Ads Lag in Shift to HD Format

Mar 16, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Commercial production may be the last bastion of die-hard film production. Feature films, especially independents and documentaries, have embraced high definition, and TV shows, especially sitcoms, are no strangers to HD cameras. But only a very small percentage of TV commercials are shot in hi-def.
“The case hasn’t been made to us why we need to shoot in HD,” said David Perry, head of TV production at Saatchi & Saatchi New York and chair of the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ broadcast production committee. “The number of commercials shot in HD is definitely in the single digits.”
Ad agencies and their clients have long eschewed video for its “downmarket” look, the territory of low-budget, locally produced commercials. Although hi-def, with its 24 frames per second and film lenses, can produce a look far superior to the early analog versions of the new format, it’s still video and therefore guilty by association.
“To a degree we can’t embrace it,” said Mr. Perry. “HD suffers because its predecessors weren’t good. It’s high-end and classy, but it’s still videotape.”
Leo Burnett/Chicago head of production Chris Rossiter noted that the number of commercials finished in HD is much greater than those actually shot in the format. “The worlds are evolving at different speeds, and it’s not specific to any agency or client,” he said. “From an evolutionary standpoint, film has always been the standard for high-quality production values and the emotion it elicits.”
Doing the math, Mr. Perry pointed out that HD is not a more economical choice for commercial production. “HD works really well when you shoot an awful lot of footage,” he said. “With us, we might shoot 5,000 to 7,000 feet, at $1 a foot. So let’s say it costs us $5,000 to shoot on film and $200 to shoot on HD. With overall commercial costs upwards of $375,000, it’s not enough of a savings to change our whole M.O.”
Not all clients keep HD at arm’s length. At Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, Joshua Reynolds, executive producer on the Sprint account, reported, “About everything we do has an HD component one way or another.”
Although shooting in hi-def isn’t one of those things, Mr. Reynolds said finishing in HD is important to this high-tech client. “One hundred percent of the Sprint commercials are finished in HD,” he said. “The competition is high in the technology sector, and it’s a big deal for these clients to have HD-quality commercials.”
Some commercials lend themselves to a video or HD shoot. “Sometimes it’s director-driven, sometimes creative-driven and sometimes budget-driven,” said Matt Bonin, executive producer at Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Boulder, Colo., office. “Maybe 20% of what we do, we go into it aiming to shoot HD.” That includes recent “advertainment” DVDs for Volkswagen and several commercials, including one for burger chain Wendy’s produced by Aymi Beltramo.
“HD hasn’t become an overwhelming or massive choice,” said Mr. Bonin. “When we know we’re going to shoot hours and hours of footage, HD is a very natural choice. And it’s also a good choice for the flexibility of ad lib performance. HD can lend itself to comedy, which is trying to make things real.”
HD is faster to work in than film, Mr. Rossiter said. “You have less reloading of film stock,” he said. “And you can create a much more diverse and filmic look with HD than you could three or four years ago.”
Saatchi & Saatchi New York finishes all its J.C. Penney ads in high definition, said Mr. Perry, because of their placement in prime-time shows that are broadcast in HD. Nonetheless, he said, spots finished in HD account for a mere 10% of all the commercials produced at the agency.
Another factor impacting whether a commercial is finished in HD is the media buy. “If you’re a marketer, you have to make a conscious decision to purchase HD, and then you’ll run it in two places,” said Mr. Bonin. “Right now, 75% of our clients are choosing to air in both places, and for the remaining 25%, I’ll say, ‘Hey guys, it’s time.’”
That’s not the case at every agency. Mr. Rossiter estimates that 50% of the commercials done by Leo Burnett/Chicago are finished in HD, but noted it’s on a client-by-client basis. “For some clients, we’re finishing everything in HD,” he said. “Some aren’t doing any. It’s not that they’re not interested, but there’s not much point broadcasting in HD if it’s not seen by anybody in HD.”
To provide SD and HD versions of the same commercial, the typical method is to finish in HD and down-convert for a standard-definition version, extracting the 4:3 aspect ratio from HD’s wider 16:9 screen. Recalling the old pan-and-scan techniques for transferring wide-screen films to TV’s narrower aspect ratio, some agency creatives shudder at the need to center-cut the HD spot.
“There’s no perfect solution at the moment,” said Mr. Rossiter. “There’s a reason we frame things the way we frame them. We have to be mindful of the two frames, and you wouldn’t frame the same for both. The technology is dictating the compromise in the way we make film.”
In fact, that method doesn’t always work. One Sprint commercial from Goodby Silverstein was based on the concept of a frame surrounded by hands, each holding a phone and texting. Because the images were at the edge of the frame, there was no way to do a center extraction, and shooting two different versions was prohibitively expensive. “We finished in HD for the superior number of pixels,” said Mr. Reynolds. “But we put black pillar boxes on the side so you only see the 4:3 image. It was a 4:3 image with HD quality.”
The debate over whether to finish in hi-def will disappear on Feb. 17, 2009, the date when the FCC has decreed stations must turn off the analog signal and broadcast digitally.
“In the next 12 months, there’ll be a big shift to finishing in HD,” said Mr. Perry. “The fact that there’ll be no analog stations will force people to embrace finishing in HD. But to do so takes more time and money.”
Post-production in high definition has been another issue in the evolution of finishing commercials in the higher-resolution format. When post-production houses first adopted expensive HD gear, they were forced to offset their huge financial output by charging significantly higher prices for HD services. That was off-putting to potential HD clients, but times have changed.
“Everyone [in the post industry] now has the equipment and they’ve been able to amortize it with all their clients,” Mr. Reynolds said. “Some of the smaller clients may be grappling with additional costs, but as an agency, we’re able to leverage our firepower to help with the costs. We’ve made decisions on some productions if [the post house] gives us a deal on our HD deliverables, and we’ve had a couple of vendors say they’d do it for the same cost as SD.”
For the foreseeable future, at least, most commercials will continue to be shot on film unless, said Mr. Perry, “a cool director shoots in HD. It needs to be embraced by somebody we look up to, to be given credibility by someone we respect.”
Mr. Reynolds sees his role as “part of the move to steer clients in [the HD] direction.” “There are a lot of discussions among agency producers on how we can accommodate our clients and deliver in HD,” he said. “It’s important for us to make sure they get the best possible results for the least possible money.”
Though agency creatives may still prefer film as an acquisition medium, the HD broadcast of their labors is welcomed.
“It’s very impressive to see something in HD,” said Mr. Bonin. “It impresses the client. To sit in a bar wired for HD to show sports events, and see your labor of love play out on the big screen with five speakers, you see people stop what they’re doing to watch.”
In an age where ad-skipping is easier than ever, any technology that rivets the viewer to the commercial deserves serious consideration by agencies and their clients.


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