Lock, Stock and Library

During the waning months of the 20th century, Al Giddings worried about the viability of his analog footage library.
April 1, 2003

During the waning months of the 20th century, Al Giddings worried about the viability of his analog footage library. The Pray, U.S.-based underwater cinematographer/director, known for high-profile natural history docs such as Galapagos: the Enchanted Voyage and Whales, had 5,000 hours in his collection, three-fifths of it shot on video and two-fifths on film [mostly 16mm and some 35mm]. With HD rapidly gaining favor, Giddings debated whether to sell his collection or look for a way to digitize, upconvert and stretch his 4:3 imagery to the new requirements of a digital TV world. He chose the latter, but it wasn’t easy.

Giddings says he sought suggestions from all quarters, including colleagues, equipment manufacturers, film labs and post houses. The feedback was not always encouraging. ‘Some experts said it would cost more than US$2 million to accomplish and that I still wouldn’t be satisfied,’ he notes.

Undaunted, Giddings kept investigating; his efforts paid off. At the annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference in 2001, he stumbled across Teranex, an Orlando, U.S.-based video processing technology company that seemed promising. Explains Giddings, ‘They had adapted a $100 million-plus, high-res military target recognition technology for video applications, and offered to put together the system I needed.’

Teranex’s creation made it possible for Giddings to digitize, squeeze, stretch, upconvert to and downconvert from HD, as well as cross-convert to other formats, all in one smooth process and in real time (at 3.2 trillion ops/second internal I/O speed). The cost was about $500,000.

Giddings says his video footage transitioned well. ‘Most people can’t tell the upconverted HD from HD-cam original,’ he contends. ‘In fact, it’s tough to distinguish between video upconverted from Beta SP versus from DigiBeta.’ By comparison, 16mm film – even Super 16 – does not upconvert as well, he notes. ‘Most of it [16mm] is not as crisp as the footage upconverted from DigiBeta or Beta SP. But, it’s great for an archival or historical look.’

One of the unanticipated benefits of having shelves full of crisp imagery in HD is the vast reservoir of potential still frames.

Says Giddings, ‘We can grab high-resolution frames directly from HD sequences [upconverted from Betacam] that print beautifully. Advertisers, book publishers and magazines [National Geographic, for example] have expressed interest in the stills. At 30 frames per second and more than 200 hours of upconverted footage, the number of frames we have to draw on is huge.’

After nearly three years of deficit spending it looks like Giddings’ stock library experiment is paying off. ‘This year, we’ve already done several times more business in stock than we did in all of 2002. Once we finish my library we’ll work with other filmmakers’ footage and even represent them,’ he says.

Giddings also anticipates starting a series of half-hour programs based largely on his library later this year. This will be his first new production in two years, partly because Giddings sold most of his cameras and other production gear to help finance the library conversion. He adds that he also wanted the digital upgrade to be a hands-on experience.

‘There was a lot to learn, so I switched from [directing] to video processing and color correction. There was no point spending half a million bucks to build a powerful system that I couldn’t use,’ Giddings explains. ‘A few years ago, no one believed this could be done cost-effectively and well. We’ve proven that both are possible – and much more.’

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