Digital Age

Although this year's Jackson Hole Symposium was dubbed 'Digital Fusion' the event might have as aptly been called 'Digital Diffusion' due to its wide focus and acceptance of new and diverse digital technologies. All things digital were discussed, from Interactive TV...
November 1, 2000

Although this year’s Jackson Hole Symposium was dubbed ‘Digital Fusion’ the event might have as aptly been called ‘Digital Diffusion’ due to its wide focus and acceptance of new and diverse digital technologies. All things digital were discussed, from Interactive TV to the latest in equipment.

Several potential models of interactive television were offered, including one patterned on a sports car race by Storyworks. Developed for Quokka Sports and NBC, it bears no resemblance to a televised Nascar race. ‘Our race is more immersive than enhanced TV. Viewers can follow a driver or drivers of their choice, select camera angles, get instant replay, [or use] slow motion,’ said Storyworks president Alex Melnyk. She estimated about a year to develop the technology needed to implement the model.

By contrast, Web Riot, represented by Spiderdance president Tracy Fullerton, has been online and on MTV for two seasons. It has a loyal audience in the millions, with one million-plus registered online ‘viewers’ who play the game at home concurrently with the guests on MTV. Spiderdance is also developing History IQ for the History Channel and Cyber (James) Bond for tbs. The latter includes facts, trivia, puzzles and a Bond-esque obstacle course full of nasty villains to eradicate. According to Fullerton, interest from cablecasters has been keen: ‘It’s no secret that television viewership is falling off. What we try to do is bring added value to the TV experience.’

On another front, Alison Dollar of iBEAM posited that the Web is a vital test bed for interactive television. ‘Niche audiences are being created faster than business models, and there are copyright and payment issues to resolve. Producers need to explore relationships with new co-sponsors – even with competitors. The flexible people are getting the work,’ she said. Dollar also urged producers to explore new ways of using the Web. ‘Interactivity demands more B-roll and creative use of [footage]. Producers need to think of ways to repurpose content across platforms to enhance interaction.’

How best to deliver enriched, broadcast-quality, interactive content to consumers was also explored. ‘Right now, you need fiber to get MPEG2 quality interactive video,’ said moderator Fred Grossberg of Millreef Entertainment. ‘That’s expensive, so it’ll take years to achieve. But, less expensive alternatives are being developed.’

One of these utilizes the traditional TV broadcast spectrum in a novel way. ‘We use excess capacity in the digital TV spectrum to blast high quality video and audio files directly to PCS,’ explained Peter Lude of iBLAST. ‘These could be movie trailers, mp3 files, ebooks, and other data. These files can be cached in a PC’s hard drive, a replay box or a server for later use. It’s a free service provided by broadcasters.’ Lude also explained that clients, like publishers and movie studios, need to promote new releases to pay for the service, which enables them to reach niche audiences more cost-effectively than mass advertising. An inexpensive (US$40 to $50) modem is required, which Lude suggests could be offered with subscriptions (N.Y. Times, Book of the Month Club…), as broadcasters and publishers are the majority owners of iBLAST.

Another service requiring a special set top box is being developed for WebTV by JGeocast. John Hall, company VP, said the service should launch early in 2001. A variation of this uses the vertical blanking interval within the broadcast spectrum to offer broadband-quality internet access via home TV sets. Alex Thompson of Mixed Signals, which is pioneering this technology, cited applications ranging from pay-per-view to home banking to enriched interactive TV – including news, sportscasts and game shows.

Steve Michaelson unveiled yet another variation on interactive TV technology. This harnesses the visual quality and prodigious storage capacity of DVDs, allowing consumers to preview 1,500-plus movies – as well as order them – from a single disc. A set top box provides real time linkage, but unlike broadband solutions, broadcast quality a/v material cannot be transmitted and is limited to material already encoded on the DVD.

Perhaps the best news for HD devotees (in the face of scarce HDTV programming) is the imminent arrival of HD DVDs. Jim Taylor, author of DVD Demystified (McGraw-Hill), outlined three different technologies for HD DVDs. One, soon to be released by Sonic Solutions, requires a new DVD player, while another (still in development) would be backwards compatible with existing players. This is significant as there are now ten million-plus players in consumers’ hands. ‘DVD has been adopted by consumers faster than any new (communication) technology to date,’ he said. A third wave of ‘true HD’ DVDs will require high-density DVD players, all of which should be able to play today’s DVDs.

There’s good news on the HD production side too. New HD camcorders were showcased at the camera demonstration, where various HD and 480P models were paired side by side with competitive models for comparison. The results of several test shots were displayed on HD monitors during the symposium to allow delegates to draw their own conclusions about the virtues of different cameras and formats. For most shooters, it was a unique chance to put their eyeballs to the eyepiece of SONY’s long-awaited Cine Alta, 24P camera, the HDW- F900. This pioneer 1080-line progressive-scan camera mesmerized many at the demonstration and in the screenings.

Another feature was a pre-release appearance of Panasonic’s long-delayed 720 P/60 camcorder, the first HD camcorder to operate at 60 full frames per second. Its scheduled debut before year’s end will be welcomed by wildlife and sports shooters, who need higher frame rates to achieve smooth slow motion.

Another HD development, announced at Jackson Hole by California’s Mandalay Media Arts, is the first 3D large-format film, shot using dual (SONY) 24P camcorders. The cameras mount into a housing that locks the lenses together for coordinated zooms, focus, etcetera, yet permits varying the interocular distance to simulate the human eye. ‘Even with the housing and two camcorders, the camera package is far lighter than its 65mm equivalent,’ explained Mandalay co-chairman Barry Clark. ‘This means much greater camera mobility and flexibility in storytelling, plus big savings in stock and lab costs, [as well as] smaller crews.’ Preliminary tests yielded impressive cinematic imagery when projected (electronically) in an Imax theater, he said.

A panel addressing extreme digital production put to rest questions regarding the durability of new digital video cameras and other gear. Stories and footage from extreme HD productions convinced naysayers that HD camcorders are reliable.

Tom Beers (Original Productions, California) and John Crawford (Natural History New Zealand) also related how small, economical DV camcorders enable a new style and scope of documentary coverage at a remarkably low cost. ‘We racked up 85 multi-camera shooting days for a one-hour show that would have broken the budget if shot with Beta crews,’ said Beers. ‘With DV, we’re using our own camcorders rather than renting, and we’re working with a new generation of enthusiastic shooters who don’t automatically quit after eight hours.’ He added that the new tools are making it possible to get big budget shots on average budgets, as exemplified by cheap, ultra-sensitive, lipstick cameras used to shoot inside dark Aleutian mummy caves, among other difficult places.

Andrea Calas, director of the Virtual Studio at Discovery Communications, shared another breakthrough approach to digital asset management that features centralized archiving of, and access to, digital raw materials over the course of a production’s life. ‘With the International Space Station project, we archived all the footage and other digital assets onto a server to create a window into the production. [Whoever needs to] can access raw video, rough cuts, photos, animation, etcetera, independent of the creative team,’ she said. ‘Even though ISS director, Pierre de Lespinois doubled the projected shooting ratio, we were able to keep the production on schedule because everyone who needed it had access to the raw footage and other assets as it evolved. It’s been so effective that we plan to use the virtual studio model for 20 productions in 2001.’

De Lespinois, who is directing the sequel to Walking With Dinosaurs, is also bullish on its benefits. ‘Walking With Dinosaurs took three-and-a-half years to produce, but thanks largely to the Virtual Studio, we may wrap in eight months. We can get instant feedback on the accuracy of a template or an animation from paleontologists all over the world, even while we’re shooting on different continents. Time is money, so we have savings to help beef up other aspects of production.’

One area Discovery is investing more heavily in is CGI. ‘Mega-projects like Dinosaurs and ISS are CGI intensive,’ said Discovery producer Tomi Landis. ‘In ISS, we used 86 photo-realistic animation shots. The animation effort was comparable to that of a feature film, with extensive storyboarding. It was also produced in HD, which requires attention to detail at all levels.’

Another HD-related technology making a big splash at Jackson Hole was 5.1 surround sound. Smokey Joe’s Cafe, by the Broadway Television Network, features the final performance of this acclaimed Broadway play and its wildly enthusiastic reception. ‘I found myself applauding along with the [theater] audience and saw others doing the same,’ said J’Amy Brown, of PRformance in California. ‘It was like being there. The surround track and the incredibly detailed video made it feel like you were in the midst of the theater audience.’ Thomas Fletcher, VP of Fletcher’s of Chicago, concurred. ‘The last symposium helped us make a major commitment to HD in our rental business. This year, the surround audio really impressed me and we’re planning some screenings in Chicago theaters to help promote HD.’

Notwithstanding CBS VP Barry Zegel’s pledge of the network’s increased commitment to HD in primetime this season, the most reassuring HD developments at the symposium were its ever broadening applications. ‘At Laser Pacific, we’ve posted nearly 300 TV episodes in HD, mainly in 24P,’ said Laser VP Leon Silverman. ‘Now, a few of them are being shot in 24P. We’ve also done lots of docs, many on wildlife, two for visitor’s centers at National Parks. More and more features are being shot in HD, then transferred to film. Mandalay’s 24P Imax project could open more avenues for HD production. The slow rollout by broadcasters is not holding producers back, especially those who have already tried it.’

Barry Clark concurred. Responding to a remark about continuing problems with HD broadcasting standards adopted in the U.S., he said: ‘There are those people who need order and those who can deal with a certain amount of chaos. We need both types as we grope our way into the digital future. With HD especially, we need some willing to plunge into stormy seas.’

Marty Stouffer, one of a small contingent of wildlife filmmakers at ‘Digital Fusion’, spoke for the adventurers: ‘I’ve been to several digital symposia recently and I’m still not sure what technologies to use to best deliver video on demand online from a website we’re building. I’m also not sure how we’ll charge for it, or if it’ll pay off, but we’re going ahead with it, and we’ll learn as we go. Right now it’s a bit like California in the gold rush days. Most of us are not going to strike gold, and we know it, but that’s not going to keep us from trying either. We’re learning as we stumble along.’

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.