No, we’re not kidding. It’s finally a legitimate question that rational people can ask about a technology that has been around for more than a hundred years. In most areas where film used to dominate, the answer is both obvious and clear – film IS dead for the majority of users.
…..This fact isn’t even news anymore. Most news crews haven’t used 16mm film in more than 25 years. Home “movies” stopped using Super 8mm film more than a decade ago. Electronic still cameras are enjoying huge sales growth at the expense of traditional film cameras. Corporate training “films” became videos as capabilities rose. And the web seldom sees any film product at all.
…..In three areas, however, 35mm film continues to dominate as we enter the 21st Century. Episodic television, theatrical films, and national commercials still remain a mostly film world.
…..But that is changing too.
…..With the release of the latest 24P HDTV production cameras from Sony this fall, a number of pioneering producers in commercials, episodics and feature films have begun to switch from film to HDTV
…..More than a year ago, when Post Effects built the first HDTV on-line bay in Chicago, we were asked many questions about our decision and when we thought producers should start thinking about exploring this new technology. We wrote down some answers to the most frequent of these questions and an earlier version of this article was published in Chicago’s Screen magazine as an introduction to the world of HDTV. With some appropriate updates, here is that article…..
1. When should I start thinking about shooting or editing in HDTV?
…..Now. Your competition started thinking about HDTV yesterday. Doing tests. Learning lessons. But while almost everybody else has been “waiting” for HDTV, here is what has happened. All three major television networks aired significant HDTV programming last fall. NBC has been airing the Tonight Show in HDTV for more than a year, and recent word is that Saturday Night Live is next. Monday night football went high-def last season on ABC. Almost 75% of CBS??s primetime schedule was in HDTV last fall. The Discovery Channel is soliciting programs right now for a cable HDTV service. HBO and Showtime is already transmitting two HD channels via satellite. Feature films are being show in special theatres across America in HDTV without a film projector in sight. The business communications industry is love with HDTV as the ultimate attention-getter in trade shows and meetings. The audiences are still small, but the wait for HDTV is finally over.
2. Isn??t shooting in HDTV really expensive?
…..No. In fact, HDTV can actually save you money in many production situations. It??s true that basic HDTV camera rentals are slightly higher than renting a Digital Betacam. But take the time to analyze your total cost for a shoot day in NTSC or in 35mm film. For a standard definition shoot, the daily production cost for stage, crew, cast, lights and camera gear might be as low at $5,000 a day for a budget video, or as high as $50,000 (or more!) for a high-end commercial film. Shooting in HDTV will add only $300-$500 a day in comparison to a typical video shoot day (less than 10%) and shooting HDTV instead of 35mm film might actually SAVE the high-end production company $3,000-$5,000 per day in reduced film stock cost, lab processing, dailies transfer, elimination of the video assist package, etc.etc.
3. Isn’t editing in HDTV really expensive?
…..No. Off-line editing in an Avid still costs the same that it always did, and most of your budget often goes into that part of your budget. The “on-line” conforming of your creative cut can now be handled in a “traditional” linear or non-linear HDTV edit bay – at an hourly rate that is only about 10%-20% higher than a D-1 or Digital Betacam room. It is no longer necessary to spend a $1,000 an hour to edit in HDTV. In particular, a HD Flame or Fire at $1200/per hour is probably not the most economical or fastest way to edit in HDTV.
4. Aren‘t graphics more expensive in HDTV?
…..Maybe. Computer graphics, animation and special effects in HDTV require more time or faster computers to work with the larger image size and greater detail of HDTV. For example, a typical frame of D-1 video is about 1 Meg in size. A typical frame of HDTV is about 6 Meg, which might take 6 times longer to render or transfer around a facility. Luckily, however, most graphic time is spent by artists being creative – not rendering – so your effects budget does not increase by 6 times. In fact, HDTV has so much visual impact from its wider aspect ratio and increased resolution that many people believe that the importance of special effects and graphics will actually diminish in HDTV – saving money in post. For budget purposes, we suggest planning on an increase of 50% in HDTV graphics budgets.
5. Does HDTV really look better than regular NTSC video?
…..Yes. Spectacularly so. The Sony HDCAM cameras that Post Effects, Fletcher Chicago and others are using are simply the finest imaging systems ever made. The sensitivity is greater than ever before – HDCAM cameras are rated at an effective ASA of 400. The contrast ratio is astounding, with the Sony cameras pulling details out of shadow areas that would be lost in both video AND most film stocks. And even the HDTV color spectrum is wider than the spectrum of a standard NTSC camera, so it is now possible to capture colors that I have never seen reproduced before – in food, in products and in nature photography. Looking at HDTV on an HD monitor is like looking into a moving 8×10 transparency – it is awesome – cool – and will captivate audiences instantly.
6. Is HDTV as good or better than film?
…..That’s the wrong question. HDTV is certainly better than video, but entirely different from film. In the past, producers have had the choice between only two formats for mass entertainment – film and video. Now there are three choices – video, film and HDTV. My personal belief is that many people will continue to choose film as their primary shooting format – at least for a while. But I also believe that a growing segment – maybe even a segment that includes the very highest end commercials, tradeshows and feature films ?? will begin to adopt HDTV as a new, cutting edge “look” that will help them attract the audiences that they seek.
7. Does HDTV look better even when viewed on a regular TV set?
…..Yes. This is the most important lesson we learned over the last 18 months of working and experimenting in HDTV. If you shoot and edit in HDTV, many of the radical improvement in picture quality are still visible when the HDTV signal is “down-converted” to NTSC and viewed on a regular NTSC monitor. That means there is no reason not to shoot and edit in HDTV – even if you are only delivering a “standard” definition commercial, documentary or TV show. If you think about it, almost anyone in our business can tell whether a show was shot on film or tape, even when watching a rental VHS tape from Blockbuster. This is because the inherent quality of film survives the dubbing process – and that??s why so many people love the “film look.” The big news is that the “HDTV look” survives this dubbing process too. Score!
8. Do I have to worry about which HDTV format will “win” in the marketplace?
…..No. Absolutely not. It’s true that television is once again in the middle of format “wars” like the ones we saw with the introduction of the D-1, D-2 and D-3 digital VTR??s in the late 1980’s. Like then, Sony feels it has the best product. So does Panasonic. And JVC. Even the TV networks can’t agree whether 1080i or 720p or some other format will be the best for them. So my advice is to ignore the controversy and shoot HDTV – any HDTV in any format – with a supplier you know and that you trust. The truth is that there will never be a winning HDTV format, just as there was never a winner in NTSC. Most facilities currently support more than 12 NTSC formats. In comparison, supporting 2 or 3 HDTV formats will be child’s play. Waiting for a winner is a fool??s game.
9. Do I have to change how I work to produce HDTV?
…..No. And if someone attempts to describe to you ways to work around the supposed “limitations” of HDTV, then that is a clue to find someone else to work with who has more knowledge and experience. Shooting, editing and creating effects in a well-designed HDTV facility should be a nearly identical process to NTSC. The only truly new skill that is required is the ability to master the effective use of the new 16×9 aspect ratio of HDTV and to anticipate how a 4×3 version of your material will look when down-converted. Everything else about HDTV is a new freedom. The freedom to shoot in lower light, with less fill, greater contrast – and with better looking images.
10. How do I begin to get experience in HDTV Production?
…..First, attend the HDTV seminars put on by Sony, Fletcher, RentCom, Post Effects and others. There is a wealth of experience already out there and it’s possible to learn important lessons just by asking. Secondly, start shooting and editing HDTV in Chicago now -even before you absolutely have to. In most cases, the budget increases are small – if any -and the resulting picture quality is superb.
…..And remember that if you were planning to shoot NTSC video anyway, then shooting HDTV will give you a stunningly better product. If you were planning to shoot film, then HDTV will probably save you money and give you a brand new high-end “look.” If you are doing tradeshows or meetings, then HDTV will deliver more impact per dollar than any other format. And if you are creating television shows or documentaries for future distribution, then you will protect yourself against future losses in income when your “low-res” 4×3 NTSC video begins to look as “dated” as a 1950’s B&W sitcom