Shooting in High Def
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 2 (Feb 2003)

Shooting in High Def

Rod Paul, director of Primary Pictures, an Atlanta-based production facility that focuses on TV commercials and documentaries, remembers the exact moment he became convinced it was time to move aggressively into high-definition (HD) video acquisition. It was this past August, and he happened to be sitting in the lobby of a video post production facility watching some NASA video footage playing on a 42-inch LCD panel.

"It was a 30-minute reel," recalls Paul, "and the images were just beautiful. On top of that, a lot of them were in slow motion. Frankly, I was just knocked out by how it looked."

When he discovered it was shot with Panasonic's AJ-HDC27 VariCam high-definition video camcorder, he was stunned. "I'd never even heard of it," he says. Two weeks later, he went and bought one of his own, sending his 16mm film camera into early retirement.

In the last few months, Paul has used his new toy for several projects, including one in which he shot some high-def, slow-motion sequences for "The Roots of Racing," an hour-long documentary on dirt-track racing scheduled to air this month on the Discovery Channel. In December, he took the camera to Ethiopia to shoot footage for "From the Apes," a three-hour documentary on the evolution of the human species.

What makes Paul's story interesting is that he's no HD neophyte who was simply dazzled by his first exposure to high-definition video. He's been following the technology for years, and he was familiar with its growing popularity in post facilities as a format for doing finishing work.

Shot in HD, The Jeff Corwin Experience will be one of the HD shows broadcast over the Discovery Network's HD Theater.

However, he had never been particularly impressed with the quality of video acquired in HD. As a result, it wasn't until his recent epiphany that he finally felt comfortable enough to make the leap to HD acquisition. In doing so, he has joined a rapidly rising number of other filmmakers and directors who've recently made the move.

In fact, the amount of footage being shot in an HD format has exploded recently. Just three years ago, for example, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" was the only regularly scheduled network program to be shot and simulcast in high-definition. Two years ago, only a handful of network shows could claim that distinction. Today, about 40 different network TV shows are shot and simulcast in HD, and cable networks like HBO and Showtime are simulcasting many of their programs in HD as well.

Beyond that, we now have Mark Cuban's HDNet, the first HD-only network, which was launched by the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks in September 2001. It's currently broadcasting 16 hours of HD programming a day to customers of DirectTV. Then, this past June, the Discovery Networks introduced Discovery HD Theater—a premium-service channel carried by Dish satellite and a couple of cable companies—that offers HD programming 24 hours a day. While not all of the shows broadcast in HD were necessarily acquired in an HD format, many of them were. And now the push is on to increase the amount of HD originated content.

The demand for HD acquisition is showing up in other ways as well. Rental houses like Fletcher Chicago and Plus 8 of New York report they are doing a brisk business in HD camera rentals. Issac Alexander, director of HDFest, a three-year-old film festival devoted exclusively to material shot in HD format, says he's seen a nearly 50-fold increase in the number of submissions since the festival's beginnings. Similarly, Kristin Petrovich, executive producer of HD Expo, a kind of HD conference that's held three times a year in various locations, says the expo events have doubled in attendees and sponsors in the past year.

One of the ironies of this trend is that the popularity of HD as a production format is growing despite the fact that only a miniscule percentage of the TV-watching population can receive any of the HD signals currently being broadcast. While firm numbers are hard to come by, Dale Cripps, publisher of HDTV Magazine, estimates there may be fewer than 200,000 households in the U.S. that own an HD monitor configured to receive an HD broadcast signal.

If HD production is not yet being driven by consumer demand, what is the motivation for the sudden surge in HD activity? Well, if you're HBO or Showtime or the Discovery Channel, a big part of your motivation is to solidify your reputation as a provider of premier-quality programming in preparation for the day when HD sets do hit the mainstream. "We are the highest-quality TV brand in the world, and the HD format is the highest quality format to shoot in," asserts John Ford, president of new media for Discovery Networks U.S. Moreover, he adds, "the business case is compelling in that the population is going to go the HD route in the next few years. By the 2004-to-2005 broadcast season, you'll have a critical mass of HD set owners that advertisers and others will have to pay attention to because they will be the heaviest viewing, most affluent section of the population."

While television networks may be embracing HD because it makes good business sense in the long term, production facilities, independent filmmakers, and even producers of episodic TV shows have another good reason for using HD as an acquisition format—it saves them money today. Rod Paul, for one, would still prefer to shoot with film, but he notes that film stock is considerably more expensive than HD tape. "Given today's economy," he says, "clients just aren't willing to provide a budget that will make up that expense."

Moreover, since a growing number of clients now want to have an HD master—for archival purposes or actual distribution—anybody shooting in film has to also consider the cost of converting that film to HD for finishing in post production. By shooting in HD from the beginning, those costs are eliminated. Similarly, if the project makes heavy use of graphics and special effects, having the live-action footage in HD format makes the whole compositing process run more smoothly.

Filmmaker Rod Paul, a recent HD acquisition convert, uses his Panasonic HD camcorder to shoot documentaries such as "The Roots of Racing" and "From the Apes."

In spite of the cost savings, neither Paul nor many other filmmakers or documentarians would embrace HD if they felt the quality of the images produced by the format were inferior to those produced by film. And for a while, that was a problem. Although the 1080i HD cameras available three years ago were fine for shooting "The Tonight Show" and sporting events, many directors who were used to working with film felt the 1080i cameras, which ran at a frame rate of 60 frames per second, produced an image that lacked the richness and texture of film. For those shooting episodic TV dramas or feature-length movies, maintaining a film look was imperative.

However, when Sony's HDW-F900 24p camcorder became available two years ago, that changed everything. Once people had access to an affordable ($100,000) HD camera that shared the same frame rate as film, they flocked to it.

Meanwhile, Panasonic was offering a 24p camcorder of its own, but it wasn't until it introduced the AJ-HDC27 VariCam just over a year ago that its own HD camera sales really took off. Priced at $63,000, the VariCam makes it easy to change frame rates up to 60 fps in single-frame increments, even during recording. With that innovation, it suddenly became much easier for directors to speed up motion or create slow-motion sequences—something that could be done easily with film cameras but not so easily with Sony's F900. Additionally, the variable frame rates and shutter speeds can be used to create some interesting ghost-like motion blur effects, warp speed zoom effects, and long-exposure still shots typical of what one might see in music videos, sci-fi dramas, and dream sequences. All this is not to suggest that HD is poised to push film out of the picture anytime soon. In the feature film world especially, the list of movie directors committed to film is still far longer than those willing to shoot in HD. But the HD list is growing. Not only is George Lucas a strong proponent of HD, but so are a few other respected Hollywood directors such as Robert Rodriquez, whose last two movies—Spy Kids 2 and Once Upon a Time in Mexico—were both shot in 24p HD.

Where will it all end? Folks like Jeff Merritt, Panasonic's product line business manager for HD products, are convinced the HD future looks exceedingly bright. "We are very, very encouraged by the growth in HD," he says confidently, "and we see it continuing even stronger this year and next year." ..

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World.