Docs

High Time for HD

High definition video, with its unparalleled ability to relay detail and color gradations, is tailor-made for the production of natural history documentaries. Yet HD equipment, like all new technology, brings with it a novel set of challenges that a doc-maker must overcome - from pre-production through post. As Sydney, Australia-based underwater documentary filmmaker Pawel Achtel points out, 'there are more similarities than differences' between standard definition and HD, 'only everything for high definition has to be better, more precise, more robust and more expensive.'
July 1, 2002

High definition video, with its unparalleled ability to relay detail and color gradations, is tailor-made for the production of natural history documentaries. Yet HD equipment, like all new technology, brings with it a novel set of challenges that a doc-maker must overcome – from pre-production through post. As Sydney, Australia-based underwater documentary filmmaker Pawel Achtel points out, ‘there are more similarities than differences’ between standard definition and HD, ‘only everything for high definition has to be better, more precise, more robust and more expensive.’

Paving the way

Like all routes to success, it helps to have the right road map. Proper preparation in pre-production is the best way to capitalize on HD’s strongest feature: the ability to capture sharper images over longer periods, thanks to a greater storage capacity (five times more than NTSC/525). However, that increased sharpness can make or break a production, if a filmmaker is not prepared.

Deciding on the aesthetic, commercial and production goals beforehand is key, says Carol Amore, who produced Tigers: Tracking a Legend entirely in HD using a SONY HDW-700A. ‘There is no right or wrong, it’s a matter of deciding your style early on as a director, producer and cinematographer,’ says the CEO of New York-based prodco Wildlife Worlds. For Tigers, which was shot in India, Amore chose to record the big cats in the 1080i format, to draw out a finer, more vivid image, instead of 24p, which offers a softer, ‘more filmic look,’ she explains. If a filmmaker does choose to originate in the softer setting, Amore warns, his course is set. ‘You can’t come out [of a shoot] with a softer image and then try to sharpen it up [in post production],’ she says.

Achtel, who has been filming in HD for four years, says he experimented ‘a fair bit’ with depth of field and focusing his SONY HDW-700A before shooting Aliens of the Sea. ‘Having more than twice the resolution [in HD] means the depth of field is halved, because the image is much sharper,’ explains Achtel, a self-proclaimed ‘picture perfectionist.’

Achieving perfect images also depends on one’s choice of optics. However, a good lens doesn’t come cheap. Toshihiro Muta, a senior cameraman for Japanese pubcaster NHK, told listeners at the Banff TV Festival in June, ‘One disadvantage particular to HDTV is that sometimes the choice in professional lenses is limited and their prices are expensive.’ Despite the cost, Allen Sharpe, producer/director of NatureScene (a natural history series of Columbia, U.S.-based PBS affiliate South Carolina Educational Television), advises filmmakers to purchase ‘the best glass you can get,’ because a second-rate lens translates into a second-rate picture.

In the field

‘With HD cameras, the cameraperson can pretty much do anything he could with a normal camera, including zooming, hand-held shots, panning and tilting,’ points out Shinichi Murata, an NHK producer who has worked on HD projects such as Satoyama and the Wild Asia series, the bulk of which was shot in Super 16 and posted in high definition (one episode was shot exclusively in HD). Still, focus and picture sharpness, two qualities that make high definition stand out in the marketplace, are the two characteristics that can be trickiest to perfect.

‘Focusing is critical,’ says Sharpe, who has been in the industry for 37 years. Camerapeople, he says, ‘have to pay more attention; some of the things a lot of us do automatically have to be double checked [with HD]. I check my focus a lot more than I did before, because it is critical. It’s a fine line: it’s either in focus or it’s totally out.’ Sharpe acknowledges there is a learning curve. ‘With a good viewfinder, you get used to it after a while and say ‘Wait a minute, that’s not in focus.”

Frame composition is part of the problem, since 16:9 is a much bigger area to fill than 4:3. Because the frame is so much larger, it acts like a vortex, pulling in details the cameraperson didn’t intend for the shot. Says Jeremy Hogarth, a senior producer at NHNZ in Dunedin, New Zealand, who worked with Muta on the Wild Asia series, ‘The cameraperson and the production team will find that the HD image is far less forgiving than the standard-definition frame. One has to be very aware that every detail will be recorded and visible on replay.’

Sharpe always gives the shooting location an extra look, ‘to make sure there’s nothing extraneous in the scene.’ Sharpe, who has taped NatureScene all over the world, knows how rare truly untouched places are. ‘You can get a trashcan or a [dirt] pile or pole or a road or something that you wouldn’t necessarily want in the picture that would have been cut out of 4:3. So, the last thing I do before I roll tape is look all the way around the frame to make sure I haven’t missed something.’

Even without an eyesore to work around, wider frames can be tricky to compose, says Sharpe. Not only do subjects, ironically, look better in HD than they often do in real life, but HD cameras take in so much digital information it can overload the viewer. Sharpe equates it to ‘looking at two pages of a book at the same time.’ To deal with this, he slows down his pans and zooms, to let images manifest themselves in the viewer’s mind. ‘Quick movements don’t work nearly as well as they did before, especially as on film,’ he notes.

Sharpe has also learned to let the action use the frame. In standard-def, he keeps a tight focus on host Jim Welch and naturalist Rudy Mancke as they move about the scene. In HD, he lets them maneuver in the picture, a technique often used in sports broadcasting.

Another handy trick that NHK’s Muta has perfected for this period of crossover from standard definition to HD formats is adding a 4:3 marker to the 16:9 viewfinder. That way he tapes with a mind toward both aspect ratios.

A handy function that lends itself to taping elusive and unpredictable animals is the eight-second cache found on most HD cameras. But care must be taken, Hogarth points out, as the very thing that makes it useful – the ability to always be temporarily recording on an eight-second loop, unless triggered to record to tape – will slowly drain the battery.

Road rules

With their increased sensitivity and greater use of electronic components and circuits, HD cameras have gained a reputation for needing greater care in the field than standard-def equipment. Contrary to rumors, the cameras are durable. When working in the heat and humidity of Venezuela, Muta says the preventative maintenance for his SONY HDW-750 involved storing it in a big plastic bag. Sharpe says he has taken his Panasonic AJ-HDC20A through every weather extreme and environmental condition imaginable over the last two years, though he admits, ‘We do baby the camera’.

Like Sharpe, Amore treats her camera gently. She has found some simple and inexpensive ways to guard the camera – beanbags and laundry bags, for example, were extremely handy in India. The camera, which only she and one other person handled during the shoot, was placed on beanbags whenever it was in a vehicle, to help dampen vibrations; the laundry bag (washed without soap) kept both dust and sunlight off the lens and the camera body.

Amore also used a Mylar heat-reflective shield, and fanned the camera or switched it off – to save battery power and to cool its circuitry – at every chance. Although Amore constantly worried that the camera wouldn’t survive the conditions, her preventative measures paid off; not once did she suffer an equipment failure.

In terms of weight, HD cameras are comparable to their standard-def counterparts. Sharpe says the Panasonic HD camera NatureScene employs is slightly heavier than its standard-def equipment, but he removes the battery and has someone else on his team carry it. ‘I haven’t found the size or the weight of the camera to be a real hindrance, it was just a little different getting used to it.’

Post imperfect

Some of the greatest benefits of producing in HD are realized in the editing suite. Muta points out that even for someone with little knowledge of post, the HD suite’s myriad benefits include the ability to manipulate color and brightness, as well as perform non-linear edits.

NHK’s Murata and NHNZ’s Hogarth used the HD video post-production facilities at NHK’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, for the Wild Asia series. Says Hogarth, ‘The first time I online [edited] in HD was with one of the Wild Asia programs that had been totally originated using Super 16 film. We locked the cut on standard definition, and when viewing the final program in Tokyo on high definition, I was amazed at the detail. I would have edited the program slightly differently had I been able to view it in high definition. The programs looked stunning, as did the images which had originated [for the one episode] on HD tape.’

The problem, however, is a dearth of HD-specific editing suites, which according to Murata cost up to one-and-a-half times more than suites for regular video. ‘Even though individuals might be in a position to buy cameras and lenses, it’s still unrealistic…for an individual or small production house to produce an entire program in HD format from start to finish,’ he says. ‘From copying to online editing to dubbing, producers essentially have little choice but to use [standard definition] facilities fitted with post-production HDTV capabilities.’

Due to the lack of fully equipped HD editing suites, Muta advises doc-makers to plan their post-production around editing using standard-def equipment. Sharpe, who notes that NatureScene has been unable to graduate to editing in HD for the simple reason of cost, says he gets by using an Avid analog 16:9 letterbox. Adds Hogarth, ‘From the post-production perspective it is obvious that, at the moment, one has to carry out as much as possible in SD rather than HD. To post produce in HD would indeed be very expensive.’

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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