New HD Tools in Focus

Apr 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After this year’s National Association of Broadcasters convention, high-definition networks won’t have to say “no” to producers so often.

That’s because exhibitors on the 800,000-plus square feet of show floor at the Las Vegas Convention Center displayed a multitude of new products that should make producing in high definition better, faster and cheaper.

TelevisionWeek was invited to tour the show floor with a trio of attendees from Discovery Communications and Discovery HD Theater, who were there to check out the latest HD gear: Diane Tryneski, senior VP with the Discovery Production Group; Josh Derby, manager of technical standards and operations for the Discovery Production Group; and Shana Vickers, manager of program development and production for Discovery HD Theater. Discovery Production Group provides in-house production services for Discovery.

They’ll return to the company’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., and report back to executives at various channels about the HD goods on the show floor that within the next year or two will yield new efficiencies in the production process, save money and produce better pictures. Key products the trio checked out were small, handheld HD cameras, editing systems with amped-up HD capabilities and other tools that enhance the HD workflow. The bottom line is that producing in HD is rapidly becoming much more affordable and accessible for more producers.

“I think we are crossing a threshold. We are really gearing up the professional market to do this more easily,” said Mr. Derby, who has been checking out HD equipment at NAB for the last five or six years.

The drop in prices means more producers will be willing to invest in HD equipment, providing Discovery with a bigger pool of producers who have access to the latest HD capabilities. “We had said ‘no’ to certain effects in the past because they were too expensive,” Ms. Vickers said. That won’t be the case much longer, she said.

Price Gap Narrowing

Producing in HD is about 10 percent to 15 percent pricier than standard definition, and Discovery HD Theater pays that cost for its producers. Four years ago, the cost was about 50 percent more, Ms. Tryneski said.

Just two years ago, a producer who wanted to edit in HD would have to spend close to $200,000 for equipment. Now a reasonable edit package can be had for about $15,000, Mr. Derby said.

At NAB, the team planned to meet with about 50 equipment-makers, including Sony, Avid, Apple, Thomson Grass Valley, Panasonic, Ikegami, Tandberg and Snell & Wilcox.

A trend hitting the HD production community is high-definition video cameras. Last fall, Discovery HD Theater tested an HDV camcorder from Sony. Last month the network bestowed its official blessing for limited use of HDV cameras that shoot in 1080i (1080 interlace) in production. Because the quality is in between standard and high definition, Discovery does not use such cameras for more than 15 percent of a show. But the camera has the advantages of size and maneuverability. It weighs in at four pounds rather than the usual 18 or 19, and can be used for shots in tight spots or unusual places-think race cars, extreme sports, skydiving, close-up shots of wildlife and interviews where producers want to be as unobtrusive as possible.

“It’s the tool everyone has been waiting for,” Ms. Vickers said. Other manufacturers offer HDV camcorders too.

At the Sony booth, Discovery also checked out the XDCam, a camera that shoots video on a blue laser disc. “Your camera can stream to your laptop so you can look at what your camerapeople are shooting,” Mr. Derby said.

Next Big Step

Sony also exhibited a camera that shoots in 1080p, or 1080 progressive. Right now Discovery HD Theater broadcasts in 1080i, but 1080p is considered the next big quality step for HD production.

“It would give you an amazing amount of clarity even when things are moving,” Mr. Derby said. “The detail is greater. It’s taking the picture to the next level,” he said. However, 1080p is still at least a few years away from widespread use.

“It’s good to know about,” Ms. Vickers said. “We are always trying to have the highest picture quality. We want to be aware [of advances].”

On the editing side, competitors Apple and Avid both introduced new equipment for editing in HD. Apple’s Final Cut Pro 5 allows for native support of HDV files, which means editors and producers don’t need to convert files from different formats. It also includes updated graphics and new sound effects, Mr. Derby said. Avid added HD capabilities to its Adrenaline editing system.

“It goes back to ease of use, workflow,” Ms. Tryneski said. HD production hasn’t had the same seamless workflow as SD programs, but HD is getting closer, she said.

At the show, Panasonic previewed an HD camera called the AG-HVX200. It’s an HD version of the tapeless camera it unveiled last year. The camera is small and meets the need to shoot in tight spots, like the HDV camcorders do. The difference is the Panasonic camera shoots in pure HD. It records on cards that hold eight minutes of video, Mr. Derby said. “This is one of those cases where we would get the camera in and test it,” Mr. Derby said.

Discovery also checked out equipment from Grass Valley, including its Super SloMo camera, and Snell & Wilcox, which offered a standards converter. That allows video to be transferred to formats used in other countries. That’s useful as Discovery begins to produce HD content for its global networks, Ms. Tryneski said.