Moving to the Mainstream
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 11 (November 2003)

Moving to the Mainstream

 During the past two years, high-definition video production has taken off as video professionals have embraced the HD format as a less expensive alternative to film. Thanks to the emergence of low-cost HD camcorders from companies like Sony, Panasonic, and JVC, HD production has been widely adopted not only by producers of feature films and episodic television shows, but also by independent documentarians and corporate video professionals previously shooting with DV or even Betacam formats.

The story on the HD.editing front has been a little different, however, since that process has remained a fairly expensive proposition. For those working on feature films, broadcast commercials, and episodic television, the cost of acquiring a high-end HD editing system from companies like Avid, Discreet, or Quantel is justifiable. But for most video professionals working outside those industries, such systems with their $50,000 to $100,000 and up price tags are out of reach.

No one can say for sure how many people shooting in HD also are editing in HD. But a common estimate is that only about 30 to 60 percent of the projects acquired in HD also are edited in that format.

Adobe's Premiere Pro software, when coupled with third-party hardware and software, offers a relatively low-cost option for editing HD video.

One bit of good news is that it is possible to edit in the HD format on either a PC or Mac platform using Adobe's Premiere Pro or Apple's Final Cut Pro, respectively. Both programs support HD video editing when combined with an appropriate third-party HD I/O video card. The other piece of good news is that competition in the HD I/O card market is heating up and, therefore, bringing prices down for these types of HD editing systems.

Of course, setting up a fully functioning desktop HD editing system is still going to cost more than setting up a system for editing standard-definition (SD) video. As Dave Trescot, director of Adobe's digital video products, explains, the storage costs alone make an HD editing system expensive. "For example," he says, "video in a 10-bit 1080i format can take about 140mb of data per second." That means if you are editing an hour-long show and want to edit with a 10:1 ratio of source material to final edit, you would be looking at more than 10tb of storage.

"There also is a total system-cost factor: A complete HD editing system can cost 10 times what an SD system costs," Trescot adds. "All the components of the system (decks, monitors, storage, networking capability, backup systems, and the editing machine itself) can potentially need upgrading, which can be a big obstacle."

One of the problems, says Trescot, is that today's desktop systems are not well suited to handling multiple streams of uncompressed HD video. But he contends that will soon change as improvements are made in the areas of bus performance and compression. "In the middle of next year, we will begin to see systems built around the new PCI-Express standard. This is a very high-speed serial bus that will allow much greater throughput than ever before between the disk drives and the system memory. In the world of compression, we will see people editing in MPEG-2 and Windows Media 9, which will dramatically reduce the online requirements while at the same time preserve high video quality."

In the meantime, some important advances already are occurring in the area of HD video cards. Here's a brief rundown of some key highlights:

In September at IBC, Europe's biggest trade show for video technology, AJA Video ( announced it had dramatically dropped the price of its Kona-HD 10-bit high-definition video/audio capture and playback PCI card for Mac OS X.

The Kona-HD card, first made available in January at a price of $10,995, was the first 10-bit uncompressed HD capture card on the market that was developed exclusively for Mac OS X. Designed to work with QuickTime-compatible programs like Final Cut Pro, the Kona-HD card offers full 64-bit/66mhz PCI capability and supports most HDTV formats, including 1080i 50/59.94/40. It is also backward compatible with 33mhz PCI and 8-bit HD formats.

Considered a breakthrough product in January, the Kona-HD card is attractive at its new price of $3,995. It has already been used by clients in the film and broadcast business, including First Amendment Films/Alterity Films, which cut its movie White of Winter entirely on the Kona-HD card. The film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January. According to the director of photography, Michael Hardwick, the use of the card not only saved money, but also time, because the group never had to go to an HD online bay for finishing.

On the PC side, Bluefish444 (, a division and brand name of Digital Voodoo, has a board designed to work with Adobe Premiere Pro. Priced at $15,995, this card sits a bit higher on the price scale, but it offers an extensive list of capabilities. The new HD|Lust board, which started shipping in September, is an uncompressed 10-bit HD capture and playback card featuring two HD SDI inputs, two HD SDI outputs, and simultaneous HD 4:2:2 or SD 4:2:2 down-conversion. HD|Lust offers full-bandwidth 4:4:4:4 or 4:2:2:4 video input and output for the PC and comes bundled with Symmetry, another Bluefish444 card that captures frame-accurate 10-bit uncompressed Cineon sequential files or YUV V210 QuickTime files.

HD|Lust was designed to bring film quality to the desktop. According to Matt Dowling, product manager at Bluefish444, "With this product, you can capture either uncompressed 10-bit 4:4:4 RGB DPX/Cineon sequential files for use with Sony HDCAM SR or run in single-link uncompressed 10-bit YUV 4:2:2 V210 QuickTime with a Panasonic Varicam."

Bluefish444's uncompressed, 10-bit capture and playback HD|Lust card features two HD SDI inputs and outputs.

The newest card on the block is the DeckLink HD from Blackmagic Designs ( Company president Grant Petty explains that it was designed to help facilitate the move to HD editing. Priced at $1995, DeckLink HD is a 10-bit QuickTime PCI capture card with standard-definition and full HD support for Final Cut Pro. With this card, he says, users can assemble a full, uncompressed 10-bit HDTV editing and design system for about $15,000.

What makes the card so significant, Petty contends, is not only its low cost but the fact that it works just as well in standard definition as in high definition. "This is critical for HD to really take off," he says. "If you talk people in the industry today, they will tell you that most of their work is SD-based, but they do some HD or at least get asked to quote on jobs that will be finished in HD. So they need the ability to do HD, even though it's not the main work they do. With DeckLink HD, you can use it for SD work and then when an HD job comes along, just switch it over."

Petty says it's also significant that the card makes use of PCI-X 133, the bus interface standard used in the latest Windows and Mac G5 systems. "This enables much higher bandwidths and helps reduce the complexity of dealing with the high data rates of HD. In fact, we can easily do uncompressed, 10-bit HD editing with DeckLink HD and then render it in 16 bits per pixel in Adobe After Effects."

Blackmagic Designs' DeckLink HD features SD and HD support for the Mac.

When running standard-definition SDI video, DeckLink HD is fully compatible with decks such as Sony Digital Betacam, D1, and Panasonic DVC Pro 25/50. Supported HD formats include 1080i/50, 1080i/29.97, 1080i/30 interlaced, 1080p/23.976, 1080p/24 progressive, and 720p.

Thanks to these kind of advances, the cost of editing HD video is beginning to drop. A few years ago, the idea of buying a system capable of editing HD for less than $100,000 would have been inconceivable. But today, given the advances we've already seen, it's likely that low-end HD editing systems soon will drop below $10,000. Certainly with the FCC's 2006 HDTV deadline fast approaching, the pressure to put more HD tools into the hands of as many video professionals as possible will only increase.

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance writer who has covered video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years. He can be reached at