After the shootout

Nearly 300 people attended the DTV Symposium in Jackson Hole this fall, hoping to get a handle on widescreen digital TV in the U.S. With the digital age approaching, a key question for wildlife filmmakers remains: 'Which format is most compatible...
December 1, 1998

Nearly 300 people attended the DTV Symposium in Jackson Hole this fall, hoping to get a handle on widescreen digital TV in the U.S. With the digital age approaching, a key question for wildlife filmmakers remains: ‘Which format is most compatible with the HD age?’

To the surprise of no one, that question was not definitively resolved. For some, the event raised as many questions as it answered, as evidenced by comments from Aspen, Colorado-based Marty Stouffer: ‘I’m as undecided as ever, but clearer in my indecision. All logic says to shoot everything on HD video – you can shoot more, you don’t have to transfer it to tape, and you can look at it the same day in the field rather than days or weeks later. But the problem is, we shoot a lot of time lapse, slow motion and super slow motion.’

After the Symposium, ambivalence remained about Super 16. At Discovery, it seems to have a future. ‘Film is a natural stepping stone for HD,’ explains Charles Humbard, Discovery’s VP of Showcase Networks and advanced TV. ‘We’ve done a lot of testing with Super 16, and are fortunate to have a large library of it to draw on. What we want to do going forward is to pay a lot of attention to the nuances of shooting Super 16 to reduce film grain and to maximize what we’re capturing as it goes to high definition. Thirty-five millimeter is much more forgiving. With Super 16, the lighting must be just right to translate well to high definition.’ Discovery has retained consultants to assist in Super 16 coproductions intended for HD broadcast.

Discovery will also use some HD video as well. ‘From the side-by-side comparisons at Jackson Hole, and from our testing, I’m convinced for the first time that video is a solid option for our producers. There is a good possibility that we’ll use video in place of film on some projects. The problem with video has always been the harsh look and lack of depth. Some of that is due to overcompensation for the inferior resolution of standard definition video. Some companies are developing customized chips for the cameras to soften the video and give it a more filmatic look. It’s all about creating a closer-to-reality experience. If our goal as an industry is to create that kind of experience, we have to utilize the potential of HD video to deliver imagery that is closer to what we actually see than film – but film is what we’re accustomed to. To break away from that too suddenly may be difficult. We’re trying to find a good middle ground.’

According to Humbard, the initial launch of HD on Discovery will be gradual, with only a handful of programs from all genres each week. Discovery hopes to have approximately 80 hours of HD natural history programming on hand within a year. They will also be aggressively promoting HD television to the public at the retail level and through public demonstrations.

Target levels for HD programming at PBS during the early launch are more modest, according to Mary Jane McKinven, director of science & NH programming in Virginia. ‘We are aiming for a monthly HD presence. There’s no question that we need to start building an HD library now, however we don’t have funds earmarked for development. We’ll be encouraging our strand producers and coproduction partners to target certain stories for high definition production using funds from their overall budget.’ McKinven indicates that PBS is taking a high road to high definition by asking that programs originate on 35mm or on hd video. According to McKinven: ‘This is going to take some time to unfold, as we will only have six public TV stations broadcasting digitally this year, with another dozen or so more in 1999.

‘Right now we have one pure HD natural history program ready to go [the 2 x 60-minute Sahara], and have had discussions about possibly upconverting some shows from series shot in Super 16. The problem is that we don’t have a lot of money to work with. It’s a brave new world and it will take some experimentation before we have answers.’

The successful WNET strand Nature will have some sway in determining how PBS will approach natural history in HD. Early in 1999, staff producers at Nature will have access to HD camcorders and an on-line hd edit suite. ‘We plan to produce some HD shows in-house,’ explains supervising producer, Bill Murphy, ‘and review proposals from outside producers, but we haven’t committed yet. We need to know whether our cameras will hold up under rugged field conditions and whether independent producers will have theirs soon enough, since the camcorders seem to be in short supply.’

Nature’s programs have largely been shot on Super 16 for the past few seasons, so there is keen interest in making use of this material. ‘We expect to upconvert some shows mastered on Super 16 to high definition. Super 16 looked pretty good on the monitors used at Jackson Hole and should be viable for high definition until average TV screen sizes become too large, or until audiences demand pure HD product. That could be another eight to ten years, which allows plenty of time for the cost and capabilities of hd equipment to fall into line with what we’re accustomed to.’

Alan Ritsko, managing director of NOVA, reported no pressure from PBS to deliver programs in HD, but he was hopeful about committing to some projects for 2000. ‘We’re going to consider potential HD shows one at a time and base our decisions first on the story and what will appeal most to our viewers. [However],we plan to continue being technology leaders.’

Barry Clark, co-chairman of the Jackson Hole Festival, offered a thumbnail analysis of HD acquisition formats: ‘There is no question that 35mm is the most future-proof format for HDTV, because it can be transferred to 1080i and 720p today, and to 1080p tomorrow. However, in the shootout, much of the video shot with the HD cam or with Philips’ 720p camera looked sharper and more realistic than 35mm transferred to HD. Upconverted digi-betacam and 480p video also compared favorably with Super 16. However, many viewers simply prefer the softness and grain of the film look. In more than one panel discussion the underlying question was whether we should even bother to shoot on film anymore. I think if you took an exit poll after the Symposium, many film shooters would’ve said no. Many veterans have already switched to HD video or are in the process of doing so.’

Clark, who has already shot two blue-chip HD natural history docs (both on Super 35), plans to originate mainly on HD video in future. ‘Besides, the ability to instantly review what you’ve shot,’ explains Clark, ‘compared to 35mm, the cost of tape stock is insignificant, and you can shoot over 40 minutes before reloading, instead of only four. HD cams deliver breathtaking sharpness and give more of a feeling of actually being there than film does.’

As might be expected, Kodak would not concede a limited future for Super 16. Says Janet Anderson, development manager in Pro Motion Imaging at Eastman Kodak: ‘We’ve demonstrated that Super 16 is fully HD compatible, which is why we co-developed the Spirit Data Cine. Unfortunately, we didn’t have full control of the the Super 16 HD samples presented at the Symposium this year, and quality was compromised after the tele-cine transfer was completed.’

Anderson argued that Super 16 was the most cost-effective way for wildlife filmmakers to shoot. ‘It has been around for 75 years, which makes it easy to integrate archival film with new material. We are also continually making improvements in terms of grain, resolution, color, sensitivity, and dynamic contrast. This makes it possible for filmmakers to upgrade through a film can and a tele-cine rather than by having to buy an expensive new camera system every few years.’

However, even veteran filmmakers like Marty Stouffer raised doubts about the continuing supremacy of 16mm in a HD age. ‘Shooting in high definition video clearly has some advantages over film, not the least of which is the cost of stock and the fact that you don’t have to transfer it to tape. If Kodak put as much energy into developing fine-grained, low-speed films as they do into chasing video at the high end, we probably wouldn’t be having this debate. They stopped making Kodachrome 25 and Ektachrome Commercial ASA 16 years ago. If they would develop film with the tight grain of either of those two stocks and the dynamic range of their best negative filmstocks we could put this to rest.’

Demands for HD haven’t yet reached the U.K., according to Andrew Buchanan, head of development at United Wildlife. ‘HD fever certainly hasn’t drifted over to this side of the pond yet. Neither American nor British broadcasters have asked for high definition programs. We’re producers, not broadcasters, and we have to wait for broadcasters, mainly in the U.S., to make up their minds about it before we can respond.’ Buchanan notes that Partridge Films and Survival Anglia, United’s key partners, have both been favoring Super 16 over regular 16mm for the past few years.

Buchanan indicated that Partridge had also broken into standard definition digital video acquisition with The Human Sexes, which was shot and edited entirely on widescreen digital-beta (PAL). ‘We’ve been preparing for the coming of HDTV for some time now, but the key questions of what standards, which formats, and tape machines to use and whose cameras to buy, remain unanswered. We’re keenly interested in anything that enables us to capture and deliver the highest quality images possible, but until broadcasters make up their minds and communicate that to us we can’t decide which way to jump.’

Buchanan, however, doesn’t expect a resolution of these issues any time soon. ‘The last paradigm shift in TV broadcasting – from 405 line black and white to 625 line color – took fifteen years. For much of that time, British TV was broadcast in both formats. While it may not take quite as long to bring out high definition television, it won’t happen overnight. Also, bear in mind that there is no movement afoot in Europe to deliver high definition broadcasting again after a previous effort failed. Here the drumroll is about digital TV, with lots of new channels. One thing I am certain of is that Super 16 and digi-beta will be perfectly acceptable on those channels.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.