Book Review: Douglas Spotted Eagle’s HDV: What You Need to Know, 2nd ed. (The Complete Guide)
When the first edition of Douglas Spotted Eagle's HDV: What You Need to Know appeared in late 2004, many event videographers weren't sure they needed to know anything about the nascent high-definition video acquisition format. Sure, the FCC's HDTV mandate was a looming inevitability, but still a far-off one, and without an HD-capable successor to DVD in place, it was virtually impossible to imagine any reasonable client demanding that her wedding or event video be delivered in HD. And of course the idea of being able to record HD video on cheap and ubiquitous MiniDV tape using cameras with prosumer-level prices sounded quite compelling. But the only HDV camera on the market at the time, JVC's overpriced and under-featured single-chip HD10, barely qualified as a prosumer camera; if this is HDV, many event shooters likely thought, I'm sticking with my VX2000 or XL2 until something better comes along.
The good news was, something much better was coming along—Sony's rock-solid HDR-FX1 and HVR-Z1U, and the viable market they ushered in—and HDV: What You Need to Know was a harbinger of the HDV era that began in earnest in early 2005. Spotted Eagle's book described in lucid prose and solid technical detail what HDV was and how it promised to redefine small-studio video production, sized up the products that would begin to populate the field, and explained how videographers could benefit from adopting HDV acquisition even in the absence of a mainstream HD delivery format.
Mid-2006 brought the second edition of Spotted Eagle's HDV: What You Need to Know (this time subtitled The Complete Guide). The author's place in the HDV world was already well-assured by much more than the first edition of the book. As one of the principals of VASST and Sundance Media Group, Spotted Eagle has provided not only hands-on live training in HDV and related technologies around the world, but produced some of the leading DVD-based training tools in the market, and developed many key workflow-enhancement plug-ins. Although most closely identified with their Sony Vegas training and workflow products, VASST's, well, vast array of current training titles run the gamut of popular NLEs; the Absolute Training series alone includes a seven-volume set of DVDs designed to educate users in the intermediate-to-advanced use of Apple's Final Cut Studio and the assortment of tools therein.
The second edition of HDV: What You Need To Know greets an HDV world that's similarly multifaceted, with a number of HDV cameras at multiple price points and varied feature sets comprising the landscape; popular prosumer NLEs from Adobe, Apple, Avid, Grass Valley, and Sony embracing the format; and all kinds of accessories in the market that have been designed with HDV in mind. Spotted Eagle's Complete Guide to HDV meets that market with a book that is in fact three books in one: targeted technology overview, buyer's guide, and—most importantly—focused field guide for DV producers making the jump to HDV.
Essential to the positioning of the book is that it assumes you've worked professionally with DV in the past, and want to hit the ground running with HDV, making immediate adjustments to your shooting style and production and postproduction workflows as needed to accommodate the differences between the two formats, and to take immediate advantage of HDV as a higher-resolution and inherently widescreen format, even if your ultimate delivery medium is SD DVD. Which is not to say the book is limited to the HDV-to-DVD workflow; far from it. But Spotted Eagle makes it clear from the outset that HDV acquisition will benefit your work regardless of whether you begin delivering in HD today, next year, or even before you make your next camera upgrade.
The Bigger Picture
One of the key advantages of HDV acquisition, even for videographers who are delivering in DVD or another SD format, is that when you work with HDV in post, you have a lot more wiggle room in an HD image to re-frame or tighten a shot without encountering unwelcome pixelation. In a way, HDV What You Need To Know works a little like a wide HDV image shot from the back of an event venue that's ultimately zoomed in post for an equally crisp and clear shot.
Spotted Eagle begins the book with an examination of what HDV is, explaining how LongGOP MPEG-2 compression works, how the efficiencies of interframe compression enable HDV to compress the vastly increased information in an HD image into the same bit rate as SD NTSC-DV. He discusses the differences between the two HDV formats and interlaced and progressive video, while also getting into somewhat gnarlier, more math-intensive issues like pixel aspect ratios and the necessity of pixel shift in 1440x1080 images. But no matter how technical the topics get, Spotted Eagle keeps the explanations clear and digestible, and the tone appropriately light—for example, giving the reader advanced warning every time he's about to throw in a little unavoidable math.
Choosing and Using HDV Gear
The buyer's guide section of the book kicks in next, with a run-down of the various cameras on the market as of this book's mid-2006 publication date and some significant feature comparisons between the different cameras. While the first edition of HDV What You Need to Know might have seemed a little dated in cataloging available cameras by the time that most producers started to realize they needed such a book, this book doesn't have that problem. Even though a number of new cameras (Canon's XH A1 and G1, Sony's V1U and FX7, and JVC's HD110 and HD200, to name a few) were introduced at IBC or thereabouts this year, the book doesn't suffer from their absence. Most of the issues that define an HDV camera purchaser's decision tree (1080/60i vs. 720/24p; audio input support and level controls; lens issues such as filter size, focal length, who manaufactures it, maximum aperture, and interchangeability) were already on the table when this book was written, and those distinctions are well-examined here.
The book does a good job of describing the cameras and the differences between them, and the tone remains balanced and objective throughout. But where the book makes the leap from useful buyer's guide to indispensable field guide is in its discussion of how to shoot HDV effectively (again, coming from the angle of a shooter schooled in 4:3 SD DV who wants to know how to handle and make the most of the new 16:9 HD format) and how that's accomplished with each of the cameras, right down to the correct settings to use. He provides terrific tips on framing 16:9 shots; e.g., "Keep the camera close and take advantage of the ‘real estate' widescreen allows. However, watch out for empty spaces." He also warns against taking too lightly the increased detail that HDV allows, in that it's more likely to unmask a cheap or worn set that wasn't apparent with lower-resolution DV. He also speaks directly to the limitations of highly compressed video in high-motion scenes, and recommends using stabilizing devices or increasing the shutter speed, and avoiding "whipping" the camera around at all times. (This is a recurring theme in the book.)
As useful as this kind of instruction is, I think readers will appreciate the "Standard Operating Procedures" for cameras and "NLE Workflow" sections the most. Most writers usually stay on one side of the dividing line between generalized and tool-specific technology books, and either focus on one or two tools or products to the exclusion of all others, or write from too high a level, and keep their distance from the nitty-gritty of how to work the products they're surveying, using disclaimers like "space permits us from going into detail about all these products." The best thing about this book is that Spotted Eagle dispenses with such formalities and, instinctive hands-on trainer that he is, gets right down to business with each camera, describing not only its features, but how to make them work, how to modify settings, and what all the settings should be. Sometimes this takes the form of explaining, for example, what Black Stretch is on the Sony Z1U and how it can be used to increase detail in dark or black areas (and by all means check out the split image shown in the book's brief Color Plates to section for a direct comparison of Black Stretch on/off—it's eye-popping). Or it may mean going into custom settings for advanced looks in the JVC HD100 like, "Bleach By-Pass: Master Black -6, Black Compress 3, CineLike Off, Color Matrix and Gamma at Srandard, Level Max, Color Gain -8, R Gain and R Rot. -2, G Gain 1, 24p or 30p." This may sound like too much information if you're not a JVC shooter or aren't familiar with the effect he's discussing, but if you are a JVC user with a yen for film effects (and that describes a lot of EventDV readers), it's exactly what you want to find in a book about HDV, and probably didn't expect you would find in a book that's ostensibly designed to cover the topic so broadly.
The same goes for the NLE workflow section, which describes briefly, but with just the right sort of detail, how to ingest HDV into your system, whether you're using Premiere Pro, Vegas, Final Cut, Liquid, EDIUS, or Xpress Pro, what settings you'll need on your PC or Mac and in your NLE, and how to work with the video once it's in there. Spotted Eagle also gives plenty of coverage to the issue of using intermediate codecs vs. editing HDV in native LongGOP MPEG-2, and explains how to convert to intermediate codecs in each tool, as well as the usefulness of faster third-party conversion tools like CineForm's AspectHD and workflow enhancement software like VASST's GearShift plug-in for Vegas. FCP users will be pleased to discover that even though five of the six NLEs discussed are Windows tools, HDV What You Need to Know doesn't skimp on the Mac section; there's plenty of helpful information here, both on working with HDV within FCP and also looking at Mac HDV postproduction on a system level.
Any book that purports to tell you all you need to know about HDV would be remiss if it didn't discuss the technologies and techniques used to create a "film look" in the digital format, and any review of this book would be remiss if it didn't mention how well this book explores that issue. Producing a credible film look has been, thus far, at the center of the debate between advocates of the JVC ProHD line, which supports "true 24p" progressive video, and the Sony and Canon lines, which shoot interlaced video and offer only "frame" modes designed to approximate 24p. Before getting sucked into that debate Spotted Eagle makes it clear that there's much more to making digital video look like film than shooting in 24p, that however real the technical differences between interlaced frame modes and "true progressive" shooting modes may be, they're largely imperceptible to the naked eye; and furthermore, he points out that as much as the indie film community (and, I'd add, advocates of "cinematic" wedding and event video) are championing 24p, big-budget Hollywood is doing everything it can to distance itself from it. Furthermore, Spotted Eagle writes, "Most everyone agrees, including independent filmmakers, that the grail of broadcast or delivery is 1080p60 … While 24p is a beautiful, non-realistic (doesn't look like real life) filmic cadence, it also is a marketing hype-driven phrase."
But the the "Film Looks & 24p" chapter isn't primarily an anti-24p polemic. And it's not for the most part an argument that Sony's CineFrame or Canon's 24F are just as good, they're detractors notwithstanding; the comparison clips on the generously stuffed DVD that comes with the book give readers the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. (Incidentally, the DVD includes a very useful calibration chart, among other things.) Rather, the meat of the chapter is a brief tutorial on all the other things involved in producing a credible look besides shooting in 24p, such as filters materials for film-like diffusion; shutter speeds; techniques for getting a shallower, more film-like depth of field; and more. Essential reading for any HDV adopter with filmic leanings.
Blu-ray and Beyond
HDV What You Need to Know, The Complete Guide closes with a quick look at Blu-ray (and an even quicker look at HDV) as the next-generation technologies for those who deliver on DVD. The book is nearly six months old as I write this and it's ironic that with all the swirling hype surrounding Blu-ray and HD DVD in that time, the book hardly seems dated in that respect; not much has really happened with these technologies at all in terms of real market impact. They may be growing up in public, but their market isn't maturing any faster because of it.
A year from now, the HD delivery landscape will look significantly different. If 2005 and 2006 were the years of HD acquisition's initial explosion into the prosumer mainstream, thanks to HDV, 2007 and 2008 should bring about the same sort of shift for HD video delivery as Blu-ray and/or HD DVD take center stage, and seasoned HDV videographers will be ready to make the most of it. And those with HDV What You Need to Know in hand are well on their way already.
HDV: What You Need To Know, The Complete Guide (2nd. Ed.) is available from VASST for $29.95.