On a second floor editing suite of LAB 601, an Atlanta post production house, David Ballard is witnessing the second coming of video. But, this afternoon, it is not a pretty thing. On the screen in front of him is the low definition video image of a televangelist, a spoof character starring in a comic pilot, "The Joe Bob Report." The skit has something to do with enemas. That's the good news.
The bad news is when Ballard translates the image from low definition video to high definition video, the effect is the opposite of what the name implies. Instead of higher definition, the image of the evangelist, no beauty to begin with, gets muddier, blotchier, and grainier. "It looks terrible, doesn’t it?" says Ballard dryly. Still he presses ahead, massaging the image into something only an expert eye can detect as flawed compromise. His client is developing the show for HD Net, an all HiDef, satellite fed TV network. The network needs all the fresh programming in HiDef it can get. But, when one technology succeeds another, the vitality of the new invariably sprouts from the composting of the old.
The cable revolution of the 1970's relied on the recycling of old TV shows from the 1960’s. An argument could be made that without Andy Griffith the world might never have heard of Ted Turner. In those days, Turner used to brag he was "cable before cable was cool." And, in a small way, David Ballard, and a handful of Atlanta video creatives, may one day do the same. They are HiDef before HiDef is cool. Ballard and his firm, LAB 601, began specializing in HiDef about a year ago. Other Atlanta firms and creatives, VTA and Primary Pictures among them, have outfitted themselves for the slow brewing revolution. The city’s production and post giant, Crawford Communications was treading up the learning curve way before that, investing millions into HiDef beginning in 1997.
Crawford is one of the leading HiDef post production shops in the nation, and that puts Atlanta at the forefront of the video reformation. In Atlanta, all four TV affiliates broadcast digital signals over the air and an increasing number of the networks’ programs are produced in digital HiDef. The problem is that hardly anybody sees the shows in HiDef. Though cable and satellite systems carry some HiDef channels, they are few and far between when compared to standard broadcasting choices. And, of the 100 million households in the U.S. with TVs, only about 2 million have high definition sets. Bill Thompson, who heads Crawford’s post production division, was one of the select few who could appreciate that the recent two Super Bowl games were broadcast in HiDef because Crawford threw a HiDef Super Bowl party for clients. "It’s amazing to watch," he says. "It changes the way the game looks, and, eventually, it will change the way games are shot."
The city’s progress has been slowed somewhat by TV giant Turner Broadcasting Systems’ reluctance to convert to HiDef, unlike the major broadcast networks. Turner is rumored to be preparing to make the move in the next year to 18 months. One possible indication of Turner’s inclination: Last season WTBS shot and broadcast an Atlanta Braves baseball game in HiDef. Unnamed sources report that the snowball is rolling down the hill, and Turner Studios may be broadcasting all the Braves games in HiDef.
Ballard’s brother, Andrew, who heads sales and new business development for LAB 601, says HiDef has had greater appeal to long form producers. On a big job, the savings in film stock and processing costs can be significant. LAB 601 just finished a full length feature, "Behind The Nine" and a short, "Petunia," both shot in Atlanta on HiDef. The economic impact of HiDef on the image acquisition end is easy to assess. Sony has quantified the difference of shooting on 35mm film versus HiDef. It’s not even close. The cost of film stock per minute is about $50, the cost of tape stock per minute, about $1.25. The total cost of shooting, processing and film to tape transfer on 35mm film is about $70.16 a minute. A minute of HiDef costs $3.17.
The impact of HiDef on feature films will be more profound. "With tape stock, they may stop on the second or third take because it’s too expensive to shoot more," says Director of Photography and Cameraman Bob Clark. "With HiDef they’re more inclined to shoot it until they get it right." Because HiDef cameras do not have to be reloaded as often, shoot days can be more productive. A particular benefit for commercial producers, says Clark, is agency executives and nervous clients can instantly review what has been shot instead of waiting for film processing. "I’ve seen the impact that it has on the set, and it’s huge." That advantage is profound when stunts are being shot and re-shooting is expensive. "They can look at it and say ‘We got it.’"
Commercial shoots are another story. The only spot LAB 601 has finished in HiDef for an Atlanta ad agency was for WestWayne. The client was the Atlanta Falcons. Still, single commercials do not offer the savings of a big campaign, says Ballard. "If you’re shooting ten spots you can save so much on film stock and processing that you can get 12 commercials for the price of 10 with HiDef. But still, there’s just a lot of nervousness about HiDef because many producers are unfamiliar with working in HiDef. The phrase you hear all the time from advertising agencies is that they just want to ‘dip their toes in the water.’ They aren’t ready to dive in."
But the whole world seems to be slathered in suntan lotion and pitched forward at the pool. In truth it has been that way for two decades, since the early version of HiDef developed in the laboratories of NHK by Sony and the Japan Broadcasting Company. Technicians were trying to replicate the wide screen effect of 35mm film and with the same detail.
The slow brewing HiDef revolution was set in motion five years ago when the Federal Communications Commission mandated that TV stations broadcast digital programming by 2002. Only 68 percent of the stations made the May 1, 2002 deadline. It has now been pushed to 2006. The reasons for the delay are manifold. Most are tied to costs and logistics of erecting new towers. Converting from analog to digital broadcast runs from $500,000 to $3 million a station depending on its size and the market.
The transition is further encumbered by a technology that is still evolving and is so confusing even people in commercial TV are confounded. "When I shoot HiDef, the pucker factor, the anxiety on the set, always goes straight through the roof," says Bob Clark. "They’re used to film. When they see a video camera instead of a film camera they tend to freak."
HiDef differs from standard (or low definition) video in two distinct ways. Standard definition video has an aspect ratio of 4/3 (four parts horizontal, three parts vertical almost square); high definition has an aspect ratio of 16/9, making it wider and more like a movie. The number of vertical and horizontal lines in HiDef are almost double the number in standard video, creating a more detailed picture.
Those two factors alone are enough to have boggled technicians for years and dampened enthusiasm for the new medium because of its incompatibility with the old format. Add to this a multitude of distribution issues facing TV stations and networks, including analog versus digital, bandwidth, signal compression, cable versus broadcast versus satellite, ad nauseum. Converting old video to HiDef is like taking a Kodak snapshot and blowing it up poster size.
For networks, the conversion to HiDef means that millions upon millions of hours of video libraries are suddenly antiquated. For potential HiDef producers, conversion means millions and millions of dollars in standard production and post equipment is suddenly and virtually worthless. It does not help that the two technological leaders in HiDef are duking it out to see which format, Sony or Panasonic, prevails.
Even movie makers are meeting opposition in the transition to HiDef. When producer George Lucas, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, shot his latest Star Wars installment, "Star Wars; Episode 2," in HiDef, he said he hoped the film would be projected in HiDef in many theaters, and offered to underwrite the expense of new HiDef projectors instead of spending the money on converting HiDef to film. The money that could be saved by distributing the movie over the Internet, instead of converting it to film canisters that would then have to be delivered to each theater, would have been about $30 million. Theater owners have balked because the cost of an HiDef projector ranges from $80,000 to $150,000.
Another factor in moving from film to HiDef in theaters is the fear that the image is too clean. Since the advent of motion pictures, people have become accustomed to the almost subliminal flicker that occurs to the eye in film watched at 24 frames per second. In HiDef, with no black line between picture frames, there is no flicker. The flaws, dust, and scratches that accumulate on a print also are a comfort to viewers, argue producers.
Crawford has four HiDef edit suites equipped to handle three HiDef formats: one from Sony, two from Panasonic. Right now the industry is split between the Sony Cine Alta HiDef camera, and the Panasonic VariCam. The Sony camera costs and has been the industry standard. The Panasonic VariCam, unlike the Sony, has a variable frame rate and can shoot slow motion and time-lapse. Crawford transfers film to HD and prefers to master on the Panasonic HiDef-D5 System. The system is not portable, but it is higher quality, says Thompson. About 10 percent of Crawford’s post production work is HiDef these days. "But we’re really starting to see it happen, we see our HiDef business picking up. More corporate clients, more documentary, and more entertainment and agency work. As more people are exposed to HiDef, more people want it."
Many advances in HiDef go unnoticed for the obvious reason that few people own HiDef TV’s, even though they are much cheaper now than they were two years ago. Back then, a 50-inch set cost $8,000. Now that is down to less than $2,000, but it is still a huge investment for most consumers. As a result, only the producers recognized that this year’s MTV Music Awards were the first major broadcast shot in HiDef at 24 frames a second.
The FCC has mandated that stations simulcast in digital and analog signals until 2010. It is hard to imagine, however, that the FCC would not back off that deadline as it did the 2002 conversion to digital mandate. The networks certainly have no interest in losing viewers just because they have analog TVs. That would cut directly into their advertising revenues.
Rod Paul, who runs Primary Pictures in Atlanta, has been grappling with the aesthetics and practicalities of HiDef for ten years, since the FCC mandated that stations switch to digital broadcasting. He remembers a meeting in those days with network heads and somebody asking what Ted Turner thought about the conversion to HiDef. One of Turner’s VP's said that Turner’s thoughts were along the lines of, "I think there’s a lot more important things in the world than the shape of somebody's TV set."
Rod Paul shows a visitor to his studio his Panasonic VariCam, a HiDef camera. "There’s only about 110 of these in the world," he says. With lens, the camera cost about $130,000. The camera is more versatile than a film camera, he says, but it is also unforgiving: "You need to know what you’re doing. When it looks good, it looks great. But, if you make a mistake, it shows every flaw." The camera’s chip records images and adjusts them according to how its operator "paints" the picture. "It knows when it is shooting the face, and it can lower the details in the pores and keep everything sharp around it," says Paul. "The possibilities are really unlimited in how you can change the way the camera sees things."
The HiDef frame rate, says Paul, has a huge impact on the acceptance of HiDef. It throws people. Unlike standard definition cameras, HiDef cameras record at 24 frames per second, just like a film camera, and the images have a film camera feel when broadcast on TV. "When people think of video, they think of standard video, which is shot and transmitted at 30 frames a second," he says. "It doesn’t look like film. There’s a flatness to it. And people are put off by that, but they don’t know why." Because standard video requires less light to shoot than film, it has established a reputation as being cheaper and less artful than film. With HiDef, nothing could be farther from the truth. Filmmaker George Lucas, as quoted in the Hollywood Reporter and repeated in the Chicago Tribune, says the difference between film and HiDef is like the difference between doing "frescos on a plaster wall" and oil painting. "That isn't to say that oil is a better medium...[it's] a more flexible medium. It allows the artist to have greater control."
One of the many choices a HiDef cameraman must make is depth of field. With HiDef, unlike film, images farther in the background can be as sharp as images in the foreground. An artistic choice must be made. "If the image in the background is sharp, will the image in the foreground lose its dramatic impact?" asks Paul. As the medium evolves, more artistic questions will arise: frames per second, seamless versus flicker, etc. But one thing is beyond question, says Paul. "One of these days, standard video and square TV's are going to look as outdated as a rotary phone."
One of the best places in the country to appreciate this collision of technologies and aesthetics is Crawford Communications. The production and post house, which has a staff of more than 300, has spent more than $5 million outfitting for HiDef, says Bill Thompson. "One of these days, we'll live in a tapeless world," he says of the next phase of HiDef. Moving images will be downloaded onto a disc instead of tape, TV stations will get commercials e-mailed to them, instead of overnighted. That technology is probably a year or two away. HiDef home DVD players will probably begin hitting the market in a year or two.
Already, says Thompson, HiDef has created a whole "new language" in broadcast sports: "There don't have to be close ups to see race drivers. With HiDef you can see the drivers and the crowd in the same shot. They're both in focus." Still, Thompson says, TV advertisers have been slow to adopt HiDef, but Crawford has done post production on many commercials that run in movie theaters.
HiDef possibilities and probabilities are, quite literally, limitless. The technology will change the way we produce, post, and finish everything, from our televangelists to our sports heroes. As summed up by Primary Pictures' Rod Paul, "The amount of choices you can make are phenomenal." And each, in the nature of art, changes the art.