Like most of you, I read more than one industry magazine. I read several, and more than a few online resources. I also pay attention to trade shows, consumer buzz, and the types of gigs I get hired for. In the process, I've noticed a few trends that one must consider when going the HD route.
For instance, the big buzz I'm hearing of late is all about content for portable media players. Many talk iPod, but most mean the cell phone. Studios and networks are spending time, resources, and considerable money on making content specifically for the small screen—320x240 and smaller.
Then there's the internet. Those online demos are seldom full 1080i HD. Mostly they're 320x240, or some odd raster that presents the video in some wide format. I've seen numerous wedding video demos online and they are impressive without the need for HD. Clean video and good compression rule.
The biggest internet boom is heavily compressed and recompressed video of any variety—YouTube, MySpace, and the like. But when you see silly lip-syncing videos with tens of thousands of views, you really have to pay attention to the metrics that say this stuff is being viewed!
Moreover, in recent months I've been hired to do more and more live internet video webcasts. Multiple-camera, live-switched, squished to quarter-frame, 320x240, and served around the world. It doesn't require a lot of thought to understand that there's no need for HD cameras and switchers. That's a lot of expense and data that will just be thrown away at the end.
In all these cases, it is faster, cheaper, and simpler to stick with SD. This is not to say new cameras aren't being used and different workflows explored. For instance, Chyron, the longtime stalwart of broadcast graphics, is now promoting systems whereby video can be shot with small handheld devices to internal flash media. Then this video can be sent via 3G phone, or carried in person and uploaded to the news servers and used online.
International news operations have long made use of highly compressed video and telephone infrastructure to get video news out of sensitive locations as quickly as possible. Sometimes as troops walked up to confiscate the camera gear, the critical footage was already archived and viewed halfway around the globe.
Similarly, news organizations heavily use hard drives for media as opposed to tape, for the ability to use and edit the video the instant it is uploaded. Then, those archived programs are also made available on the web or earmarked for rebroadcast later on the same station or even on a sister station.
So one must wonder about the value of HD in a highly compressed, shrinking-screen world.
These small-screen videos are, by and large, short. Some as short as 30 seconds, some as long as a few minutes—music video length. True, Apple and others are selling TV shows and movies specifically for portable media players. Those devices do have their place—like the airplane, the train, and other confined spaces where there's not much else to do for an extended period of time. You certainly aren't using your 17'' widescreen laptop in coach class on the airplane.
But those moments in cramped quarters are not how we spend our lives, and certainly not how we choose to enjoy our media. Those uses are primarily intended to take us away—make us forget that we're trapped in the economy seat on the plane, the smooshed corner on the train, or the long line at the bank.
The majority of media is still consumed in far more comfortable locations. These are places where people deliberately choose to get comfortable on the couch and pop in that movie, cue up their favorite show, or enjoy the video of their special event. These locations have become far more home theater-like. Sound systems are much better. Screens much larger, wider, and higher-resolution.
When we make media for these locations, it is imperative that we step above the systems we use for cell phones, webcasts, and online video. The cleanest SD video, if not de facto use of HD, is required. Solutions for delivering this HD are on their way. Software to burn to available Blu-ray and HD DVD burners is shipping, and it is just a matter of time before the full-fledged authoring programs handle the new HD discs as easily as DVD±R discs.
HD is a tool, just like a light on a stand. If you want to illuminate a warehouse, you'll be using a 5K or 10K HMI. If you need to illuminate a single face for an interview, you'll use something smaller and softer.
Similarly, if you are shooting for small-screen delivery, SD will easily suffice. But if you are shooting for broadcast or for direct delivery of long-form video to be enjoyed at home, then the HD camera is the one you should be reaching for today.
HD tools are continually changing. Most are able to shoot both SD and HD, meaning you can use one camera for both applications. This maximizes your investment and enables you to build your HD workflow and get any kinks ironed out before you book that big HD video gig. It is often said that the best time to start looking for a job is when you already have one, and that applies to those of us who work on contract even more than our salaried counterparts.
Similarly, the best time to start working in HD is when you don't need to.
Anthony Burokas of IEBA Communications, a self-confessed "gadget guy," has been an event videographer for more than 15 years. He has shot award-winning video internationally and is technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America.