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Hi-Def TV: Turning Gadgets Into Thrills

Oct 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When Discovery Channel and Discovery HD Theater premiere their shared 11-hour “Planet Earth” series early next year, viewers will be treated to a series of aerial zoom shots of goats on mountaintops and flocks of flamingos taken from miles away.

“There’s one shot where you focus in on a goat on a mountaintop, and you keep zooming out and you realize you are miles away and you focus on the grandeur of the mountains,” said Josh Derby, director of production technical operations at Discovery Communications.

The show’s producers used a handful of relatively new hi-def production techniques to tell the story-including cameras mounted on helicopters and palm-size cameras for shooting in tight spots. Those techniques are some of the production innovations that are affecting high-definition networks. Networks such as Discovery HD Theater and National Geographic Channel that showcase sweeping vistas and nature in all its scale and scope are often the networks that experiment and push the envelope on new production techniques.

For instance, Discovery HD Theater relied on what’s known as a “heli-gimble” for the goat shot, Mr. Derby said. That’s a camera with a long zoom lens mounted on the underside of a helicopter. It can zoom in from a couple of miles away, he said. Discovery also used the heli-gimble in “Planet Earth” to capture a shot of a migrating flock of flamingos. “At first you see a couple birds and then you realize there are maybe 20,000 birds flying around in a big flock,” Mr. Derby said. “And you say, `I am glad this is in hi-def and I am glad they got this shot in hi-def.”‘

Hi-def programming does justice to close-ups and also to huge scenic shots, he said. The use of a heli-gimble also allows the show to “contextualize natural history” and help viewers to see that they are watching an “amazing place,” said Shana Jacobus, manager of development and production for Discovery HD Theater.

“Planet Earth” is designed to provide a portrait of the planet and showcase caves, mountains, deserts, polar regions, forests, jungles and oceans. That’s why the long, sweeping shots made sense for that show.

But Discovery is also putting into use much smaller cameras that are just coming on the market. These cameras figure into the network group’s plans to launch a branded block of programming called Turbo early next year on Discovery HD Theater. Turbo will focus on “all things motorized.”

“What we are excited about is watching how new technologies might be able to help us develop programs for Turbo,” Ms. Jacobus said. Big, bulky cameras aren’t the best choice for shooting the kinds of speed- and adrenaline-centric shows that Turbo will house. That’s where smaller, portable and wireless cameras will come into play, she said.

The network group is currently testing out a new palm-sized hi-def camcorder from Canon. “You wouldn’t want to shoot a whole show on that, but if you are in a cockpit of a small plane, a dashboard of a race car, or on a helmet while skydiving, you could use it,” Ms. Jacobus explained. “That gives you the shots you need to fill out a program and pull a viewer in.”

That camera is expected to come to market in a few weeks.

In general the cost of cameras is dropping, which makes it more affordable to produce hi-def product than it was a few years ago. That’s one of the reasons Discovery will start shooting its popular series “MythBusters” in hi-def. The show relies on multiple cameras, and because it captures images from several different angles at once, shooting in hi-def had previously been cost-prohibitive.

Indeed, the advent of new technologies not only can smooth the way for networks to shoot current series in hi-def, but also expands the types of shows they can tackle from the get-go. “We can start to develop longer series that use these new technologies,” Ms. Jacobus said. “They aren’t just economical, but are more innovative in programming. We get to places we haven’t been able to before. Anytime there is a new technology that is applied to a show we take it and run, and it expands how we think about shows we can do.”

Those price drops in cameras have also made it more affordable for other networks to increase their hi-def output. Scripps Networks, which offers both Food Network and HGTV in hi-def, has accelerated its hi-def conversion plans because of the drop in prices for equipment and cameras and also because it moved forward with plans for two separate hi-def networks rather than an aggregated network. The network productions group began its transition to hi-def in 2004 and now handles 90 percent of its post-production operations in hi-def in addition to 25 percent to 30 percent of its studio work, said Tom Killoy, VP of operations for Food Network. Scripps had planned to be all hi-def by 2009, but the conversion should be complete by 2008, he said.

Prices have dropped about 25 percent to 30 percent since the network started its transition. “The hi-def makes the food all that much more enticing,” Mr. Killoy said. “The close-up shots of the food and even the medium shots, it makes it look so much better you really do want to get a fork out and start eating.”