Tech Talk: Reasons to jump on the high definition bandwagon

I strongly suspect we're heading towards a crossroad which, if the right path is taken, will lead into a new era in the art of communication. I'm talking about High Definition....
February 1, 1998

I strongly suspect we’re heading towards a crossroad which, if the right path is taken, will lead into a new era in the art of communication. I’m talking about High Definition.

hd’s superior quality, as well as its grander scale, could bring home-viewing a level of interest and fascination previously inspired solely by the motion-picture theatre environment. If the two technologies could ever be integrated, their power would herald a new artform that combines the reality of television with the theatricality of film.

Imagine the impact on the American public if the horrors of the Vietnam War had been projected lifesize on their living-room walls, or the Iran hostage crisis, or any of the real-life events that flash across tv screens daily. Add to this heightened reality the power of The Filmmaker, and you’ve created a new medium that can influence, entertain and educate like no other.

Thus far, the filmmaker has steadfastly refused video technology as the medium of choice. This refusal rests on three issues: scale (the canvas is too small); userfriendliness (the creative mind clashes with a right-brained ‘engineering’ mentality); and the quality of craft (high-level craftsmanship is rare in video production).

That video, still an evolving technology, is viewed as inferior is understandable. Compared to film projected on huge screens, endlessly honed by seasoned craftsmen with millions of dollars at their disposal to make the perfect picture, little wonder garish tv images – shot from the hip on laughable budgets – look pretty bad by comparison. Nor is it hard to understand the filmmaker’s resistance to enter waters perceived as amateurish.

Perhaps even more important is the inclination to avoid any process that will diminish creativity. If a magic camera existed that could automatically make a perfect picture, the filmmaker would probably reject it out of hand. Deep down the filmmaker wants the process to be difficult and somewhat mystifying; only then can the need to be creative, to be an artist, be gratified.

Psychology aside, film in the hands of an artist has the capacity to communicate a subtext that evokes emotional response from the viewer. Video, on the other hand, has rarely been able to transcend that one dimensional, in-your-face harshness. Even the most serious attempts to impose ‘soul’ to these images has been difficult.

hd has alleviated some of these problems. The pictures certainly have more resolution (sharpness) and have the capacity to render color more clearly (fidelity). Yet having looked at an endless array of hd images, I’m struck by a certain superficiality despite the sharp-as-a-tack, true-to-life ‘photographs’.

Hmm, have I just uttered a dirty word? Isn’t photography a perfectly respectable medium for art? Of course. Yet with hd, I always get the feeling I’m watching picture postcards in motion. It’s as though the shooter has nothing to say visually, except where to point the camera. The missing link is the ever-elusive soul so clearly evident in film. At the risk of sounding arrogant (knighting myself as an artist), let me share my experiences with hd as a medium perfectly capable of delivering soul, providing, of course, one is willing to learn new techniques and is able to curb old prejudices.

My hd adventure began with what is called up-conversion (also known as 525-to-1125-line interpolation), which basically elevates the number of lines from the 525-line digital format to the hdtv digital format.

I first encountered this process years ago in connection with projected images. Although those early line-doubled pictures were appreciably better than the conventional 525 lines, I was never impressed by any kind of projected video, line-doubled or real hd. It wasn’t until I saw a more recent version of this technology that I realized up-conversion is quite impressive, particularly when shown on hd monitors. In fact, when I first saw these images, I mistakenly thought I was looking at true hd pictures.

I started experimenting with up-conversion techniques using Sony’s DVW-700 camera, which is capable of recording anamorphic images digitally. This squeezed image is later unsqueezed as part of the process. We used the Snell & Wilcox device that almost totally eliminates any kind of artifact from fast-moving objects (arguably the weak link, but nothing to worry about unless you’re doing sport shows).

With this relatively simple process we were able to create perfectly respectable hd pictures, save one fascinating caveat: The hdtv pictures in and of themselves were relentlessly unforgiving! I saw every error be it lighting, faulty exposures or bad composition. Clearly, these common problems were greatly amplified by the large screen size and the higher resolution of this wide-screen format. Some of the traditional video characteristics were also still noticeable: excessive sharpness, chalky whites and lack of dimensionality, but I realized that I was looking at problems that were reparable.

For the past few years we’ve been perfecting a process which extends the art of cinematography (aptly characterized as ‘painting with light’) into the post-production domain. This process is related to the ‘magic’ traditionally performed by ‘colorists’ in the film-to-tape transfer, but in this instance on videotape, digitally.

When applied by a skilled operator (preferably a former shooter), the ambience of an entire show can change. Day can be turned into night; ‘magic hour’ is only a few turns of a knob away; ‘hot windows’ can be gelled; graduated filters can be added to ‘cool’ an overexposed sky. We can add or remove diffusion from the picture. In certain instances, we can even ‘relight’ scenes altogether.

What makes all this possible are three things: the improved capture of images in the electronic domain; the fact that we’re working in context on the finished cut; and the eye of the operator. The latter is particularly important as it dramatically affects the final look of the piece.

Two other things are worth mentioning. This new step in the post-production process gives the producer/director an opportunity to make certain stylistic alterations to the images after the final embellishments are all in place (the fine-cut, mixed audio, etc…). This creative luxury isn’t provided in even the best of the film world. Secondly, if you wish to avoid the video look, we encourage the cinematographer to consult with the ‘colorist’ before production begins. We’ve discovered that much can be done in the camera set-up to embellish the process while giving the shooter more latitude in the field. Also, such consults will give him the benefit of the most current information on these matters. Incidentally, this process must be performed in a legitimate 601 (component digital 4:2:2) environment. Any composite routing or signal processing will generate artifacts that are unacceptable in the hd or the sdtv domain.

Obviously, this process should be considered an alternative to the use of film as a ‘futureproofing’ vehicle. Your current release option would include a 4 x 3 version (we pan-and-scan to fix compositional problems) or a 525 letterbox (we’re having considerable success with this process in conventional formats and use it routinely with ntsc as well as pal projects – e.g. long-form international programming).

From a fiscal perspective the difference between the up-conversion path and real hd will be dramatic. hd-signal processing is totally different from the current technology and will make essentially every piece of post-production equipment obsolete. Facilities will have to spend millions of dollars to make the change and, of course, will be forced to pass these costs on to the client. We expect the cost of hd online services, as well as film-to-tape transfers, to be significantly higher than current technology.

There will be another futureproofing alternative for those who wish to take a higher, still more economical, road. It would mean shooting in real high definition (or film) and then down-converting the material to 601 for editing, color-correcting, etc… Sometime in the future, the original material would be re-edited (also re-transferred, in the case of film) and released in real hdtv. We’re currently starting experiments with such scenarios.

Given the present circumstances it seems quite obvious that some form of futureproofing is the logical approach to bridging the current technical – as well as fiscal – realities with what is to come in the future.

Finally, I’d like to add my two cents to the many voices that profess to have the last word on hd. Let me say, however, that my perspective on this matter is less technical and (hopefully) stems more from common sense.

> hdtv in one form of another is inevitable. The stakes are far too high for our capitalist system to back away from what might ultimately turn out to be the biggest thing since sliced bread. When one considers the fiscal implications of replacing every tv set, every transmitter, every vcr, and so on, we might be talking about numbers that exceed our national budget. Whether the ultimate format has 1080 lines or you-name-it lines, whether the signals are interlaced or progressive and whether the pixels are square or rectangular are, as far as I’m concerned, irrelevant questions. hdtv will come!

> Sophisticated financing schemes and media competition will take care of the cost of all this. The public will be inundated with cable/satellite services, along with websites, interactive educational programming, shopping and all the rest. These services will be packaged along with hdtv sets or projected entertainment centers, on a monthly-fee basis. Virtually billions of dollars in cell-phones have been similarly sold to the public.

> Producers will also discover that the 12-year-old analog high-def technology is totally antiquated and can’t meet the demands of, or properly interface with, what’s coming down the line. Digital technology strikes again.

> 35mm will render the most attractive hd images; super 16mm and video origination will have many shootouts. There’ll be no clear winners except in the fiscal arena. Film origination will cost significantly more than ever before.

> Sony’s DVW-700 will win all the technical awards for bridging the best of the old with the best of the new digital worlds. But, more important, it will be the first piece of electronic gear to win the respect of the filmmaker.

> All futureproofed shows will have a fruitful afterlife, and 4 x 3 shows will drop in value significantly.

> The fledgling side of the feature film community will discover that hdtv is strongly reminiscent of 35mm and can even be transferred to film with amazing results. This will ultimately turn the movie business upside down and we’ll finally have a breeding ground for aspiring filmmakers who don’t happen to have a few million bucks in their hip pocket. A few people have already tiptoed into those waters by way of Sony’s hd center in California. They report ‘stunning’ results.

> Finally, the film and video culture will commingle and ultimately integrate. As for me, I’ll be in heaven looking down on my old filmmaker colleagues, toasting them on their wisdom for discovering this new artform.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.