HD Production on a Dime
Posted Apr 21, 2006

We all know HD is the future of video production, but the cost of entry can be prohibitive. If you're not rolling in dough, don't despair. There are other options--namely, the budget HD workflow. In this article, we'll help you understand HD basics, as well as examine some workflow options that won't break your bank, starting with the camera and ending with the finished product.
     High-definition production is spreading. From football games and local parade coverage to network mini-series and feature films, this format is changing the way our industry approaches production. Whether you're looking to take your wedding business to a new level of quality, angling for competitive advantage with corporate clients, hoping to produce your own indie film, or just trying to stay on top of the industry, familiarity with the HD format is a must. You never know when you might be called upon to make use of it.

But don't try to jump on the bandwagon without knowing what you're in for. While those big production houses may be touting their high-def capabilities, they're also paying big money for those bragging rights. Just purchasing the HD camera has the potential of costing you close to $80,000—and that doesn't even include other necessities like a deck, monitor, or editing system.

If you're not rolling in dough, don't despair. There are other options—namely, the budget HD workflow. The increasingly popular HDV format is one cost-effective option, but it's not the only one, and an HDV camera alone won't make you an HD producer. In this article, we'll help you understand HD basics, as well as examine your workflow options, starting with the camera and ending with the finished product.

Finding a Format

You can't choose a camera without knowing which format best fits your needs. Here's a rundown of the more popular formats:

DVCPRO HD: Based on the standard-def DVCPRO format, Panasonic's DVCPRO HD uses a data rate of 120Mbps and intraframe compression, both of which provide strong protection against generational loss. DVCPRO HD also has supporting cameras and decks that use FireWire I/O, an important feature when keeping an eye on your bottom line. But the cost of equipment isn't exactly cheap. DVCPRO HD is a solid professional format, and as such, commands those solid professional prices—in some cases, $80,000 or more. The lower-cost exception is the new HVX200 camera from Panasonic. More on that later.

HDCAM: Sony's HDCAM format is based on DigiBeta and can record in 24p, 25p, 50i, and 60i. It uses a high data rate of 140Mbps, producing a great-looking picture with few noticeable artifacts. Because of its unusual 17:6:6 color-sampling scheme, HDCAM's color detail is half of DVCPRO HD. But don't let that lead you to believe the picture isn't as good. On the contrary, Sony's CineAlta cameras are top-of-the-line, used for feature filmmaking and high-end production.

One significant barrier to the use of HDCAM in budget editing is its lack of FireWire support. The only HDCAM output options are HD-SDI or HD-SDTI, both of which are much pricier than a FireWire solution.

HDV: There's a lot of buzz surrounding HDV right now as the newcomer into the HD marketplace. With its high compression rates, HDV has enabled high-quality shooting and editing with low-cost tools, including the convenience of recording high-definition video to MiniDV tape. This has opened up the HD field to a wide variety of videographers and producers who would never have even considered going high-def otherwise.

The biggest drawback to choosing this route is also HDV's greatest strength—high compression. Both audio and video can suffer from too much compression. The audio is, in theory, not quite up to CD quality, though some users report that they're perfectly happy with it. Just as with using a DV camera, if pristine audio is important to your production, use a DAT or some other separate recording device to get the best quality.

On the video end of things, your shot can be plagued by compression artifacts when trying to capture complex moving shots. HDV also has some tendencies to degrade over multiple generations. Are these tradeoffs worth the cost savings? It all depends on what you're looking for and where you want your production to end up. With careful handling, an HDV camera can produce some pretty stellar-looking stuff. Just do your homework ahead of time. As with anything in life, the more you know, the better off you are.

Nothing but Numbers

When manufacturers list the specs on their cameras, an important thing to look for is the resolution numbers and frame rates. For example, if 720p is listed, the 720 indicates the vertical resolution, which is actually 1280 horizontal lines by 720 vertical lines, while the p specifies progressive. Progressive is basically the opposite of interlaced. Instead of the video frame being divided into two offset fields, it is now a complete picture, containing all the visual data. Instead of the p, an i (as in 1080i) might be listed, specifying interlaced frames.

Other HD resolutions include 1080i and 1080p, which at full spec is 1920x1080, as well as 4k, or 4046 x 2048, the highest-available HD resolution. As a budget HD producer, you don't really have to worry about 4k. With rental rates starting at $3,000 per day, a camera that can produce this type of picture probably won't be your first choice for recording a graduation.

Looking at Cameras

Speaking of cameras, let's take a look at where the technical-spec rubber meets the production-workflow road. Here are some of the camera options available in each of the different formats.

HDV: JVC, Sony, and Canon all produce HDV cameras of various stripes and abilities. The JVC HD100U ($5,995 list) shoots 720p, has a true 24p frame rate, provides a professional-looking form factor, and sports the ability to change out lenses. Sony's two popular HDV cameras are the HDR-FX1 ($3,995) and the HVR-Z1U ($4,995). Both of them shoot 1080i only and provide pseudo-24p. The XL H1 ($8,999) is Canon's addition to the HDV roundup. It provides HD-SDI output and gives you the option of interchangeable lenses. Like Sony, it shoots 1080i without true 24p capabilities (interesting, because its SD antecedent, the XL2, had a true progressive 24-frame mode). All of these cameras are 3CCD models (the baseline for professional camcorders), and all sport professional-level XLR audio inputs, with the exception of the HDR-FX1. Sony also has single-chip HDV cameras; the consumer HC1, which is a miniature version of the FX1; and the A1U, a junior version of the Z1U.

DVCPRO HD: At the budget end of the Panasonic spectrum is the new AG-HVX200 ($5,995 without storage cards). This widely hyped camera does away with tape-based HD recording and instead records HD to either the solid-state memory P2 cards or to an attached hard drive. It has the ability to shoot all above-mentioned HD resolutions (except 4k, of course!), plus DVCPRO 50 and DV25. It records DV25 to tape, but DVCPRO 50 is captured on the P2 cards or the optional attached hard drive. The maximum size of currently available P2 cards is 8GB at a cost of $1,400; these will hold about eight minutes of 1080p DVCPRO HD.

Another one of Panasonic's popular HD units is the $70,000 Varicam, which shoots at 720p. A distinctive feature of the Varicam is its ability to shoot at variable frame rates, ranging from 4-60 fps at 1-fps intervals. These different frame rates allow you to achieve a look similar to that of under-cranking or over-cranking a film camera. The HVX200 offers similar Varicam abilities in a less expensive camera with smaller chips and cheaper glass.

HDCAM: Sony groups their HDCAM cameras under the CineAlta name. They cover a wide range of prices and features, ranging from two recently released XDCAM HD models, F330 ($16,800) and F350 ($25,800), to the widely used F950. The XDCAM HD cameras record directly onto Sony's Professional Disc media, which is physically similar to, but not compatible with, consumer Blu-ray discs. These cameras can record various quality levels of 1080i and 1080p, plus regular SD DVCAM. Unlike other Sony HD cameras, The XDCAM HD supports i.LINK (FireWire) for file access and DV output.

Near the high end of Sony HD solutions is found the F900, retailing for approximately $81,000. It captures both 1080p and 1080i at various frame rates, including 25p and 50i.

From Camera to Edit Bay

Once you've chosen a camera to acquire your HD footage, it's time to look at editing solutions. Unless you've already invested big bucks in a powerful system, you're probably going to have to make some upgrades.

Some of the basics that apply across the board include minimum CPU speeds of 3GHz for PCs and dual 1GHz CPUs for Macs; hard drives capable of handling the format data rate plus 20%; capture cards with appropriate I/O jacks; and editing software that has support for your chosen format's codec. Now let's get specific and take a look at what type of system an editor needs:

HDV: HDV's data rate is very low—19Mbps (megabits per second) for 720p HD1 and 25Mbps for 1080i HD2. This means you can use an external FireWire or USB drive, as well as your video drive that's already in place. In short, if your drive and CPUs can handle DV, then they can probably handle HDV. Avid Xpress Pro and Liquid, Final Cut Pro 5, Premiere Pro 2, and Vegas are just some of the programs that support native HDV editing.

HDV uses LongGOP MPEG-2 transport streams, which means that each frame of encoded and compressed video that you see is actually part of a group of pictures, which are not immediately editable. HDV uses interframe compression, which means that two frames per second contain every single pixel in the image, and the others are compressed to include mostly reference information to redundancies with the complete frames. DV, by contrast, uses intraframe compression, which means that every frame is complete and ready for editing. Native editing means the software can directly edit the MPEG-2 stream using an algorithm that makes all the frames available for editing. Often some encoding takes place before output at the points where edits and effects have been done, which can make this approach processor-intensive. The latest versions of Avid Liquid, Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas, and Ulead Media Studio Pro have gone this route.

But just because an NLE claims to be native doesn't mean it is. Some programs, like Apple Final Cut Pro 5, completely decode the footage from MPEG-2 into an intermediary codec that can be easily edited, then encode the timeline back to MPEG-2 for output. Others put the encoded footage directly in the timeline and allow you to edit it, but then will only run it off after every frame has been decoded and encoded again. The disadvantage of the intermediary codec approach is the additional decoding/ encoding generation and the fact that these codecs generally produce enormous files which can be cumbersome to edit.

DVCPRO HD: The data rate for DVCPRO HD is 40Mbps when recording 720/24p from P2 cards, but when capturing from tape, it jumps up to 120Mbps. Most SATA hard drives and external FireWire and USB drives can probably handle the data flow, but if you're planning on doing complex editing, consider a SATA RAID array. There are inexpensive options for putting one of these together yourself, and the extra storage and increased data-read/write speed is worth the money.

Actual editing software to use? Avid Xpress Pro HD will edit HD video only on PC systems—Mac HD support is not yet available, though it is promised to be forthcoming. With the latest Xpress Pro HD update, Avid supports the 720p and 1080i codec flavors natively, but requires rendering to the DNxHD codec before working with 1080p/24 or 720p/23.976 footage. Adobe Premiere can work with DVCPRO HD, but only with additional hardware such as Cineform's Aspect HD or the Matrox Axio system. Final Cut Pro promises native editing for all flavors of the DVCPRO HD, while Sony's Vegas allows you to capture HD of all stripes only if using an SDI input.

HDCAM: If you're using XDCAM HD, then you'll need the ability to use i.LINK (FireWire), an Ethernet connection, a deck that reads Professional Disc media, or the ability to capture HD-SDI. For the other CineAlta cameras, you'll definitely need an HD-SDI capture card, such as the AJA Xena HS or the Blackmagic DeckLink HD Pro.

Again, remember that HDCAM has higher data rates than the other HD formats we've discussed, so you'll probably need a RAID array to edit effectively. Companies like ProMax or Videoguys sell pre-built arrays. If saving money is your goal, you can build your external SATA RAID by using MacGurus' Burly Box DIY kit.

The HDCAM format is not supported by Premiere Pro or Avid Xpress Pro HD. Final Cut Pro can't support it natively either, but an HD-SDI input is supported through the use of third-party products such as Blackmagic DeckLink HD Pro and AJA Kona 2. Sony's XPri editor and Vegas software are both able to work with HDCAM.

Finishing Options

Once you've shot, captured, and edited your HD masterpiece, what next? HD finishing options are very limited and very pricey. If you want to retain full quality, you can finish on an HD mastering format such as HDCAM, DVCPRO HD, or D-5. To accomplish this, you'll have to rent a deck and buy the needed tape stock. One-day rental of a DVCPRO HD deck with FireWire I/O is approximately $700. Using an HD format for mastering is really only feasible if your client has the ability to play back your chosen media.

What about DVDs? The current DVD format isn't able to hold enough HD footage to make it a viable option. That's why Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, Microsoft, and others are pushing forward competing high-definition optical storage/ playback media standards HD DVD and Blu-ray.

The HD DVD format shares the same diameter and thickness of current DVDs yet has a much higher storage capacity of 30GB. When it was first introduced, HD DVD seemed to have an edge on the market, probably because it is an expansion of, not a radical change to current technology. HD DVD systems are reportedly able to play current DVDs. For replication houses, DVD and HD DVD production is easily switched back and forth.

With storage capacities roughly five times more than DVD and two-thirds more than HD DVD, Blu-ray discs win the prize for most storage room. A dual-layer disc can hold up to 54GB, and a prototype 100GB version is in production. While these discs (referred to as BD discs) are not naturally compatible with the current DVD technology, Blu-ray enjoys vastly more manufacturing support than HD DVD at this point, with Pioneer, Panasonic, and Sony, among others, backing it while Toshiba stands virtually alone behind HD DVD.

Which format will consumers adopt? It's too early in the game to say right now, but the battle has definitely heated up. Hollywood studios are riding the fence, releasing upcoming titles in both HD DVD and Blu-ray. As a video producer, you'll want to choose the format implementation that will be most accessible to your target market. Over the next year, a winner should hopefully begin to emerge and you'll be able to make an informed decision. And until then? Shoot on HD to future-proof your client, and once a technology becomes standardized, provide them the HD version on disc.

For HDV footage, JVC has a creative distribution option for your high-end clients. They've manufactured a DVD player, the SDVD-100U, which can read HDV content on DVDs and output the signal to any HD-capable monitor or LCD screen. It is also able read standard-definition DVDs, and will up-convert playback to HD. Once you've sold your clients on the HDV package, simply include the price of the DVD player into your estimate. At the end of the project, you can give them the HDV DVD, plus a DVD player to view it on. If they have an HDTV set, then they'll appreciate the added touch.

Looking at the Future

The world of HD production is still very much in the pioneering stage. Even large organizations have workflow problems and delivery issues, so don't expect to jump into the field unscathed. Yet in spite of the headaches that may be awaiting you, there is also huge opportunity. HDTV is most definitely the future for our viewing audiences. If you don't choose to become involved in learning the HD technology now, you might find yourself playing serious catch-up later. Don't get left behind—invest in the future of your business by learning the future of the industry.