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Tech Talk: High Definition Hot Docs

At this year’s Hot Docs, it became clear that broadcasters are insisting on upgrading quickly to HD (high definition). They’re starting to enforce higher standards on producers that will “future- proof” the documentaries they purchase. Images will have to withstand the blow up on a big TV screen.

This goes beyond the delivery format. Broadcasters are favouring film or HD video cameras, which have high-end specs. For now, some will consider non-HD cameras, but they have to be widescreen and good enough to withstand an upgrade to HD.

Small 1/3” chip HD camcorders may not be acceptable as a principle image source—even the Sony HDV HDR-FX1 camcorder, which records on Mini DV tape and the new Panasonic HVX-200, which uses memory cards. Pictures from these cameras might look great on set, but according to reps from Alliance Atlantis, when those images are compressed by post-production and cable/satellite companies onto a big screen, the low price of the camera shows itself with inferior pictures.

Alliance Atlantis (AA), which operates 19 specialty channels including History, Life and HGTV, created a list of acceptable cameras and formats in July, even though at that time, none of their channels was HD. At present, they limit the use of HDV or any small cameras. Sony Canada is working on gaining a little more flexibility, because originally AA based their list on format specs rather than real pictures. A Sony representative believes their new cameras perform better than the specs, and they are watching carefully as AA does some actual camera tests. Sony feels there is a place for smaller cameras and DOPs should have a choice of cameras to deal with different situations.

As a cameraman, I feel that it’s a good thing that AA has an agenda to keep professionals behind the camera. Small automatic cameras have a reputation of being so easy to use that anyone on the crew can shoot with them and AA does not agree with this practice.

If you’re a producer, what should you do? You must plan ahead, especially if your production has a completion date one or two years from now. Consult with your broadcaster, camera and post people to help choose an appropriate format. There are many to choose from, especially with the introduction of new HD cameras this year. There is also the issue of 720 or 1080 HD delivery specs. Hopefully, the networks will pay more to cover higher HD costs.

If you don’t have a broadcaster, it would be smart to invest in a high-end HD camera format. This will create a guaranteed market for the long run, as well as stock shot sales. It might even give your show a competitive edge because of a demand for high-end HD product. With HD, the conversion to PAL is much better than NTSC.

Some other broadcaster info:
CTV (which includes Discovery Canada HD and TSN) is ahead on HD programming. Presently, their HD shows which are made for prime time, are shot on film or HDCAM.
NHK pioneered HD programming as early as 1982. Most of their HD docs are shot on large cameras, but they are willing to consider small ones “for war zones and if you are following someone for a long time.”
Discovery Channel (U.S.) has very strict standards for HD. They even question the use of Super 16mm film, which is a difficult format to qualify. Unlike a specific video camera, Super 16mm is a film stock, making it hard to govern the image quality. Kodak is working with Discovery to prove that Super 16mm is well above the standards required because Discovery’s attitude is affecting the reputation of 16mm for HD with other broadcasters. Updates are ongoing: Discovery HD has announced acceptance of Sony’s XDCAM HD.
PBS has a “Red Book” with DTV requirements. PBS member station, WETA, producer of the series, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer just announced that it will be using Sony’s new XDCAM HD system. One thing PBS (and others) requires is an NTSC version of the HD show which, for now, is another cost factor for producers.

For more information on HDTV go to http://www.cdtv.ca, which is a not-for-profit Canadian TV industry organization, dedicated to providing information regarding the transition to HDTV in Canada.