Major manufacturers have agreed on an HDV standard, and camcorders are shipping from JVC. But what do early adopters have to say about their initial real-world exposure to hi-def's new prosumer option?
In the world of digital camcorders, HD and DV have traditionally been at opposite ends of the spectrum. But JVC—recently joined by Canon, Sharp, and Sony—is working to change that with the HDV format, which blends elements of HD and DV to bring high-definition resolution within reach of videographers and prosumers. The four companies jointly proposed the HDV format in July and announced an agreement at the end of September. But even before the others formally signed on, JVC had begun rollout of two HDV camcorder models.
It's still too soon to assess the long-term impact of the new format on production in areas such as institutional video—corporate, educational, government, etc.—and event videography. But as early adopters begin to get some field experience with JVC's offerings, their first impressions provide some initial indication of the format's strengths and weaknesses.
What is HDV?
The basic appeal of HDV is that it allows an hour of HD video—compliant with the ATSC broadcast DTV standard—to be recorded with a moderately priced handheld camcorder on standard MiniDV videocassettes. JVC has introduced two models, the GR-HD1 for high-end consumers ($3499 list) and the JYHD-10U for professionals ($3995 list). The GR-HD1 has been offered on the Web (by an authorized dealer) for as little as $2000, a tiny fraction of any previous HD option. Not surprisingly, there's a great deal of curiosity about whether the format delivers the real deal or is HD in name only.
While widely reported, the general outlines of the JVC units bear repeating here (for full JYHD-10U specifications, see www.jvc.com/promotions/grhd1/professional/spec.html). Image capture on the camcorders begins with a lens that JVC describes as having "light gathering ability that varies between just f1.8 and f1.9" across the 10X range of the optical zoom. The heart of the system is a single 1/3" 1.18-million-pixel (1.14 million effective) progressive scan CCD. Also included on both models are optical image stabilization (lens shift system) and a rotating grip section (up to 90 degrees). The enhanced feature set of the JYHD-10U includes a 3.5" high-resolution 2 Megapixel LCD monitor, a color viewfinder, dual XLR audio inputs that support unbalanced input, an audio input level indicator on the LCD monitor, and a built-in Color Bar Generator.
The camcorders offer three recording modes. HD mode ("720/30p") is 1280x720 (16:9) resolution at 30 frames per second (progressive) using MPEG-2 compression with a six-frame group of pictures (GOP). SD Mode ("480/60p") also uses MPEG-2, capturing 720x480 (16:9) at 60fps (progressive). Audio in both modes is MPEG-1, Layer 2 16-bit Stereo at 384Kbps. At 19.7Mbps, the multiplexed video/audio signal recorded in both HD and SD modes offers about twice the bandwidth of the DVD-Video format. In DV Mode, meanwhile, the camcorders record conventional NTSC (DV-25 compression) with 16-bit PCM for two-channel audio and 12-bit for four channels.
A number of options are available for transfer and playback of recorded footage, starting with basic analog S/composite output. Built-in upconversion/downconversion capabilites yield four analog component output options compatible with a variety of display devices: NTSC (480 at 29.97fps interlaced), 4:3 ATSC (480 at 59.94fps progressive), and 16:9 ATSC at both 720p/60fps and 1080i/30fps (from HD Mode recordings only). Digital I/O is via iLink (a.k.a. FireWire or IEEE 1394), allowing output of 480i in NTSC DV-25, plus either 480/60p or 720/30p in an ATSC-compatible MPEG-2 transport stream (MPEG-2-TS) that is also compatible with the MTRM standard JVC uses for D-VHS.
Bridging the Stream
It wouldn't make much sense to buy either of JVC's HDV camcorders primarily for DV, so the major questions about the format relate to ATSC capabilities: how "good" is the footage, and what can be done with it after it's shot? The latter question arises because HDV's MPEG-2 digital output takes the form of a transport stream rather than a program stream. Both stream types are multiplexed collections of packetized video and audio elementary streams. But transport streams use a second layer of packetizing for increased protection against data loss in less reliable transmission environments such as DTV broadcasting. Because working directly with transport streams hasn't previously been of great interest in post-production, HDV isn't immediately usable with most NLEs, which work with elementary video and audio streams.
JVC bridges this gap in part by bundling a free MPEG-2 HD editing software package, MPEG Edit Studio Pro LE. The company describes the software as "the first con- sumer MPEG-2-TS software to provide frame accurate editing capabilities for digital hi-def images." The Windows XP-only package also facilitates conversion to program streams for burning of 16:9 progressive video to DVD with the bundled ImageMixer DVD program, as well as the output of HD content to D-VHS. Given that JVC's model 3000 D-VHS recorder is available for about $400, D-VHS is an attractive option for archiving HDV as well as for playback of edited HDV at full captured resolution.
JVC recognizes the limitations of its bundled "basic video-editing package," and recommends that professional customers utilize "more fully featured" applications. As of this writing, the list of alternatives that can work with MPEG-2 transport streams (as opposed to program streams) is fairly short, though it should grow as HDV catches on. One option in Windows is to capture to PC with JVC's included HD Capture Utility, then edit in Vegas Video 4.0 or Vegas+DVD from Sony Pictures Digital. Another choice is CineForm's Aspect HD ($1200), now shipping for Adobe Premiere 6.5 and soon to ship for Premiere Pro. Cineform describes Aspect HD as a real-time video engine allowing Premiere users to edit four or more streams of HD with transitions, motion, and color adjustment on "a standard fast PC" without adding special hardware.
Ulead has announced that the ability to work with HDV will be integrated across its line of professional video and DVD software, starting with HDV support in MediaStudio Pro 7 by the end of 2003. And Canopus is listed on the HDV site (www.hdv-info.org) as a "supporter" of the format, suggesting that tools will be forthcoming from that camp as well.
On the Macintosh, the QuickTime 6 MPEG-2 Playback Component included with Final Cut Pro 4 supports program streams, but not transport streams. For now, that means that FCP users will have to turn to third parties to enable HDV editing. One possibility is the Heuris Pro Indie HD Toolkit for HDV, a $4,785 Mac OS X bundle that includes the Xtractor HDV import tool ($199 separately), the XtoHD DVHS export tool ($99 separately), and the MPEG Power Professional-DTVHD encoder plugin for QT. Another OS X option is the $325 HDVcinema Pro software from Digital Video Consulting (http://home.earthlink.net/~dvcnyc/HD1_HD10.htm), which enables Final Cut Pro to work with the HDV footage the same way it does with DV.
We're still in the early days of HDV, and assuming the market expands, we can expect additional vendors to jump onto the bandwagon. Forums on sites such as Camcorderinfo.com (www.camcorderinfo. com/bbs/forumdisplay.php?forumid=20) and Yahoo (http://groups.yahoo.com/ group/JVC-HDCAMS) offer an alternative resource for hearing about developments, and for advice on coping with limitations in the meantime.
So, on to the core question: what kind of quality can you get shooting HDV footage under real-world conditions? Given that the camcorders have only been available for purchase for a few months and are not widely rented, it's actually not terribly easy to find a big cross-section of experienced end-users. Among those who've had plenty of exposure to the camcorders is Robert Shuster, who owns DV rental house Hollywood Studio Rentals (HSR) in Burbank, California. "I was lucky to have received the very first batch of HD10s in the United States," Shuster says. "We recognized the huge potential for an HD handheld device and its impact on the industry."
Shuster says he has recently been executive-producing motion picture and television content shot with the JY-HD10. "We've not only rented and sold the HD10 since day one, but have also produced commercials, short-subject work, long-form features, extreme sports, reality, underwater, and network sitcoms with them."
HSR's most ambitious HDV work to date is a sitcom called Hollywood Alive, shot on three JY-HD10. "We took a big-ticket approach," Shuster says, "hiring well-known Emmy-award winning crew mem- bers and cinematographers. We had a crew of 20 along with 15 cast members. Every element—lighting, sound, everything—was the same as if it were any other network sitcom, except for the camera. While the cost of such a production is many tens-of-thousands of dollars, we saved big by using the HD10."
Shuster is excited not only about the opportunities HDV allows, but also with the quality he sees at playback. "The biggest strength of the HD10 is its image capturing," he says. "The HD image is significantly better than any SD camera—just A/B and the difference is obvious. And when you see real HD on a 50-inch HD plasma display, you will be absolutely blown away. You can't stop staring."
Shuster's assessment of the image is shared by Phil Di Marino, president of Colornet, an independent video and multimedia house in Stockton, California. Di Marino, who began his career producing video for PBS in 1983, says, "The quality really is breathtaking and needs to be seen to be believed. My JY-HD10 was still wet when I got it in late July. I have never looked back, nor have I even picked up my wonderful old Canon XL1 DV camcorder."
So far, Di Marino, has used the JY-HD10 for a self-promotional piece—A Day in San Francisco—and is in the process of recording the "titanic production" of the new San Francisco Bay Bridge in a Stockton facility. The experience hasn't been without its challenges. "My beloved Canon XL1 was very forgiving," he says. "I could even hand-hold and the automatic setting usually was all I needed. And new crew members could get good results quickly."
With the JY-HD10, which Di Marino always uses in HD Mode, the process is a bit more laborious. "I shoot on manual," he says, "though it does have automatic settings. And I always use a level tripod. I set the exposure for every shot, just as you would for a still camera. I do a lot of cut-aways rather than pans, zooms, or tilts. That means I shoot the same take more than once, since the sky will be one exposure and the ground another. You've really got to watch your shutter speed."
Overall, Di Marino says, "shooting with the JY-HD10 is not as easy as shooting DV, and it doesn't have the features of a $100,000 HD camera. But it's very much worth it. You can learn to improve your footage by adjusting gamma, gain, curve, et cetera in editing. And the format is truly filmic. I don't even think in 4:3 anymore; it is all 16:9 HD or nothing. The quality really is breathtaking and needs to be seen to be believed. You can do productions you could not even attempt in DV. So it makes me a competitor in a field that I was excluded from."
Shuster agrees that the JY-HD10 is "a bit more operator-intensive" because "many of the features found in other cameras have been traded for the image-versus-price balance." HSR's rental activities, however, have made it feasible to develop workarounds to some of the unit's shortcomings. "We are pleased to have created different devices and solutions, both mechanical and electrical, to compensate for out-of-the-box simplifications. We now offer follow-focus systems, zoom controllers, and several sound solutions, to name just a few."
Even so, Shuster says, "the lack of some features—cine-gamma, knee control, non-specific focus ring endpoints—have held back the HD10's infiltration somewhat. Documentarians, TV, and sports have embraced the unit to cut costs without sacrificing image quality. But filmmakers have been the hardest folk to sell."
Filmmaker Sean Adair, owner of Adair Productions in New York City, has had the JY-HD10 for about three months. He's so far used it only for test and sample presentation work, but he's quite impressed with the image quality in HD mode. "Under optimal shooting conditions," he says, "there is an awesome, obvious increase over any NTSC-originated footage. But you only see it when the footage is viewed on an HD monitor. So the only situation this camera is appropriate for is where the final viewing is on a dedicated HDTV display or HD projection."
On the other hand, Adair, who has spent the last couple decades making mostly documentary films and corporate and industrial videos, says that the camera is "very poor, comparable only to sub-$1000 consumer camcorders" for shooting standard DV. And he sees compromises in the camcorder's design. "There are no manual audio levels," he says, "though auto is decent. There's no real manual exposure control—the manual mode only gives under/over meter—but auto is good. But exposure latitude is narrow. The camera requires significantly higher light levels than Digi-Beta, Pro DV, or DV camcorder systems. The light must also be flatter. It cannot handle the highlight/ shadow ratios of any of those other formats."
The camcorder's less forgiving response to light is not necessarily inherent to the HDV format, but is rather a reflection JVC's own design choices. "The limitations in light-handling would most probably be handled better with three larger chips," says Adair, while Di Marino points out that "you are not going to get a 3-CCD HD camera for $4K. You can save $96K by learning how to expose correctly, and you can tweak that still more in editing." Shuster, meanwhile, rejects the CCD connection completely. "We needed 3-CCDs when they came out about fifteen years ago, but not now. The new ‘single' chips are actually three imaging sensors deep, while the ancient 3-CCD technique is really very old technology."
A world of options In other areas that might potentially restrict the camcorder's professional utility, Shuster says lensing, while not removable, "has an entire world of options, from fisheyes to wides to telephotos. So there's no limitation there." As for editing, Shuster says that his Burbank location is set up to "rip through the work with perfect results. We run a jazzed-up P4 with a gig of RAM, a dual-800mHz board, a terabyte of SCSI ATA storage, and Premiere 6.5 with Cineform Aspect HD."
Output is also "a breeze," Shuster says. "We master the whole project to D-VHS via FireWire right from the computer. We then feed our AJA HD10A [10-bit analog to digital converter] the YPbPr analog component signal from the D-VHS deck, and it converts it to HD-SDI. Along with the stereo audio from the S/AV cable, we drop that right into our Sony HDW-500 HDCAM VTR. Voilà: a completed HD project the broadcasters can use, and will pay for."
Of course, not everyone has an HDCAM VTR, or would want to go through a digital-to-analog-to-digital conversion process. But depending on the situation in which the edited footage is ultimately to be viewed, there would be many other options. Adair, for instance, is focused on the market for presentations in areas such as "promotional material for establishments with HD plasma monitors, and events with HD projection. I believe the camcorder will allow me to give clients the ‘WOW!' factor at budgets more appropriate to these situations."
Di Marino, meanwhile, is concentrating on the filmmaking potential. "I always wanted to make movies, not just video," he says. "This camera actually does allow you to make movies. It's not a new tool, it is just the first affordable tool that allows access to people who already want to see everything in 16:9. Just as the digital camera has all but replaced 35mm cameras, HDV is putting movie-making in your hands, a place you can't get to in 4:3 DV. DV is done; put a fork in it."
While somewhat less sweeping in his assessment, Shuster agrees that the JY-HD10 has "opened up an entirely new world were everyone can play on an even playing field." But he also offers an additional rationale for the camcorder that has less to do with artistic vision and more with his take on the realities of the business. "Perhaps the most compelling reason to buy the HD10," he says, "is that your competition is using it. And their HD content is worth more than your SD content."
Companies Mentioned in this Article
Adobe Systems, Inc. www.adobe.com
Apple Computer, Inc. www.apple.com
Canon U.S.A., Inc. www.canonusa.com
Cineform, Inc. www.cineform.com
HEURIS Logic Inc. www.heuris.com
Hollywood Studio Rentals www.hollywoodstudiorentals.com
JVC Company of America www.jvc.com
Sharp Electronics Corporation www.sharpelectronics.com
Sony Electronics www.sonystyle.com
Sony Pictures Digital www.mediasoftware.sonypictures.com
Ulead Systems, Inc. www.ulead.com