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Wednesday
Aug112010

HD video in development

HD video is still in its infancy. It didn't get invented yesterday, but relatively speaking it's a pretty new thing. What is newer still is the increasing number of news outlets that are choosing to switch their output to HD which is posing a series of issues.

For those people that own HD television sets, you may have noticed that often the only part of a news program that claims to be in HD that is actually in HD is the anchor in the studio. There could be several reasons for this: the cameras used in the field are not HD (only the studio camera), the video is shot in HD but is not edited in HD because the editing system might handle standard definition pictures better, the video is shot in HD and edited in HD but cannot be sent back to the station in HD, and so it goes on. Often what you see is a video that has been up-converted to HD so it fits into the program being broadcast in 720p, 1080i or whatever other format it might be in.

There are several reasons that TV news outlets are finding it difficult to tackle the transition to HD. And reporters, shooters and editors are often finding that trial and error is the most common way of figuring out what system works best when creating HD news material.

From my experience currently working with several news outlets that have recently switched to HD, or are trialing ways to switch, I have drawn up a list of issues with HD that are causing consternation:

1) Many people in news, even engineers but especially journalists long used to standard definition, do not understand HD. It is fairly complicated, and this post keeps things very basic. But there are many facets of HD video which are mysterious to people, even in the business. 

I have come across journalists who believe that a 16:9 aspect ratio is the same thing as HD! The terms are simply interchangeable, I've been told. This is obviously wrong. 

I've been told to shoot in HD PAL. There is, of course, no such thing as PAL and NTSC in the world of HD - simply variants of HD expressed by frame rate (30fps/25fps) or field rate (60hz/50hz) and so on. For example 1080i60, 1080i50, 1080i30. The native dimensions of HD video do not change; for example, DV-NTSC video is 720x480 pixels while DV-PAL video is 720x576 pixels. But HDV is always natively 1440x1080 pixels.

I've been told that video was going to be shot in HDV by a camera that does not even shoot such a format. The video was actually delivered in XDCAM EX 1080i60. 

When there is such a fundamental confusion about what exactly HD is among those whose job it is to transition to HD, it is very difficult to make that transition.

2) There are too many different types of HD. Just scroll down the list of HD formats supported by Apple software. Because HD is relatively new, there has been no coalescence around a standardized format, and there is unlikely to ever be due to the intense competition between hardware manufacturers like Sony, Canon, JVC and so on. Software is required to render and convert an ever larger number of formats and compressions. And because of this it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the exact video specifications a client is looking for. The client themselves will often not know.

3) There is no consensus on which cameras should become the new standard for HD news shooting. There are a plethora of prosumer cameras on the market that do a decent enough job of shooting HD video of a good enough quality for television news. But they all utilize different types of storage - such as SxS cards, XDCAM disks, mini-DV tapes, direct to harddrives and so on. With different outlets using such a wide array of recording methods, it's becoming increasingly difficult to deliver material in a form that pleases all.

4) The latter point brings me to the issue of storage and archiving. In addition to the problems with all the different kinds of ways that cameras record, the possibly larger issue is that HD video files are simply larger than their standard definition counterparts. This can make archiving difficult. It is possible to store all the material on harddrives but those will fill up fast with HD quality video so it becomes an expensive prospect. Archiving XDCAM disks is not a bad way of storing material shot in that format, but the XDCAM disks are still substantially more expensive than the old betacam tapes, and some stations may decide they need to recycle them where they may not have felt such pressure with the beta tapes.

5) Transmitting HD footage can also be a challenge. Firstly you may need to find a satellite facility that has HD capability. If you work for an outlet that uses ftp delivery then HD files can be far too large to send from the field over often slow internet connections. I have done a lot of experimenting with different compression types [MPEG-2, MPEG-4 parts such as H.264 etc] but I haven't been able to find much of a consensus on which compression codecs result in the least amount of quality loss.

So I throw open the issue of HD for discussion. Many one-man-band television reporters are now shooting in some form of HD or another. I'm interested to hear how you all handle it and your experiences with clients who demand high definition.

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