DV: Worlds Apart
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 5 (May 2003)

DV: Worlds Apart

Contributing editor Stephen Porter is 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.

For the last few years, the video world has been characterized by two important trends: the rise of the DV video format and the movement toward high-definition broadcast. Both are enormously exciting and offer those involved in the video and broadcast industries lots of advantages and opportunities. At the same time, however, the two developments sometimes conflict with one another, making it difficult to set priorities and plan equipment purchases.

One person who has felt the uncomfortable pull of these opposing trends is Tim Mangini, the production manager of Frontline Outpost, an online editing facility owned by WBGH-TV in Boston that is primarily dedicated to the online editing of all Frontline and Frontline World documentaries. For the last several years, Mangini has worked hard to bring down the cost of producing Frontline by transitioning his postproduction facilities from analog to digital editing systems. At the same time, he has encouraged the independent producers who shoot many of the Frontline documentaries to transition from film to video.

The push and pull between the DV world and the HD world just got more interesting with JVC's introduction of the JY-HD10, a handheld HD camcorder that reportedly will sell for less than $4000, within the price range of handheld DV cameras.

Initially, he says, the independent producers resisted making the change, feeling that the quality of an image produced with film was worth the extra cost. Eventually, however, many of the documentarians did start making the transition to video as they came to respect the image quality that video could produce and as they came to realize just how much further they could stretch their budget using a video format.

Today, according to Mangini, virtually all the producers he works with are using video, although some are working with Betacam analog video cameras that they've owned for years, while others have already made the transition all the way to digital video. Particularly notable has been the increased use of small handheld DV cameras. In addition to their extraordinarily low cost (under $5000), these small DV cameras give producers access to people and events they couldn't reach with shoulder-mount film or video cameras. While the sight of a bigger camera can intimidate a potential subject, a small DV camera often lets a video crew blend in with the tourists, making it possible for them to get shots they'd never get with a shoulder rig.

But even as Mangini was working to promote the use of DV, PBS was conducting an effort of its own to increase its use of HD video. The eventual goal for PBS, says Mangini, is to broadcast 100 percent of its prime-time lineup in HD. As part of that effort, the network is moving inexorably toward the day when it will require that all source material be shot in HD format.

"This provides an obvious dichotomy," says Mangini. "I've finally gotten people to embrace the video format and we're finally getting our budgets in line, but now we are being told 'OK you have to produce in HD. You can't use that thing called DV that everybody's so hot about.'"

The problem, of course, is that transitioning to HD isn't cheap. For post facilities like Mangini's, it would mean investing in new editing equipment and effectively doubling the amount of postproduction work required for any given show. Moving to HD can be a real cost savings for those who are transitioning to it from the film world, but for those who are transitioning to it from the DV world, it's an expensive proposition.

"It's a significant time and cost impact to fathom," says Mangini. "We are currently in negotiations with PBS about what they want and what we will deliver. We are trying to figure out if we should start out producing in standard definition (SD) and then "up-convert" so they at least have something to put on their HD transponders. Or do we start moving our producers to originating content in HD?"

Meanwhile, the independent producers Mangini works with—who are faced with the likely possibility that PBS will soon only accept source material shot in HD—must confront dilemmas of their own. Those in the toughest position are the producers who are ready to trade in their Betacam cameras for a digital camera, but can't decide which format they should jump to. On the one hand, there are organizations like PBS that may soon only accept HD video, and on the other there is a large contingent of folks who want them to shoot in DV. Moreover, there are so many different flavors of HD currently vying for supremacy, and you've got a situation where people simply have no idea which format they should embrace.

"Believe me, they are calling me every week asking me what they should buy," says Mangini. "But the problem is that there is so much uncertainty in the marketplace. There is this split that is occurring, and those of us in the middle between the producer and the distributor are trying to figure out how to make those worlds merge. That's the place I find myself in."

Ultimately, says Mangini, the solution is "for HD equipment to become as ubiquitous as Beta was a few years ago. Our need is for HD to become the replacement camera of choice for camera people."

Before that happens, however, Mangini says the cost of HD equipment is going to have to come down in price. Today, the cheapest HD camcorders on the market from Sony and Panasonic sell for about $65,000. And when you add to that the cost of getting an editing system capable of editing HD video, it's a pretty big chunk of change for independent producers who can't yet even use HD for most of their projects.

The good news is that there are signs that cheaper HD equipment is on the way. At press time, for example, JVC was getting ready to unveil its new JY-HD10, a handheld HD camcorder that reportedly will sell for less than $4000. According to the company, the one-chip camcorder will offer three resolution modes: HD at 720/30p and SD at 480/60p or 480/60i. The two progressive modes (720/30p, 480/60p) use native 16:9 from the CCD with MPEG-2 compression, and the standard mode (480/60i) is 4:3 with DV compression. All recording is on common MiniDV tape, and editing can be done on a Pentium computer using JVC's bundled NLE software.

Since the camcorder has not yet shipped, it's too early to say whether it will truly be able to meet the needs of video professionals. Although JVC's marketing literature claims that the low-priced unit will make it possible for video pros in the corporate, government, and education markets to work with HD, some industry experts are predicting it's unlikely the camera will satisfy most video pros, especially those in the broadcast world.

One of those skeptics is video consultant Steve Mullen of Digital Video Consulting in New York. According to Mullen, the JY-HD10 was built entirely by JVC's consumer division, making it unlikely that it will provide all the features that video pros require of a camera. He says it will probably be most appropriate as a video camera for consumers who own an HD television.

"I think the JVC camcorder doesn't do anything but alert people that low-cost HD camcorders are coming," says Mullen. "We are probably a few months to nine months away from products that might better serve the market."

Where does Mullen think the next low-cost HD camcorder will come from? Probably Sony, he says, which he speculates will soon introduce an HD camcorder in the $3000 range based on optical media using Sony's blue laser technology. But even that, he says, will probably only be suitable for the "prosumer" market. It likely will be another three years or so, he says, before the world sees a professional-grade HD camcorder in the $20,000 range.

In the meantime, the push and pull between the DV world and the HD world will continue. And video producers caught between the two worlds will simply have to cope the best they can—renting equipment when they need to and purchasing new equipment only when they are certain they will have the workload to justify it.