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Do you speak HD?

Over the last decade, high-def has gone from slow burn to industry standard, and that's meant the footage industry has had to incorporate a different format and a whole new language into its library lingo. Stock footage houses have educated themselves and are educating their clients on the complicated format, and are investing time and money to bring their libraries up to meet demand. 'A year ago, in essence, it was the shot that made the sale,' says Getty Image's vp of footage and multimedia, Craig Peters. 'Today, I would tell you that if it's not in the format they want, you're not necessarily going to make it.'
December 1, 2007

Over the last decade, high-def has gone from slow burn to industry standard, and that’s meant the footage industry has had to incorporate a different format and a whole new language into its library lingo. Stock footage houses have educated themselves and are educating their clients on the complicated format, and are investing time and money to bring their libraries up to meet demand. ‘A year ago, in essence, it was the shot that made the sale,’ says Getty Image’s VP of footage and multimedia, Craig Peters. ‘Today, I would tell you that if it’s not in the format they want, you’re not necessarily going to make it.’

With broadcasters insisting content be delivered in HD, filmmakers have no choice but to find high-def sources of footage. That’s a problem, given that the amount of pure, original HD owned by footage houses isn’t as high as one might think. Margaret Majorack, director of Footage Source at Discovery Studios, believes that 10% HD content has been cataloged in their library. Jocelyn Shearer, VP of licensing and archive management at National Geographic Digital Motion, believes such estimates aren’t too far off the mark: ‘It’s the tip of the iceberg.’

It varies from there. Corbis’ director of media services, Thomas Depuoz, says 40% of his archive is HD that’s been transferred from film, but otherwise a small part of Corbis’ archives is native HD footage. Getty’s Peters believes they have roughly half HD footage and half non-HD. The exception is FootageBank HD, which was formed in 2002 to deal with the format, and claims 95% of its footage is HD.

While it’s only beginning to percolate into the system, where is this HD content coming from? Footage houses pull from numerous sources: footage they’ve shot, clips sourced from others, and pre-existing content that’s repurposed in HD. For Corbis, 90% of its commissions will come in as an hd format now. But while independent houses have control over what they pick up, libraries tied to broadcasters are not as flexible. They’re generally at the mercy of whatever the producers shot.

But having the clips and knowing what to do with them are two separate issues. ‘HD is full of nuances and lingo. It’s a different language entirely,’ says Carol Martin, director of sales and operations at FootageBank HD.

That language includes descriptors like 1080i, 1080p, 720p and HDV, all of which are available in professional levels, broadcast levels and then pro-sumer (professional consumer) formats, according to Martin. Nat Geo’s Shearer notes that this diversity of formats has forced the industry to stay nimble – at least until a single format becomes prevalent.

These flavors have also caused client confusion, which means sales teams have also become educators. Doug Segers, Corbis’ director of product strategy and motion, sympathizes. ‘[You] give clients what they ask for and they get it, then they’re saying ‘This isn’t what I meant.”

Money meets megabytes
Obviously, money is also a key factor in the switch from SD to HD, when footage houses put costly mechanics in place. Getty’s Peters says, ‘I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more costly to shoot HD these days, but it’s certainly more costly to process it, store it and move it around… Signing the invoices for the storage raises some eyebrows.’

According to FootageBank HD’s Martin, on average it takes about 150 megabytes of space to hold one second of HD. ‘When you add that up, you’re talking many terabytes to store a small collection of material.’ Even though storage has dropped from about $100 to well under $1 per gb, it still becomes an expensive proposition given how much storage space the format can take up.

Another cost to the footage house is the fast Internet connection required to download HD files. ‘Your standard ‘business cable speed’ is usually 5 mb/s, but you need more like 40 mb/s to make it happen effectively, or you’ll spend days downloading a clip,’ says Martin.

What’s required is a DS3 with a fiber connection of 45 mb/s, which could run libraries thousands of dollars per month. A medium grade could cost between $1,000 and $1,500 a month.

Opinion varies when it comes to how all that additional cost affects consumers. Martin says there’s no difference in cost delivering HD or non-HD content. The difference comes in with the license fee, which is determined by usage.

National Geographic does not change prices according to format, but costs will rise if somebody wants a shot that’s not readily available in HD and they want to have it transferred.

Others are more upfront about costs associated with HD. Corbis’ Depuoz admits that with demand being so high, suppliers can charge more for high-def content, and Discovery’s Majorack also confirms that there is a small difference in costs. ‘It’s a percentage higher, not 200% higher,’ she says. The more expensive shots would relate to the footage’s subject matter. If it’s a unique shot, like footage of exotic wildlife shot in Madagascar, it would cost more than footage of a grizzly bear.

Delivery is also still a complication. Bandwidths aren’t yet big enough for large deliveries to the client, so while many use FTP delivery for small orders, physical methods are still used to transfer from the stock footage house to the client.

Shearer uses a mule drive, transferring files onto an external drive. Others using more traditional media include Getty, which delivers pure HD on disc.

Making new resolutions
Because the fruits of so many footage requests exist only in standard def, up-converting is a prime issue for the industry. And it’s an issue that divides the suppliers. It’s not surprising, given the number of variables that exist during an up-convert, that many houses don’t like to do it. Some, like Getty, prefer to leave it up to the client.

‘Some of the success of an up-conversion depends on the film emulsion that the material was originally shot on,’ explains Discovery’s Majorack. ‘It depends on the age of the material, and the conditions under which it was stored, particularly with the 35mm. If the film was used for more than one production or it was run through several different gates, you can have scratches, pops and other things on the film which would have to be tided out in order for it to work in HD.’

Majorack already uses Discovery’s technical center to up-convert and is working with a few companies to see how well they can convert Super 16 and 35mm. She is waiting for the results of those tests to see what kind of conversion apparatus to use for the Super 16 up-convert and what the price point will be.

Despite the additional cost involved, Majorack believes it will be justified. ‘Some of the material would be locations in Africa where you can’t film anymore. So the cost factor to up-convert this to HD isn’t so evil when you realize you can’t really film there anymore. This film takes on an intrinsic value of its own because no one can capture it again.’

Opportunity for producers
Given that footage houses are clamoring for HD footage, producers should realize the value in their B-rolls – provided they’ve adapted to shooting in HD.

Majorack advises producers to think about what is needed for their production. ‘They have to think realistically about what would be available on HD. There’s a lot of people who assume every natural history moment is available on HD and it’s not.’ She also adds, ‘Everyone’s out there getting HD beauty shots, but HD ordinary garden variety activities that aren’t beautiful, they may not be available yet.’

Depuoz from Corbis recommends a good high-def camera for shooting stock footage. ‘Consumer model, $2,000 cameras that shoot HD are just not going to cut it for our high-end commercial markets.’ He recommends the Red One camera, which captures 4k, 2k and 1080p.

Even though stock footage houses are establishing themselves with the mechanics to work in HD, there are bound to be new procedures and equipment on the horizon. ‘It’s the constant learning process where things are constantly changing. It’s not like 35mm which is what it is. [HD] is busting at the seams,’ says FootageBank HD’s Martin.

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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