In the U.S., broadcasters are rushing to meet a November Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deadline requiring commercial broadcasters in the top 30 markets to begin broadcasting digitally. While HD content is not specified, virtually all broadcasters have tooled up for the inevitability of HD.
As the deadline looms, the spectrum of equipment and services available for HD production and broadcast has broadened, resulting in a parallel hd production system. On the service side, a handful of post houses have been quick to gear up for HD delivery, particularly those companies whose key clientele originate principally on film.
A few of these houses have pioneered the transition to HD post-production, and have proven to be an invaluable testing ground for new enabling technology, such as the Philips Spirit Data Cine. As you might expect, they are ahead of the learning curve in HD post technology and methodology.
ROLAND HOUSE, Arlington, VA
In the experience of president Fritz Roland, posting in HD video is like working in a new medium – neither film nor video. Instead, it combines the best of both.
‘Now that we have full-featured color correction in high definition, we have more ability than ever to create the theatrical look of 35mm in post…. We can take advantage of things like decreased depth of field, increased gamma and contrast range, and the overall latitude for massaging the image in post,’ says Roland.
With footage shot in HD, Roland says the technology available in post surpasses that of film. ‘If the footage is shot in hd then we have more latitude for repainting the picture, much greater than with film…. We can actually manipulate the mood with creative lighting as in film production, except that we can do it in post. HD lends itself to that much more than either standard def video or film.’ He adds, ‘With HD you get more than simply good TV, you can achieve the look of great film. We’re actually outputting to 35mm from HD masters, and it looks fabulous.’
Although bullish on hd origination, Roland admits that a pure HD show is a rare bird. ‘HD today integrates from many sources, many of them in 4 x 3. The trick is to make them all fit together. We use a full gamut of powerful tools and techniques to achieve the standards we’ve set for ourselves. We’ve been quite successful in integrating archival 4 x 3 sources into 16 x 9 HD programs with pan and scan noise reduction and a full chest of tools.’
However, he says, there are also some limitations with HD. ‘HD is less forgiving in some ways. Little details and flaws you don’t notice in DigiBeta are magnified in HD. When all else fails, we’ll put the SD source material in a 4 x 3 box rather than trying to pass it off as high def.’
Pre-production planning can make a huge difference in the quality of the final outcome, particularly in HD production, according to Roland. ‘I like to meet with producers before they start shooting, to learn about their project and objectives so I can help them avoid pitfalls. Even though we can massage and correct flaws incredibly well in post with HD, its always easier if you get it right from the start, in the camera.’
While some would argue that new tools – like the Spirit, Da Vinci 2K, HD Camcorders, etc. – are directly responsible for dramatic breakthroughs in quality, Roland believes that the high quality achievable in post with hd is not merely attributable to new technology. ‘What we’re really trying to create is an HD production culture, using the best tools to achieve high technical standards but with strong esthetics. The final result always depends on the skill of the people handling the tools as much as on the tools themselves…. This is not left brain stuff, it’s right brain. It doesn’t matter what tools you have, it still takes a skilled craftsman to produce great imagery. You can analyze the paint until doomsday but it won’t explain what makes a Picasso so great.’
CRAWFORD COMMUNICATIONS, Atlanta, GA
Convincing producers to reach for their hd dreams is an ongoing process at Crawford. ‘hd is a new medium, a new technology,’ says Tom Fulks, senior effects editor. ‘Many producers and directors need reassurance that what they want to do [in post] is actually feasible in HD.’
But, says Fulks, rarely do producers who take the HD plunge turn back. ‘There is definitely a `wow’ factor with HD, even when it’s down-converted to NTSC (Analog SD TV). A year and a half ago we did an HD version of a Good Will Games promo on the Spirit, with basic color correction only. Yet, even when we down-converted it, it was day and night compared with the ntsc version. tbs yanked the original spot and ran the down-converted hd version. The color, clarity and sharpness were much better and the details held up amazingly well with down-conversion.’
Two years after beginning the transition at Crawford, hd can be edited as easily as in the non-linear suites. ‘We now have virtually all the same tools in post for HD that we have in NTSC: special effects, compositing, 2K color correction, graphics. Some things, like color correction, we can do even better in HD.’ Fulks says many of the tool sets are software-based and are upgraded periodically. ‘Soon we’ll be able to do several layers of effects compositing plus softening simultaneously, rather than one layer at a time, with our Da Vinci 2K.’
On the editing and effects side, some capabilities already exceed current HD standards. ‘Fire and Inferno [from Discreet Logic] are resolution independent and can handle higher resolutions than we need for 1080i or 720p HD – up to 2048 x 1556.’ Furthermore, the scalability of Discreet Logic software enabled Crawford to move into hd post-production piecemeal. ‘We didn’t jump into hd from scratch, but built upon our 601 [SD TV] editing systems like Flame, Flint, Smoke – which many producers are already familiar with.’
Fulks concedes that one limitation of working in HD has been the inability to input and output from work stations in real time. ‘Until recently, we had to scan HD in at five frames per second (1/6 real time). That tied up a Spirit and an Onyx. But now, with Silicon Graphics’ new XT HD card, we can pipe HD video in and out in real time, in 1080i, 720p and soon from 1080 P/24. Complex compositing and digital video effects are still rendered, but often while we keep editing.’
HD storage requirements are still daunting, but not insurmountable. Currently, Crawford’s HD suites pack several hundred gigabytes of storage apiece. However, this only stores about 45 minutes of HD video in RGB mode, according to systems engineer, Trevor Mincher. ‘The hard drive requirements for achieving the throughput needed for hd video at full resolution are awesome. But the new HD capture boards and raids are making it easier all the time.’
Nevertheless, Crawford editors have been able to work around storage limitations to edit projects of varying lengths. ‘We’ve done lots of spots and short docs, like a 15-minute piece about Southeastern Indians for a Georgia museum. However, for one-hour docs, like Tempest From the Deep (for National Geographic) we edited a section at a time, then assembled the sections on tape, in sequence. We’ll add more storage as the cost drops and demand picks up.’ Impending work on a 13 x 60-minute HD series, The Treasure Seekers, for National Geographic Television, may provide the impetus needed.
As posting in HD is still intimidating to many producers, Crawford is committed to breaking down the psychological barriers between posting in HD and posting in DigiBeta. ‘Most clients need reassurance that they can accomplish the same and more in HD as in NTSC, and do it affordably,’ explains post-production manager, Glenn Fisher. According to Fisher, Crawford can handle most elements of post production in-house: film processing, telecine, editing, special effects, animation, the sound mix, etc. ‘We can output to D5, HDcam, or down-convert to DigiBeta and other SD formats, or to pal wide-screen. We can even uplink it anywhere in the world via satellite. We can also master to film for theatrical release.’
Fisher indicates that the cost of posting in HD isn’t necessarily much greater than in DigiBeta or Beta sp. ‘Actually, we are posting HD at the same rates as SDd, but the final cost varies with the complexity of the project. HD tape stocks, though, are more expensive than those for SD formats.’
Another aspect of HD post which catches producers off guard is the audio mix. The new DTV standard supports Dolby 5.1 digital surround sound, which essentially entails six channels of audio. Some of these are rear ambient channels, ones which don’t exist in a traditional stereo mix. Many producers are unprepared for this and other aspects of 5.1 surround sound, according to audio engineer, Steve Davis.
‘Many clients say they want surround sound, but don’t have the raw materials needed. You have to design and create the audio for the rear channels. This requires using multiple effects libraries, sampling, mixing…’ Davis suggests producers book additional studio time for this purpose, and be careful when recording primary audio. ‘You need to let your location audio mixer know you need clean sound…. hd has raised the quality bar.’
LASER PACIFIC, Hollywood, CA
‘We’ve been in HD since the Pleistocene era of analog 1035i,’ says executive VP, Leon Silverman. ‘Now we’re entering the new millennium with 1080 P/24, a universal HD mastering format which we co-developed with Sony.’
Development of the 1080 P/24 format has been promulgated by the film production community, which originates in film at 24 frame/second yet masters video at 30 frames (60 fields/sec.) for television. This involves a process called the 3:2 pulldown (see Sidebar), a method of deriving 60 fields from the original 24 frames. A direct 1:1 or 1:2 process has long been advocated, and is being implemented for the first time with 1080 P/24. ‘P/24 reconciles the delivery needs of broadcasters with the creative options and needs of producers,’ says Silverman. ‘It enables producers to create high-quality release masters in virtually any other HD or SD format. It also down-converts nicely to PAL.
‘The FCC gave broadcasters lots of formats to choose from for broadcast, but the dilemma has been choosing a format to master which relates well to all of the delivery formats. Now that the DTV transition has begun, the only logical choice is a format that doesn’t care whether a program is broadcast in progressive or interlaced. That’s the beauty of 1080 P/24 – it’s format agnostic.’
Creating a viable mastering medium entailed more than designing a new format and VTRs to record it, Silverman explains. ‘Our big contribution to P/24 was designing a complete working system which interfaces neatly with existing HD and SD technology. We needed to interface with current VTRs, switchers, DVEs, CGs, standards converters etc., which may operate in 1080i, 720p(60), 525 and 625 formats. We basically needed a systems approach in order to interface with all of these formats.’
However, 1080 P/24 still doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of many producers: which format to originate on. It cannot be used for origination because no 1080 P/24 cameras exist yet, although they are in development. The question of film/video, digital/analog remains.
‘If you really want to be future-proof, I always recommend 35mm. But if money is an issue, then you’ll have to make choices,’ says Silverman. ‘In some cases, 1080i or even DigiBeta may be the perfect solution, while 35mm, Super 16, or even regular 16mm may be better for others.’
Silverman believes Super 16 and regular 16mm should work better than ever for HD applications with P/24. ‘The Spirit demonstrated the viability of Super 16 for HD, and now P/24 should take it to a new level, by eliminating the 3:2 pulldown and keeping everything progressive, just like film. If you’re shooting film, there aren’t many reasons not to use 1080 P/24.’ However, Silverman cautions that directors still need to be diligent when shooting Super 16 for HD, especially in marginal light.
Another advantage of posting in 1080 P/24 is better quality down-converted international release masters. ‘With P/24 you don’t have to down-convert from 1080i to 525i before making a PAL master, like you do with 1080i. It’s also a lot easier to get to 25 frames per second. With a 1080 P/24 frame master it should be possible to dub to any of the 18-plus ntsc formats, including those which don’t exist yet.’
Nevertheless, Silverman cautions that 1080 P/24 is not a silver bullet for all HD projects. ‘P/24 is not the new religion nor the perfect solution for all situations. Projects which use a lot of 1080i or other interlaced source material would be best mastered in 1080i, as would those needing more of a video look.’
However, many producers of episodic dramas for network TV are quickly embracing P/24. ‘We’ll be mastering a lot of CBS’ primetime programming on P/24, most of it shot on 35mm, and some natural history docs for PBS and the Discovery Channel.’ He indicated that Sahara, a Devillier Donegan/Mandalay Media Arts production, will be among the first documentaries mastered on 1080 P/24.
It should come as a relief to producers reeling from HD inflation that they may be able to master in 1080 P/24 for only a nominal premium over current hd post costs. ‘Mastering in hd now adds around $10,000-$15,000 to the cost of the average show. About the only extra cost of mastering in P/24 over 1080i or 720p should be the cost of a protection master, which you would want anyway,’ adds Silverman.