HD on the Desktop
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 2 (Feb 2004)

HD on the Desktop

While many video professionals have begun to use HD here and there for the occasional video project, what's unique about Greene is that he runs one of the few production houses that makes its living almost exclusively from HD. And during the last eight years, he's seen the market for HD evolve significantly.

Originally, the only outlets for HD were "demo programs and museum and exhibit content, and we were one of the foremost companies producing that type of material. Virtually every manufacturer that made HD has probably used one of our programs at one time or another as a demo to show off the technology."

By the end of the '90s, Greene began to see another market for HD start to open up—the broadcast industry. Initially, he says, broadcasters were desperate, willing to buy almost anything shot in HD, including pieces that were only a few minutes long.

In the past year and a half, however, Greene says the broadcast market has begun to take off, and the demand is for longer form material. "A 30-minute program is fine. A 60-minute program is better. And a series is what they are really after," he says.
Brian Greene mans the video camera during the filming of an HD documentary that he produced about Sweden's glass crystal business.

Eager to meet that demand, Greene's work these days largely involves producing documentaries for various HD broadcast channels. Just recently, for example, he completed a series in HD consisting of four 30-minute shows about Sweden's glass crystal business for Comcast's HD channel. And he currently is posting a 14-part HD series for Comcast about Route 66.

Other customers of Greene's work include such prestigious broadcast outlets as Discovery HD Theater, HDNet, Cablevision, PBS, and the BBC.

Given the caliber of his clientele, one might assume that Greene does his postproduction work on a high-end HD editing system from Quantel or Discreet. Interestingly, that's not the case. Instead, he relies on a relatively low-cost HDBoxx PC workstation from Boxx Technologies running in-sync's Speed Razor editing software.

Before too long, Greene expects to trade in the Speed Razor software for Adobe Premiere Pro, and he also expects to add a second HD editing suite built around Apple's Final Cut Pro on a Power Mac G5. But beyond that, he's feeling no need to jump up to the higher-end platforms.

The fact that someone like Greene is using a desktop HD editing system is good news for the vendors of low-cost HD postproduction editing programs that are eager to make the case that HD video production is rapidly becoming an affordable alternative for almost anyone. Final Cut Pro's relatively early support for the HD format has made Apple one of the favorites in the desktop HD space, but it's beginning to get some serious competition from Adobe, which included HD support in its recent release of Premiere Pro.

Richard Townhill, group product manager for Premiere Pro, insists that Adobe "views HD as a very important development in video production," and adds that Premiere Pro has seen an emergence of third-party support for HD. For example, he says, "Cineform has introduced a plug-in that will enable the capture, editing, and output of JVC's new consumer High Definition Video (HDV) format. And Boxx Technologies is building turnkey systems around hardware cards from Bluefish and AJA that support HD."

Meanwhile, in-sync, one of the first desktop software vendors to enter the HD market, continues to improve its HD offering with the release of Speed Razor HD 3.0. This Windows XP-based program adds support for Thor HD, a new board from AJA specifically designed for in-sync. It includes EDL import and export, 10-bit uncompressed HD capture and playback, infinite track editing, support for HD decks, such as the Panasonic AJ-HD150, and high-quality audio support that enables users to capture from 16 channels of audio embedded in the HD-SDI signal.

Media 100 is also entering the desktop HD fray with the release of Media 100 HD. Media 100 HD is powered by the company's GenesisEngine (844/X) technology, called HDX. The product features 10-bit uncompressed, resolution-independent native HD and SD editing, and allows editors to mix and match all HD and SD formats in a single timeline and even convert between them in real time. The product is scheduled to begin shipping this month.

As the number of HD product announcements grows, you do get the impression that affordable HD editing has arrived. But before you jump into a desktop HD editing system with both feet, Greene suggests a couple points to keep in mind.

The first consideration is the type of work you're doing. Greene purchased his first HDBoxx system in 2000 after working with analog HD systems for five years. At the time he made the purchase, he says, there were only two viable systems capable of dealing with uncompressed HD—the HDBoxx and the Quantel system. In his opinion, the main difference was that Quantel could do everything in real time, but it was also four times as expensive.

"If we were strictly a post house trying to work with the advertising industry," Greene explains, "then the Quantel would have made a more logical choice. If you've got clients in there watching the clock, you want things to click along. You don't want to sit around waiting for rendering. But for our purposes, where we do mostly documentary work, rendering really is not that much of an issue because we can make all the adjustments we want. When we close down for the night, we set one of the machines to render, and when we come back in the morning, it's done."

Today, even though the range of choices is much wider, Greene is still content to work with a desktop HD system, but he recognizes that such systems wouldn't be the best choice for everyone, and that the choice has to be driven by the nature of the work.

The other point Greene makes is that setting up a desktop HD system isn't quite as inexpensive as vendors would have you believe—at least not if you want to produce quality work. In fact, for $25,000 to $30,000, one could assemble a nice HD editing workstation based on either a Mac or PC platform. And for that price, you'd be able to get plenty of storage and to input, output, and edit HD effectively.

However, Greene notes "that's not where the cost comes in. The expensive part of putting an HD room together is still the HD equipment. You can't edit HD accurately without an HD deck, an HD monitor, and a waveform, which you have to get from Sony, Panasonic, or JVC. Oftentimes when people first edit HD, they look at it as simply a better version of Digibeta. But you need to be able to know what you are looking at in post. And for HD to pop off the screen and look like HD, and not just digital wide-screen, you have to use color-correction tools. You can't color-correct very accurately without a waveform, and you can't color-correct very accurately with a consumer HD monitor. Unfortunately, many of the editing systems out there are being installed with a high-end consumer monitor because it's less expensive, and they are trying to color-correct without a waveform. And I think that is totally nuts."

When you add in the cost of all that extra equipment, the price of a good HD editing suite gets up to about $150,000. While it represents a huge savings over the $2 million-plus price tag of an HD linear suite just six or seven years ago, it's hardly a price that's going to be affordable for everyone.

"HD, if treated right and edited and shot properly, can be head-on competition for 35mm film and look as sharp as, or sharper than, anything anybody's ever seen," says Greene. "But not when you water down the technology. You cannot accurately do broadcast-quality HD without the proper equipment."

Clearly, for users like Greene, desktop HD systems are an ideal tool capable of delivering phenomenal performance at an attractive price. But whether they'll meet your particular needs will depend on the size of your wallet, your quality standards, and the nature of your projects.

Stephen Porter is aCGWcontributing editor and a freelance writer who has been covering video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years. He can be reached at sporter@gsinet.net.