless to HD as well. With programs like these, it became clear that Highdef had the enormous potential to reach deep inside the heart of the viewer.

The Bottom Drops Out

After the first wave, it was clear that Highdef production could not sustain itself without an outlet. Broadcasters needed HD viewers to offset the extra cost of producing programs in HD. Unfortunately most viewers never even saw those few HD productions that were completed in Highdef because, without the new HD sets, they were only able to receive the standard definition analog broadcast. Also, broadcasters didn’t agree on a single HD resolution to transmit. Some went with the 1080i system where the image size is 1920(H)x1080(V) and is transmitted interlaced at about 30 frames (60 fields) per second. Others decided to go with a different HD format, “720P,” which transmits a 1280(H)x720(V) image at 60 progressive frames per second. As time went on, it became clear that adoption of Highdef production and distribution was going to be slower than some expected. Then something happened that changed the picture altogether.

George Lucas and 24P

Since it’s beginning, film has been the format of choice for nearly everything visual. Television’s immediacy and live production had created a need for an electronic recordable format, and video recording was invented. After programs could be recorded electronically, portable cameras and sophisticated editing systems were also invented. Video changed and grew in quality. In spite of these changes, it never threatened film for quality. It was significantly softer than 35mm film, limited in contrast range, power hungry and clumsy in comparison. In the early eighties video took over the corporate and middle end of the production business because of cost. And for the next nearly twenty years, the video revolution transformed itself from analog into the digital world. When high definition systems were developed, they had followed the path blazed by their standard definition video counterparts. Interlaced scanning and high capture rates were built into the design of high definition systems.

George Lucas of Star Wars fame had fallen in love with HD. He only had one problem. It looked too much like great video. He, along with some others, suggested to Sony that they should explore an HD signal that was similar to film, twenty-four frames per second in the progressive format, instead of the video interlaced system. This would more closely emulate film capture, and better conform to the computer graphics systems he and others were using.

Sony responded and developed a complete line of 24 frame capable HD gear. They dubbed their new line “CineAlta” which has become a world standard for “24P” HD. 24P high definition has many of the unique attributes that have been traditionally associated with film origination. Among these attributes is the concept of “Universal Mastering,” the ability to output a variety of video signals compatible with all domestic and foreign television standards from the same 24P source. The introduction of 24P slowed most of the existing 1080i production, especially programs in the entertainment genre, as they evaluated the new format and its possibilities. Some programs decided to continue production in 1080i while others found the look of 24P too appealing to pass up. Traditional filmmakers began to have interest in 24P as well.

Panavision began working with Sony to provide HD cameras for George Lucas and Star Wars Episode II. An 11:1 Primo zoom was created along with a support system, and now happy with the image, Lucas went off to shoot in Australia. He was incredibly successful with the camera. In shooting some 60 days, and 30 plus setups a day, they had not one hitch. But Star Wars Episode II was not the first 24P feature. That same year, Victory Studios finished postproduction work on the first feature shot in America with the new camera. Entitled Nicolas, the movie was directed and produced by Peter Shaner. Shaner was one of the first to get one of Panavision’s prototypes. With the flexibility of Sony’s new line of 24P HDCAM equipment, the motion picture was easily assembled and finished, including color correction and some amazing looks that were created. The team on Nicolas showed that HD was a viable alternative for independent feature filmmaking.

More 24P capable formats and post equipment have followed. Panasonic added 24P support to the D5-HD format which has become the preferred high end tape format for telecine and “Universal Mastering” applications. With its full bandwidth 10 bit video and low HD compression ratios, the HD-D5 format offers distinct advantages to high definition production where portability is not a concern. For portable 24P HD applications, Panasonic introduced the DVCProHD system with the Varicam camera. The Varicam uses a unique flagging system, which is able to electronically record a 24 frame signal on a standard 720P/60 DVCProHD tape. The original 24 frame material is easily extracted upon playback. The Varicam’s unique system also allows for in camera “overcranking” and “undercranking” to create slow motion and speedup flexibility. In addition, Avid, Apple, Boxx, Sony, Quantel, and others have all come out with non-linear editing systems for 1080i, 1080P and 720P HD formats. Clearly High Definition is here to stay.

Present Day and the Future of HD

Now that 24P cameras have become widely available, they are being used for all types of productions. People are learning of the benefits of the new digital acquisition systems. Broadcasters are still dealing with cost issues, but as sales of HDTV sets grow it appears that daylight can be seen at the end of this long dark tunnel. CBS courageously pioneered the HD format for prime time television. “Diagnosis Murder” was the first program to try HDCAM production for prime time. Today the entire CBS prime time lineup is broadcast in Highdef. ABC, NBC and FOX have followed suit with increased HD broadcasts. Many television programs are still shot in 35mm film, especially hour-long dramas, although almost all sitcoms have converted to Highdef. The transition from 16mm to HD in the situational comedy genre was spearheaded by pioneer Derek Grover, Director of Photography, who showed the studios that HD could be easily adapted to the production system in place with significant cost savings. Derek was also integral in the creation of the DIT(Digital Imaging Technician) job classification for IATSE Local 600.

Perhaps the brightest spot on the horizon for broadcasting is in the satellite arena. DirecTV has several channels including Mark Cuban’s HDNet and HDNet Movies. Discovery and ESPN added HD channels and Showtime and HBO have regular HD programs available. The Dish Network also has similar HD channels, making it easier for consumers to make the HD decision and providing a larger outlet for HD programming. Cable is now aggressively moving into HDTV.

The economy of production in HD is improving as prices for HD acquisition and post continue to decline. With the advent of HD non-linear finishing systems, the price of HD post-production is approaching that of standard definition. Productions like “One Hundred Centre Street” have shown significant savings with 24P. According to producer Debbie Elbin, the project, directed by Sidney Lumet, came in at about 1.1 million per episode, as opposed to the usual 1.8 to 2.1 million for similar one hour dramas. As more and more productions learn how to deal with 24P, the advantages are becoming clear.

And even the feature film arena is now heating up. Robert Rodriguez, producer/director on El MariachiDesperadoSpy Kids, has now converted all his productions to 24P. He just released Once Upon a Time in Mexico which was shot in HDCAM 24P, and previously he did Spy Kids II and Spy Kids 3D in the 24P format. Feature productions in both the 1080P and 720P HD formats are starting every day.

Naturally, manufacturers are trying to stay ahead and improve their products. Cameras such as the Thomson Viper are outputting high bandwidth data for even more flexibility in coloring in post production. Sony is now marketing the HDCAM SR videotape format, which increases the recording bandwidth and resolution over current HD videotape recorders. Fully digital systems such as BayTech’s CineRAM record an uncompressed, ten bit, RGB 4:4:4 signal directly to RAM, while systems, like the Director’s Friend, records onto hard drives.

In addition to HD acquisition, there is a growing movement towards a workflow known as digital intermediate (DI). In a DI workflow the picture is acquired on film and then scanned at high resolution HD (HDCAM or HD-D5) or data files at 2K or 4k or higher. Then the images are color corrected and manipulated before sending them back to film for projection. Incredible flexibility is the result. Many major motion pictures released today are using this process.

It’s been a long journey from the first days of Hi-Vision to current state of growing 24P production. We are not done. There is a long, exciting, and expanding journey yet ahead.

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