Technology – Nature in High Def: Perils and Payoffs

Natural history, heralded as the genre to prove the worth of HDTV to viewers at home, steps to the forefront as North America gets closer still to the age of digital TV. Carl Mrozek gets a status report from broadcasters and...
August 1, 1998

Natural history, heralded as the genre to prove the worth of HDTV to viewers at home, steps to the forefront as North America gets closer still to the age of digital TV. Carl Mrozek gets a status report from broadcasters and producers on the nature of HD…

By November, all the major U.S. nets and satellite services will begin transmitting HDTV and SDTV (standard definition) digital programming. Partly because of the short supply of programming in the early transition, and partly because of a reluctance on the part of advertisers to pay a premium for a HD broadcast which only a handful of viewers will be watching in high def, it’s likely that digital programming will be restricted to primetime at the onset.

The nagging issue for nature producers, particularly those producing on spec, is determining on which high definition and/or progressive DTV (digital TV) format to deliver. Rather than mandating a universal standard, the Advanced Television Standards Committee embraced an open standard including 1080 i (1080 interlaced horizontal lines) and 720 p (720 horizontal lines of video scanned progressively at either 24, 30 or 60 frames per second). The FCC has also permitted some broadcasters to satisfy their obligations with 480 P (480 lines progressively scanned at 30 or 60 frames per second).

To add more fuel to the fire, more than a dozen digital video formats have been approved by the ATSC for digital TV broadcast, most of them for SDTV only. The multiplicity of standards for DTV broadcast as a whole has had broadcasters and program producers wringing their hands over the myriad of formats.

The transformation of TV from an analog to a digital medium, which includes high definition video, will take at least eight years to fully implement, nation-wide and continent-wide. In the meantime the major nets and their affiliates in the top ten U.S. markets will scramble to get HD programming on the air this fall and in the top 30 markets by fall, 1999. Nevertheless, despite the imminent launch, the degree of preparedness among broadcasters for the transition ranges from hands-on involvement to remote sensing.


Discovery Communications says it will be among the first cable networks to offer substantial programming in high def.

‘We expect to have a high definition channel up and running by the first or second quarter of 1999, within 90 days of HBO’s [high def channel] launch,’ says Charles Humbard, VP and GM for showcase networks and advanced television, Discovery’s point man for the DTV transition.

Humbard also anticipates a scarcity of suitable HD programming in the early going: ‘In the beginning we’ll probably repeat a lot, until we’re able to fill the pipeline.’

Discovery is also looking forward to reaping the ancillary benefits of HD. Says Humbard, ‘High def will make it much more plausible to realize multiple products from a project and the master images, everything from DVDs to books.’

By contrast, PBS is vague about how much high def programming it will be offering, and when and where natural history will fit in. This is partly because only half-a-dozen of its nearly 300 member stations will be ready to broadcast digitally by the end of 1998, making it difficult to raise funds for HD programs from member stations which won’t be ready to broadcast digitally for at least a couple of years.

The projected cost of switching from analog to digital throughout the PBS system is currently pegged at US$1.7 billion, and most larger PBS stations are now fundraising to underwrite the changeover. Stations in smaller markets will have more time to do so, but by 2003 all PBS stations in the U.S. must be digitally capable. By 2006 all U.S. television stations, both public and private, must cease analog broadcasting.

Nevertheless, there appears to be strong support within PBS to showcase natural history in sdtv and in HDTV as soon as the system can utilize it. Multi-casting in SDTV may also provide new venues for natural history on PBS, which plans to run several distinct strands outside primetime.

The Nature strand is likely to be among the first existing programs on PBS to generate high def product, although no specific projects are underway at press time. Says executive producer Fred Kaufman, ‘Most of our more recent shows have been shot on Super 16 mm so they would be ready for digital tv and for possible conversion to HD.’

The first high def shows for Nature may originate on Super 35 mm. ‘So far we’ve felt no pressure from within PBS to deliver any HD programs, but we have been discussing some potential new projects to be shot on 35 mm anamorphic, for high definition mastering,’ says Kaufman. ‘These are mainly with producers already working in 35 mm and able to absorb some of the added costs themselves.’

Recent successes with standard definition video may have helped open the door to program origination on high definition video. ‘Our best ratings last season were for San Diego Zoo Story, shot mainly on Beta SP. We’re also impressed with underwater footage shot with some of the new compact [standard definition] digital camcorders.

‘The new HD cameras are much more user-friendly, portable and suitable for our applications. We’re watching to see how they withstand field conditions.’

Like many other broadcasters, Kaufman is cautious despite the hype. ‘We don’t want to rush into a project just for the sake of doing high def. We’ll wait for a story that really lends itself, and a producer we can count on to deliver it. Also, we’ll probably need a partner as well. I suspect we’ll have a high def project or two going within the year.’


U.K.-based Partridge Films, under the umbrella of United Wildlife and a frequent coproduction partner with Nature, is also curious, yet cautious, about high definition and also had no such projects underway at press time. ‘We’ve been speaking with our North American partners about HD and digital television for some time now,’ says Andrew Buchanan, United Wildlife’s director of development. ‘PBS and other major clients still haven’t finalized their technical standards for deliverables. Before we take the plunge we need to know whether Super 16 will be deemed an acceptable capture format or not.’

The issue of technical standards for high def deliverables relates directly to budget for producers. ‘If only 35 mm film and high def video are deemed acceptable formats for origination, then we’ll know that we have to increase costs to deliver,’ says Buchanan. ‘On the other hand, if we know that we can go to HD from Super 16, carefully shot and transferred, then we’ll keep shooting on Super 16, with the new high grain filmstocks, and deal with the HD issue in post, depending on the budget. In that scenario, hd would be one of several formats on which we deliver, along with NTSC, PAL and SECAM.

‘By the same token we’re considering shooting some new projects in 35 mm with HDTV in mind. One of our problems is that there is no HDTV in Britain or Europe, so there’s no incentive on this end to deliver in high def.’

Despite the fast-approaching premiere in the U.S., major players in the U.S. natural history industry had not been inundated with demand for programs in HD as of late spring 1998. At Washington-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises, distributors of Barry Clark’s high def program Sahara (shot on Super 35 mm), new high definition projects were conspicuously absent.

‘We’ve had discussions with producers and distributors about delivering certain programs and series digitally, possibly in high definition. These include series that we’re currently producing like Journey to Amazonia, Wild Indonesia and Triumph of Life, but there’s no additional budget for delivering these or others in HD,’ says DDE’s Brian Donegan. ‘We’ve tried to `future-proof’ to a certain degree by shooting in Super 16. That will at least get us to standard digital TV. The question is how much can we afford to spend, considering that no one is demanding HD from us, nor offering a premium for it.’

Future-proofing for HD presents some expensive choices says Donegan. ‘To be sure that our shows are truly HDTV-compatible we either need to have them shot on 35, or gamble on the new HD camcorders and hope that they can withstand the extremes and rough handling that 16 mm cameras endure. If they do hold up well, they could convince a lot of filmmakers to go out and switch to high def tape in a hurry.’

Washington’s ABC/Kane, currently producing the series Living Edens for PBS, is also waiting for signals from broadcasters. ‘We have been shooting the Living Edens series primarily in Super 16 anamorphic with a view to mastering some of the later shows in HD. So far, we haven’t been asked to deliver a show in high def,’ says Bill Larkin, ABC/Kane’s director of administration and business affairs. ‘We’ve also discussed shooting some Living Edens on HD video down the road, but we’re looking at everything on a project by project basis.’


Jeff Rice, post-production manager at ABC/Kane, has done analyses on the added costs of delivering Super 16 in high def. ‘It’s difficult to generalize about the add-on costs of mastering in high def, but in L.A., mastering an hour shot on Super 16 to HD would add at least US$100,000 to my post budget, today. With 35 mm, the costs would obviously be higher.’ He adds that film to HD transfers on the Philips Spirit Cine were running at least 30% more in New York.

Rice also has concern about the utility of regular 16 mm and even Super 16 mm stock for HD natural history programs. ‘A lot of Super 16 will look beautiful in high definition, especially well-exposed closeups shot on Kodak’s new dense-grain Vision filmstocks. But the grain in older footage, and that shot in low light, won’t hold up as well. There’s a lot of that kind of footage [in natural history] which may not be worth mastering to HD,’ Rice says. ‘That could pose a problem for those of us with large 16 mm libraries and who depend on stock sales.’

The multiplicity of HD and sd digital formats may also impact the cost and complexity of delivering. ‘We were hoping that high def tv would simplify things with the adoption of a universal standard. Instead, we have multiple standards and more than a dozen digital tape formats. CBS and NBC require that programs be delivered on 1080 i, while ABC, with whom we work adopted the 720 [line] progressive system. The format issue has gotten more complicated,’ says Rice.

Barry Clark, one of the first U.S. producers to post a natural history doc in HD, sidestepped the origination format issue by shooting his recent HD feature for PBS on Super 35 mm (35 mm anamorphic). ‘Partly because it more than satisfied the technical standards for all current and future formats with its equivalent of 3000 lines of horizontal resolution. Furthermore, we needed a rugged, dependable and portable camera with modest power requirements. There was no HD camcorder available and we would have had to shoot with a camera and several other pieces of equipment and a technician in remote desert locations,’ he says.

Even when producing his first HD program, Jaguar, much of which was shot in less remote locations, Clark opted to shoot in 35 mm. ‘We would have had to rent and ship a fully-equipped remote truck and technician from L.A., plus covering his expenses on location. It would have inflated our budget at least 10%-15%. Even with a budget of US$1.5 million that posed a problem. With the HD camcorders, the logistics are much easier and the costs more manageable.’

Despite his track record originating on 35 mm for high def, Clark is upbeat about the new portable HD cameras and camcorders. At press time he was planning a summer test in Jackson Hole, Wyoming called ‘The High Def Shootout at High Noon’, trying out the new HD cameras alongside Super 16 and Super 35 mm. ‘We’ll transfer the film to HD video with a few different tele-cines and up-convert digi-betacam and progressive 480 recordings to 1080 i high definition.’

Barry Rebo, exec producer of six HD programs appearing in NTSC on TBS’ Wildlife Adventures series, has been shooting high def video docs for more than a decade. He embraces the lighter, more user-friendly high definition and quasi-high def cameras and camcorders. ‘We’re excited about shooting new projects with sony’s HD camcorder. The cameras are the size of a digi-beta camcorder but they deliver widescreen high definition. They’re going to have a seismic impact on how natural history, travel and adventure docs are shot. The quality and portability is what everyone was hoping it would be.’

Rebo believes that originating in high definition video is also more cost-effective. ‘Given the requirement to shoot for widescreen digital television in varying resolutions, I think a lot of producers are going to see the advantages of shooting in HD rather than having to up-convert.

Despite controlling the broadcast rights to more high def one-hours than anyone outside of Japan, Rebo has also not yet been inundated with orders. ‘We’re delivering standard definition NTSC versions of our high def programs to Turner for Wildlife Adventures. Our series now only exists in NTSC in the U.S., but we’ve retained the high def rights. We’ve had queries from various broadcasters about the availability of our shows and I’m confident that when the time comes, we’ll be ready to strike a beneficial deal.’

Many smaller broadcasters and cable services have not yet finalized their DTV and HDTV plans, or at least not made them public, including Turner Broadcasting (TBS). ‘We’re still in the early stages of our DTV plan,’ says Cathy Neukum, executive producer of Wildlife Adventures for Turner Original Productions. ‘We’re busy assessing costs and technical issues, but when the time comes natural history will be a key part of it.’

Unresolved DTV broadcaster issues like house formats and technical standards leave many producers betwixt and between. That was the situation at press time for National Geographic Television as well.

‘We’ve known that high def was coming for ten years now, but we don’t know yet if it’s finally arrived,’ says John Bowman, National Geographic’s DTV transition manager. ‘We’ve been keeping abreast of HD issues and we’ll be finishing in high definition as soon as broadcasters request and demand it.’

A major concern at Nat Geo is the utility of standard 16 mm film in HD productions. ‘We have a huge library in 16 mm film which we hope to draw on. We’ve been test converting both Super 16 and regular 16 mm footage to high def, mostly from interpositives. We’ve been fairly pleased with the results so far, even when bumping 4 x 3 images to 16 x 9,’ says Bowman.

Upconversions at Virginia’s Roland House partially confirm Bowman’s contention. ‘We’ve gone to high def and to standard def from an assortment of formats including standard 16 and Super 16 mm. We were surprised,’ says Roland’s Frank Russo. ‘For the most part, when we went to HD from perfectly-exposed Super 16 or from a 16 x 9 formatted 4:2:2 digital tape like digi-betacam, with the Snell & Wilcox line doubler, the HD video was generally acceptable [for broadcast]. People in the industry, as often as not, can’t distinguish which clip originated on high def and which was upconverted, as long as they were originally shot in a 16 x 9 versus 4 x 3 aspect ratio.’

Many on the post side of natural history are looking to Roland House for technical assistance on upconversion. To date, their results suggest that both Super 16 and 4:2:2 standard def digital video formats (like digi-betacam) may have a future in high def after all. However, when standard 16 mm and standard definition video shot in today’s 4 x 3 aspect ratio were upconverted the results were not as encouraging.

‘Footage shot in 4 x 3 typically doesn’t hold up nearly as well after being panned, scanned and stretched. Graininess becomes an issue,’ says Russo. ‘To keep your upconversion costs down you should start with film or video formatted in 16 x 9. If you do, there’s a good chance you could end up with a broadcast quality hd product.’


For producers of the video generation, like Austin, Texas-based Brian Greene, producer of an HD doc The Texas Wild, gravitating to HD origination is a logical progression. ‘I started out shooting with Beta SP and then moved to digital betacam for higher-end work. I jumped at the chance to collaborate on a natural history project, with Randall Dark, in high definition. Now I’m hooked.’

Being an HD pioneer has opened doors for Greene which might have been reserved for much more established natural history producers. ‘We just finished producing Land of Giants, the first-ever high def production for the National Park Service. They had never seen HD before, but once they saw what we did with Texas Wild they were hooked,’ he explained. ‘The image clarity is incredible. We’re constantly seeing details on the screen that we didn’t see live. It gives us an edge on the competition.’

Veteran cameramen/producers like Al Giddings of L.A.-based Mandalay Media Arts, have also committed to high def video for field acquisition. ‘I shot my first underwater wildlife doc in HD this year, Truk Lagoon. We shot over 35 hours of footage in 33 days at a fraction of the cost of shooting 35 mm. With high definition your image has more than five times the information as with 16 mm, at a fraction of the raw stock cost. You also know that the footage has a long future on TV.’

Giddings and other cameramen/producers love the quality and immediacy of video in general, and HD in particular. ‘You can have immediate field playback, so you can fine tune your shooting as you go. You also have a reasonable assurance that what you see is what you get, with stunning clarity.

‘The HD camcorder performs with the equivalent of ASA 500, but delivers Kodachrome quality. You can maintain that quality through countless generations and still end up with an image that will be well into the future.’

Although he’s not being paid a premium to shoot wildlife documentaries in high definition, Giddings is commmitted to it as his format of choice: ‘The great thing for me is having my originating footage in high def. I can use it today to master to any other format, as well as a decade from now. For me, it’s the only way to go.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.