In this month's column, I'd like to comment on a concept brought to me in an exchange with a reader known only as DJ. We had a discussion of the importance of HD delivery mediums, and it was only with his last letter to me that I finally understood his point of view: If HD makes prettier SD, what's all the debate about?
Or to rephrase it, if HD acquisition yields better DVDs, then that's reason enough for DJ to start shooting in HD. Which, to a great extent, is a very important viewpoint. As DJ mentioned to me, "Films are still shot on film even though the final delivery is DVD." I took a moment to point out the "small" matter of national and international theatrical distribution on film, but his point, as I understand it, is valid nonetheless: film acquisition makes better DVDs than SD and even HD acquisition.
So there is more to HD today than upgrading the entire production chain and delivering in HD. In fact, when looking at current prosumer HDV acquisition for HD delivery, we are stepping back in time a bit.
We are going back to an era when production tools did not fully exploit the capabilities of the NTSC standard. Over time, tube cameras were replaced with CCDs, and equipment started to produce 600, 700, 800, and more lines of resolution, finally surpassing what any SD format could deliver. We had SD gear that pushed the quality of NTSC as high as it could go.
Today, it is unlikely that any of us who shoot weddings will do so with the high-end CineAlta or Varicam cameras because they cost too much. Moreover, trying to maintain that resolution through the entire production chain requires us to dramatically step up every single aspect of our production/capture hardware, edit tool, testing gear, monitor, storage capacity, and delivery format repertoire.
To put it simply, that's a lot of time, effort, and money. The market for a "true" HD wedding video is still very small and will likely never pay off the investment in all of that high-end HD gear, let alone bring us additional profit.
So step down to HDV acquisition for HD delivery and we are back in the '80s, when we used cameras that couldn't capture full resolution of the format and the tape format couldn't record a pristine signal. Then, the handicap was a limited analog signal; now, it's heavy digital compression. If we can't really exploit HD for all it's worth on the acquisition or delivery end, how can HDV benefit the average event videographer?
For one thing, it presents the opportunity to maximize SD delivery quality. It also offers you the ability to zoom into an image in post and reframe shots without risking resolution "loss" or pixelation. Now that you're playing with up to six times the resolution of SD, you can go into the frame and have some fun. You will still be above the resolution of your SD delivery medium.Imagine a wedding in 16:9 HDV. I frame the aisle shot to include the best man and maid of honor on either side of the bridal couple. I even include the ring bearer for good measure. HD acquisition enables me to take that widely framed shot and do a slow zoom in post to a close-up of just the bridal couple for the vows. Two shots for the price of one. Then, when the priest calls for the rings, I can cut back to the wider shot that includes the best man. It all comes from the exact same source footage. Nice trick, eh?
Another trick is extreme image stabilization. Software solutions crop the image. You pick a point within the viewable area and the software keeps that point steady by moving the full image around. HD gives you the "extra" image area you need to maintain an oversampled SD image even while zoomed in on digitized video. Just be sure you used a high shutter speed; otherwise, odd motion-blur artifacts will appear from from fast bumps that were only partially eliminated.
If you were to try this with HD delivery, you'd see the same ugly pixelation as you would if you tried to blow up SD footage in an SD project. The trick is to have extra resolution that you can play with. If I zoom halfway into a 1080i image for the close-up described above, my cropped image has 540 vertical lines of resolution. That's still plenty of picture for 720x480 SD. This is what HDV gives the videographers still delivering DVD and VHS.
Keep in mind that if you are providing a center-cropped (i.e., full 4:3) image, that you need to frame your shot with this in mind when shooting HD. Yes, you can shoot wide shots with lots of beautiful detail, but don't put critical people at the edges of your frame unless you are going to provide a letterboxed SD video.
One last benefit to shooting HD now is the ability to iron out the entire HD workflow, gather HD footage, and show clients the best of all the HD footage when they come over to see your demo. I think the best way to sell HD is to show HD in the first place. That's what the retail shops do.
So moving to HD today is more than just HD for HD's sake. It means more tricks in our grab bag. Plus, as consumers slowly move to HD viewing, and HD delivery choices slowly become available, you will have already developed your HD skills and will be ahead of the game. That's a nice place to be.