Stocking up on HD

As broadcasters and program-makers warm up to high definition, footage suppliers must decide whether to follow suit. Jordan Raphael finds out where archive houses stand on HD
August 1, 2002

After years of hype and standardization disputes, the prospects for high definition television in the U.S. are finally looking brighter. Portions of the most recent Winter Olympics were broadcast in HD by NBC, as were last season’s runs of several primetime shows. More than 270 U.S. stations currently deliver digital signals, including chunks of HD programming. HD versions of HBO and Showtime are available in 280 U.S. cities, and in June Discovery Communications launched a 24-hour HD network called Discovery HD Theater.

Earlier this year, U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell exhorted laggards in the TV industry to increase available HD programming both over the air and on cable systems. Broadcasters are working to meet the U.S. government’s 2006 deadline for a transition to all-digital TV. Meanwhile, cable operators pledged in May to offer a package of HDTV services in the 100 biggest markets by 2003.

With the U.S. television market throwing its weight behind high definition, there has been a surge in demand for HD programming. That trend has trickled down to the stock footage industry, which is trying to keep up with an increasing number of requests for material in native HD or in formats (such as 35mm film) that can be converted to high definition. Whether mass-market consumers jump on the high def bandwagon remains to be seen, however, and that uncertainty has kept some archive houses from converting their collections. Regardless, several stock suppliers are wagering on the long-term success of HD.

FootageBank: Going all the way

FootageBank is a boutique stock footage agency dedicated to high definition. Founded in May by industry veteran Paula Lumbard, the company is focusing on material for cable and network television productions, which are the biggest buyers of HD footage. ‘I’m being very selective,’ Lumbard says. ‘I want to build the library evenly between nature and wildlife material that is evergreen, balancing that with urban and international material that television clients want for episodic TV, pilots, miniseries or features.’

About 50% of FootageBank’s requests come from doc-makers, says Lumbard, including producers for A&E and Discovery. ‘We’ve found that some doc people like HD because it captures color and texture even better than 35mm,’ she adds. HD is ideal for docs, she notes, ‘because the cameras are much lighter, and you have the stock as a tape reel, so you don’t have to ship back cans. It’s more conducive to the documentary style of shooting.’

Still, Lumbard says a big part of her job is educating potential clients about HD, because many are confused about the format. ‘There’s a lot of misperception about the quality, accessibility and affordability of the medium,’ she says. To that end, FootageBank has an HD screening room at its office so clients can see the quality for themselves.

‘The demand for HD footage will continue to grow in the next 24 months,’ continues Lumbard, ‘because producers and directors are learning about the format and making the decision to work in it.’ She adds that Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, which director George Lucas shot in 24p, was a great advertisement for high definition, because it demonstrated the beauty and versatility of the format.

Los Angeles-based FootageBank represents collections from several HD producers and photographers, including HDvision Studios and its founder Randall Dark, marine wildlife specialist Howard Hall Productions, and Slam! Digitalworks, a Nashville-based multimedia company. Lumbard is also working with HD shooters to expand the collection. Currently, FootageBank’s holdings – 100 hours with more arriving daily – are split between HD native footage and 35mm-backed film that’s ready for conversion. Rates for high definition elements are the same as rates for regular footage. ‘We want clients to get used to using this product,’ she says.

With the exception of tapes used for output purposes, Lumbard says she’s running a tapeless office. Most of the agency’s footage is housed on a digital RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives) system equipped with a terabyte of storage space. ‘It’s filling up fast,’ she says.

Nat Geo TV & Film Library: Selective conversion

Matthew White, VP, film library, for National Geographic Television and Film, says high definition is gaining traction in the stock footage marketplace: ‘In the last eight months, we’ve been getting requests on a weekly basis for HD, whereas before we would get one or two requests per year.’

To serve the burgeoning HD market, the National Geographic TV and Film Library is converting more than 500 hours of its 25,000-hour archive to high definition, in partnership with hi-wire, a Minneapolis, U.S.-based post-production company. hi-wire will transfer footage to 24p, a format that can be converted to 1080i for the U.S. market, or to other HD standards for European and international clients.

Nat Geo is determining which films to convert based on popularity of the content and format – footage shot in the 16 x 9 format, for example, is easily converted because of the original framing. One of the first films slated for transfer to HD is Jewels of the Caribbean (1994), a one-hour documentary featuring underwater images of coral reefs, barracudas, dolphins and other ocean life.

In the past, producers who wanted National Geographic footage for HD purposes had to undergo a time-consuming process that involved finding the original film elements, identifying the shots in a reel, and then hiring a company to make the conversion. ‘It was very expensive, but a number of our clients were willing to go through with it, because they were in the market,’ White explains.

Having a dedicated high definition archive will save the library’s clients time and money on footage identification and transfers, as well as alleviate wear and tear on the master elements. And, says White, the licensing rates for the converted 500 hours of HD material will be the same as for traditional stock footage. (Clients will have to pay more if they want footage in HD that isn’t being converted by hi-wire under this plan, because Nat Geo will have to go back to the original print.) ‘National Geographic has determined that HD is an increasingly popular format,’ White says. ‘We recognize that if we want to keep up with customer demand, we need to invest in this type of technology in order to better service our clients.’

Producers Library Service: Waiting in the wings

‘The arrival of HD is going to look like a time-lapse flower opening – it’s going to come into bloom very quickly,’ predicts Jeff Goodman, president of Producers Library Service, an L.A.-based stock footage house that specializes in entertainment history. ‘As consumer prices come down for the home [television] units and people want the feeling of stepping into the picture, the audiences will get into it. And, the stock footage world will have to accommodate those needs.’

PLS recently kicked off its HD collection by acquiring for representation more than eight hours of footage shot by Solid Entertainment. The collection features cityscapes, time-lapse shots, clouds, fields, flowers, wildlife and urban settings. ‘We have a close relationship with Solid representing hundreds of hours of other kinds of footage,’ says Goodman. ‘They had this HD footage available and we decided to represent it.’

The HD material sells for the same price as traditional footage, says Goodman. So far, his main customers are feature films, advertisers and TV shows. Doc-makers are relatively scarce, he says, because of the high costs of producing and editing in HD. But as the cost of HD cameras and duplication continue to decrease, Goodman expects more doc producers will take advantage of the quality.

Nevertheless, Goodman says his company is taking a wait-and-see attitude before committing fully to HD. PLS has a large collection of 35mm footage that is in demand by producers who convert it to HD themselves. ‘When I started in this business in 1986, we would send reels of film to editors, but by the ’90s, everybody wanted it on tape,’ notes Goodman. ‘Now, we’re back to negatives. They need the negatives to go to high def.’

Goodman says his company has not yet started converting its library because of the enormous expense of doing so and the uncertainties about high definition. PLS has 15 million feet of 35mm film. At US$500 to $600 per facility hour for HD conversion, plus the expenses for color correction, he estimates it would cost millions of dollars to convert his entire library. ‘Only the largest libraries can afford to do that,’ he says. ‘Until it’s an industry-wide norm, we have no plans to convert everything to HD. We’re poised and ready to move in that direction, but we want to wait until it’s standardized and it’s a format everyone is going to accept.’

Jim Pattison Trade Group: The Canadian market

In Canada, the Jim Pattison Trade Group is leading the charge in HD stock footage. The firm has an in-house library of 250 hours of HD material, including aerial footage that was shot when it produced Over Canada – An Aerial Adventure, an hour-long doc that aired on CTV, TVA and PBS. ‘People started to call us about the footage and we realized very soon that we were the only source,’ says Kate Hanley, VP, programming and development for Jim Pattison. ‘Out of this grew a stock library.’ (Lumbard is the company’s U.S. agent.)

The Toronto-based company has been filming in HD since the mid-1990s, and thus it doesn’t deal in 35mm conversions. Everything they have is original HD. In addition to aerial footage, the collection contains nature and urban scenes, as well as shots of animals and plants from across, Canada. The company also represents external producers for nearly 750 hours of urban footage shot in Toronto, Montreal and other Canadian cities.

Jim Pattison Trade Group’s customer base for HD footage is varied. CTV redesigned its station IDs around material from the Jim Pattison library, using HD shots of mountains and Canadian institutions. Other clients are TV producers, advertisers and doc-makers. For example, Stuart Samuels Productions licensed some of the library’s aerial shots for Urban Wild, a 4 x 1-hour series that aired on Discovery Canada and HDNet in the U.S. In some cases, Hanley says, producers will buy the footage in HD and down-convert to Beta or DigiBeta. ‘They just want beautiful footage,’ she notes. ‘Because it was shot in HD, you can down-convert fairly confidently and it’s still going to look great.’

Hanley says the company’s rates for HD are in line with those of most major footage houses. The Jim Pattison Trade Group also offers master license agreements, which allow a producer to purchase a package of footage (e.g. 20 minutes worth) that they can access during a specified period, say, six months or a year.

The long view

David Karp, senior VP and GM of Discovery Digital Networks & New Media Ventures, says it behooves producers and other content suppliers to consider HD in their production plans, because the demand for HD material will grow substantially in the coming years. Karp should know. He helped launch Discovery HD Theater, the first basic-cable network available in HD. Drawing on a library of more than 100 hours of HD programming, the channel features shows from across the Discovery family.

While Discovery HD Theater is still too new to buy its own programs, its sister networks are on the lookout for acquisition candidates that can be broadcast in HD. Says Karp, ‘We have acquired and produced programs in high definition over the last several years, looking to the day when we would launch a high-def channel,’ Karp says. ‘The market for HD stock footage will grow along with the medium itself,’ he continues. ‘High definition is a stunning format, and selling clarity in pictures has always been a winning proposition.’


NHK: A Pioneer in HD

By Jordan Raphael

The global leader in high def broadcasting is NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. NHK began developing its HDTV system, which uses the Hi-Vision standard (1125 scan lines and an aspect ratio of 16:9), shortly after the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. The pubcaster has since pumped more than US$2 billion into HD research and development, and has been active in the international diffusion of HDTV. In March 2000, the International Telecommunications Union adopted Hi-Vision as the global HDTV studio standard.

Since 1982, NHK has produced roughly 13,000 programs for HDTV broadcast. Most were made in-house, because there weren’t many HD productions available from foreign sources, says Haruki Kito, deputy director-general of NHK Satellite & Hi-Vision broadcasting department. ‘But, NHK is constantly seeking HD programs,’ he adds. ‘Now that all major broadcasters in Japan have launched an HD channel with the commencement of digital satellite broadcasting in December 2000, there is a big demand for high-quality HD content.’

NHK is also involved with docs. Recent productions include: Africa in the 21st Century (3 x 1-hour), about African nations struggling with civil strife; The Genji Scrolls Reborn, one hour exploring Japan’s famous Picture Scroll of The Tale of Genji; and The Miracles of Jiuzhaigou, a one-hour doc shot in China.

The pubcaster is currently working on and seeking copro partners for Mysterious Cities of Asia (6 x 1-hour; US$700,000 per program), a travel series which delves into the history of cities; and Eurasian Empires: Paths to Civilization (8 x 1-hour), which traces the history of Eurasia, from the rise of Alexander the Great to the fall of the Mongolian Empire.

Profit Sharing

Doc-makers cash in on the demand for HD stock footage

By Jordan Raphael

To meet the burgeoning demand for HD material, stock footage houses are enlisting the help of independent producers to augment their collections. One such producer is Andrew Cerino, head of production at Dallas, U.S.-based Panthera Productions. Panthera is shooting an hour-long, US$400,000 doc in HD titled Five Generations After Buffalo, which will be distributed by Australia-based Southern Star. While Cerino and his crew are out filming for the doc, they’re also working to complete a want list of HD shots for N.Y., U.S.-based footage house Sekani. ‘It’s a list of footage they know typically sells,’ Cerino says. ‘When our shooter is out getting material for our productions, he’s also thinking about the stock sale.’

Over the next year, Panthera will produce four HD films, which Cerino estimates will yield roughly 160 hours of footage he hopes to sell through stock houses. He calls his company’s strategy a form of future-proofing. ‘Shooting HD allows me to accommodate an HD market in five years and to serve the current [standard definition] market,’ he explains. ‘At the same time, the growing market for HD footage helps boost our quarterly intake.’ Through a subsidiary, Digital EA, Cerino hopes to market HD-originated footage to Internet-based clients – for example, customers who want to post video on a website – while retaining the rights to the material for stock sales.

It took Cerino a while to come around to high def; he bought his first Sony 750 HD Cam in June. ‘It’s been a tough call, but I think HD has taken a huge leap, thanks in part to George Lucas’ interest in it. It’s good enough now that we can sell it to broadcasters without compromising.’

Barry Clark, executive producer at L.A.’s Mandalay Media Arts, is sitting on more than 40 hours of HD stock footage. The material is gleaned from two of the company’s productions: Sahara, a two-hour, $1.8 million doc that aired on PBS in May 2000; and Jaguar, a one-hour, $1 million doc made in the early 1990s. Both were shot in 35mm, then transferred to and edited in HD. ‘We chose to use film because at the time it was less expensive,’ Clark says. ‘If we were doing either of those productions today, we would definitely go with HD origination.’

Mandalay recently signed an exclusive agreement with L.A.-based FootageBank to represent its HD archives. Clark says it’s too early to know the amount of revenue the deal will generate, nor does he factor income from ancillary streams into project budgets. ‘It’s speculative and there’s no precedent,’ he explains. ‘It’s icing on the cake if there is any revenue from those streams.’ Regardless, Clark expects that in a decade the majority of his company’s stock sales will be for HD footage. ‘If you extrapolate the rate at which HD is permeating the television market, commercials, theatrical production and everything else, and the plunge in price of the sets and cameras, I think it’s pretty clear that in 10 years, standard definition will be a fading part of the market.’ That, he adds, is why most producers want to originate in HD. ‘They want to be left with an original product and outtakes they can sell five to 10 years from now. When you do something that costs millions of dollars, it behooves you to find ways to repurpose your elements.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.