HDV Goes Mainstream
Posted Oct 6, 2004

Depending on who you talk to, HDV—the two year-old format that brings high-definition images to standard DV tape—is either the format of tomorrow or today's choice for cutting-edge videographers.

Make no mistake, HDV is not HD, which is still the domain of broadcast- and cinema-quality cameras retailing anywhere from $55,000 to more than $100,000 [see sidebar, "Shooting True HD"]. HDV picture quality—while noticeably better than standard DV—doesn't approach the real thing. But the introduction of the sub-$4,000 JVC JY-HD10 in late 2003 brought the next best thing to a price point that appealed to videographers, and Sony upped the ante in September of this year with the introduction of its HDR-FX1 Handycam, a 3-CCD, 1080i camera set for November availability with an MSRP of $3,700. And while true HD video—uncompressed 1080i, a long way from MPEG-2 720p or Sony's version of 1080i—remains out of reach for many videographers, there are a few (mostly, those who do broadcast work and corporate communications) who are shooting HD right now.

There's something to be said for setting your own standards for innovative video; we can all benefit from advancing the image and professionalism of the field. But in practical terms, with technology investments at stake, it largely comes down to client expectations, and given the low consumer-installed base of HDTV, how many event video customers are really clamoring for HD video?

As consumers become more video-savvy, watching television programs in true HD broadcast format, they're going to demand more from their event videos. (The Consumer Electronics Association projects that fully half of all new TVs purchased in 2004 will be HDTV sets.) On the other hand, even high-density DVD (Blu-ray or HD-DVD)—promising the capacity to deliver high quantities of HD video—is still a few years away. Clients who want their weddings or other video to have staying power—or those who insist on "the best of the best," regardless of its practical implications—are demanding high-def. So maybe the real question is not whether you can afford to upgrade to HDV, but whether you can afford not to.

On Location
"My feeling is simple: HDV is here, it works, and it's ready to put your company in the world of HD at a fraction of the cost of what was available last year," says Jim Rough, who owns Our Wedding Video in San Antonio, Texas. "To wait for the next big thing is only going to hurt your company's ability to create separation and market share."

HDV went public in October 2002 as a prosumer-friendly, compressed hi-def solution when Canon, Sharp, Sony, and Victor Company of Japan (JVC) announced their support for the format. On the post-production side, Adobe, Canopus, Sony Pictures, and Ulead were all on board, and were soon joined by Apple, Pinnacle, CyberLink, and a handful of other companies. And while we've seen a slew of HDV-compatible capture and editing software in the intervening months (more on those later), we're still waiting on most of the camcorders.

As of press time, the only manufacturer with cameras on the market is JVC, which shipped the consumer-level GR-HD1 and the pro-level JY-HD10 soon after the September 2003 announcement. Most videographers now shooting HDV opt for the JY-HD10, which boasts a single, 1/3" progressive-scan CCD with 1.18 million pixels (1.14 million active). The camera shoots 1280x720 resolution 16:9 video at 30 frames per second (fps) progressive in HD mode (also known as 720p), using MPEG-2 compression with a six-frame group of pictures. It also shoots SD (720x480, 60fps), and both modes employ MPEG-1, Layer 2, 384Kbps, 16-bit stereo audio. When it was announced, the HD10 boasted a $3,995 list price, but now can be found for as little as $2,049.

In addition to plenty of features aimed at the amateur (owing to the camera's origins in JVC's attempt to reach high-end consumers in Japan), the camera records timecode continuously throughout a tape; most prosumer camcorders reset the timecode to zero every time you play back a scene and then resume shooting. The camera also overrides the digital zoom when in HD mode, and features manual white balance and a built-in color bar generator.

Sony's new HDR-FX1 ups the ante as the first 3-CCD HDV camcorder on the market, and the first to shoot at a 1440x1080 resolution, (the 1080 qualifies it as 1080i, although 1080i HD usually means 1920x1080). The camera, which records in a new proprietary Sony HD codec, features an on-chip micro-lens that increases the light focusing rate, a default 16:9 widescreen recording mode, and a shooting range from 32.5mm to 390mm with a 12X optical zoom. The HDR-FX1's LCD display, located toward the front of the unit on the same eye level as the viewfinder, offers 250,000 pixels.

Sony is hyping the camera's "Cineframe" capability. While the camera doesn't record in true 24p, Sony claims its Cineframe 24 mode offers a "film like" feel by recording 1080/60i, but capturing 24 different pictures in 60 field pictures, interpolating the intervals with time and space positions. Sony also promises a professional version of the camera in early 2005, with a price point of under $7,000. Though the HDR-FX1 is compatible with standard MiniDV tapes, and will play back tapes recorded in both 720p (like those from the JVC HDV camcorders) and 1080i modes, Sony also announced its own HD DVC tapes, which will retail for $18 apiece.

The biggest limitation of current HDV cameras is that they require significantly more light than most standard DV units. Ironically, however, Rough says the fact that DV cameras' response to light is so forgiving means that videographers have gotten sloppy when it comes to basic lighting techniques. "We had to get used to the lack of latitude when it comes to low-light situations" when working with the JVC, he says. "But this was easy to fix by simply using the lighting techniques and gear we were always taught to use but strayed from because the DV cameras we were using presented acceptable images shot in low light. We've found that our images now look better because we're properly using light instead of trying to work around it."

In the Edit Bay—Software Side
Once you've got that HDV footage, editing it is nowhere near as simple as with standard DV. There are plenty of nonlinear editors—Final Cut Pro HD and Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5, to name a couple—that will directly capture HD-VTR formats like Panasonic's DVCPro HD and Sony's HDCAM. But if you want to edit HDV, you need to transcode the video before most NLEs will be able to work with it.

For instance, Our Wedding Video's Rough shoots on the JY-HD10, then uses Lumiere HD to downconvert the HDV to MPEG-2, and then to DV, which he edits in real time with Final Cut Pro HD. Then he uses Lumiere HD again to upconvert the footage to HDV, which he prints to tape on either the camera or a JVC CU-VH1 deck.

Why so many steps? HDV uses an MPEG-2 output format in the form of a transport stream (TS), not a program stream; it uses an additional layer of packetizing for increased protection against data loss. [See Philip DeLancie's "HDV Exposure," March 2004, pp. 26-30, for more on the HDV format.] And most NLEs can't capture native HDV. So you need a transcoding program like the $179 Lumiere HD, the $199 HEURIS Xtractor HDV (for Final Cut Pro), Cineform's Aspect HD ($1,199 for Premiere 6.5 and $999 for Pro 1.0 or 1.5), or the HD Capture Utility that comes bundled with JVC camera and captures HDV for editing in Sony Pictures Digital's Vegas 5.0 or Vegas+DVD. Ulead also recently threw its hat into the HDV editing ring with the $299 Ulead HD plug-in for MediaStudio Pro 7. Pinnacle has been uncharacteristically behind the curve when it comes to HDV support (although they're certainly invested in HD throughout their product line); the company announced at NAB 2004 that they would support HDV natively in the next iteration of Liquid Edition—due out sometime this fall—but product had yet to ship at presstime.

Where software support is available, users say, HDV doesn't significantly increase the time or complexity of post-production. "The only real cost in man-hours for us is the downconversion from MPEG-2 to DV and back again," says Rough. "But this is something we allow the computer to do overnight and schedule it accordingly."

There are a few NLE packages that allow you to capture and edit HDV without an intermediary. The downside, of course, is that you need to purchase an entirely new NLE; even if some of the prices aren't much higher than, say, Aspect HD, you're still looking at the time spent learning a new system.

On the PC side is Canopus' EDIUS for HDV720P, which hit the market in early August and captures directly from the JVC HDV cameras as well as from JVC's CU-VH1 deck. Retailing for $1,299, the software offers real-time, multitrack HDV editing in addition to standard MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 format real-time capability. The EDIUS for HDV720P bundle includes ProCoder 2.0, which supports batch capture and multiple conversion jobs, and Inscriber TitleMotion Pro for titling, graphics, and transitions.

If you're already a Premiere Pro user but want to upgrade to one of the best HDV—and HD—solutions currently available, Cineform also offers Prospect HD. It features 10-bit precision and edits HD resolutions up to 1920x1080 at 30fps. Currently, it's only available preinstalled as part of Boxx Technologies' HD[pro] RT line of turnkey workstations, which retail for $23,746. More in line with videographers' needs—and budgets—Boxx also offers a line of HDV[pro] workstations that come preinstalled with Adobe Premiere Pro, Audition, and Encore DVD, as well as Aspect HD. The HDV[pro] workstations begin at around $3,700 for desktop solutions and $5,200 for a laptop. Applied Magic, MinaTV, and DV411 offer similarly priced turnkey workstation packages.

Within hours of Sony's HDR-FX1 announcement, Canopus announced that EDIUS would support native, real-time capture and editing for the camcorder, and Adobe announced a plug-in for native HDV support for both the JVC and Sony camcorders, to be available later this year.

On the Mac side, Apple is still holding back on its promise to integrate HDV support directly into Final Cut Pro HD. If you're looking for something more full-featured than the Lumiere HD or HEURIS Xtractor HDV, you'd be wise to check out Heuris' Pro Indie HD Toolkit for HDV. Along with Xtractor HDV, HEURIS bundles the XtoHD D-VHS export tool and the MPEG Power Professional DTVHD encoder plug-in for QuickTime. The bundle is available directly from HEURIS for $499.

The only other Mac solution right now is Digital Video Consulting's HDVpartner Pro (formerly HDVcinema Pro), a $350 software tool that makes HDV footage compatible with Final Cut Pro HD. It does so by demuxing MPEG-2 TS files into MPEG audio and MPEG-2 video files; you then convert the video file to Apple's DVCPRO HD codec and edit in FCP HD. The advantage here is that, once your project is complete, you can output to a variety of formats. You can record the project via FireWire to either your HDV camera or a D-VHS tape deck, use Apple's Compressor to create MPEG-2 files for DVD, or encode to either MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 for QuickTime.

Processing HDV: Capture Hardware and Cards
HDV post-production technology news isn't limited to NLEs and capture software. Focus Enhancements announced at NAB 2004 that it would support the HDV format in its FireStore line of Direct to Edit (DTE) recorders, external hard drives that capture footage (with timecode) from cameras at up to 400Mbps and convert it to NLE-compatible formats on the fly.

Then there's the issue of PCI cards, both in terms of video capture and display. You may find that your existing graphics card doesn't give you either the resolution or the on-screen rendering speed you're accustomed to getting when working with DV. 720p resolution video only requires a little more than twice as much processor power than standard resolution footage, while 1080i video needs about six times more power than SD, according to Alain Legault, VP of product development for Matrox, a manufacturer of graphics and capture cards. The company's Parhelia and Millennium cards sell for between $169 and $400 depending on their specs.

While not specifically targeted at HD editing, ATI's 9800 series of PCI cards are designed for HD playback at refresh rates up to 200Hz depending on your monitor's resolution. At 1920x1080 monitor resolution, ATI's 9800 XT card, which lists for $249, still promises a respectable 160Hz refresh rate. (ATI also has the distinction of working actively to develop cross-platform PC and Mac solutions.)

Matrox is another major player on the PCI capture side. Matrox announced its line of Matrox HD capture and display suites (part of the company's partnership with Adobe) at NAB, but those cards and their attendant Premiere software bundles had yet to make it to market as of early September (rumor had it that Matrox and others would be introducing the cards at the IBC show in Amsterdam later that monthmonth; Matrox did indeed demo their Axio line of real-time, multistream SD and HD editing platforms at the show, with the cards due to ship in Q1 2005). In the meantime, the company's RT.X100 Xtreme card captures both DV and MPEG-2 and comes bundled with Adobe's video editing software suite. The RT.X100 editing bundle is available from resellers like Videoguys and B&H for around $1,000.

The Delivery Dilemma
Which brings videographers to their final dilemma: Since we're still waiting on consumer-level DVD players capable of playing back true HD content, event video producers can't give their clients HD output in anything approaching a universally adopted format. Whether or not HDV-created footage looks better than SD when played back on an SD tape or DVD player through an SD monitor or garden-variety TV is a hotly debated issue. Especially if the first thing you do in editing is down-convert it.

On the other hand, if you can offer your customers HD content now, they'll have the assurance that their wedding or event will look even better when they play it back on HD equipment a few years down the road. They can even view it now on their PCs in Windows Media or QuickTime HD formats.

Plus, you've got the added competitive edge of being able to produce HD projects for broadcast right now, another reason Rough says that it might not even be worth waiting for the new Sony's 3-CCD camera. "Those cameras will be great when they are available," he says. "But while you wait I will be shooting, editing, and presenting HD to my clients, establishing my presence as an HD provider, while you wait and wait and wait. And then when you get that 3-CCD camera and are trying to learn how to shoot and edit with it, I'll be presenting clients my company's HD portfolio."

A Little Less Conversation (a Little More Action)
Though the floor at NAB 2004 in April was filled with HDV buzz, it was mostly talk and little action, with vendors announcing products that had yet to ship and potential users taking a "wait and see" attitude. But with so many options now available for working with HDV footage in the edit bay, and with the announcement of the Sony HDR-FX1 in September, HDV is finally poised to make its entrance into the videography mainstream. If nothing else, as the end of the year approaches, it's a good time to evaluate where you stand, and whether or not HDV will make its way into your services in 2005.

And while it's easy to get caught up in the competitive thrill of new technology, one videographer sounds a cautionary note. "Instead of worrying about technology, which you and I do not get a say in anyway, be concerned about developing your artistic talents, storytelling, and marketing ability," says John Goolsby, who runs Cannon Video Productions in Riverside, California, and wrote The Business of Wedding and Special Event Videography. "That's how to ensure your future in event videography."

For more information on HDV, please see Sidebar 1 and Table 1 

Sidebar 1: Shooting True HD

While this article has focused on the needs of the event videographer whose budget or clientele means that shooting in true HD is out of the question, the gap between HDV and HD is narrowing. Used HD cameras can be had for $15,000 or less, and there's always the rental option. With more and more clients becoming interested in HD, even for local television commercial projects, it's an option worth exploring. Washington, D.C.-based Interface Video shoots corporate, commercial, and political projects, as well as museum display work, in HD. The company's directors of photography use Sony's top-of-the-line HDW-F900 camera—which shoots 1080i and 720p at 24/25/30fps (progressive) or 50/60 interlaced images for broadcast and retails for $103,000—and their editors use Discreet's smoke and Final Cut Pro HD to finish things off.

If you're going to make the leap from DV to HD, it's imperative that you become far more rigorous in your shooting standards than you'd have to be even with HDV. The camera simply picks up things you've never had to consider before. "Focus and false-looking details that used to get by SD are real problems," says Interface's Martha McGee. "Lint on the clothing, dandruff on the shoulder, makeup not applied to HD standards, and even scratches on props become huge problems in HD. You also need to check your back focus every time you shoot; what wasn't a soft-focus problem in the eyepiece becomes one on a giant plasma display."

All of which means that HD is far better suited to studio projects—where these factors can be tightly monitored—than to on-site productions where you and your crew have less control over subjects and sets.

Both Sony and Panasonic make HD video camcorders, and each has their own proprietary format: HDCAM for Sony, DVCPRO HD for Panasonic. The various cameras in the Panasonic line list for between $55-65,000, while Sony's line runs from $65-103,000. Both Canon and Fujinon make zoom, wide angle, and anamorphic lenses for HD camcorders.

In addition to the cost of the camera, shooting HD requires massive amounts of storage. "Drive storage became a problem in post-production," says McGee, "but we overcame that by creating a solid network with multiple terabytes of storage."

At least one videographer and industry observer says it'll be a while before real HD reaches videographers on a wide scale. "The research and development cost for new technology is so high that the consumers will have it before the pros do," says Cannon Video's John Goolsby.

Just as JVC first targeted high-end Japanese consumers with its HDV camcorders, Goolsby expects HD camera manufacturers to do likewise with HD cameras. "The mass market of consumers will underwrite the huge R&D cost of making HD portable and affordable," he says. "Lastly, the event videographer will move into HD, partly because our customers will already own them and it will be the only logical purchase to make."

Table 1: HDV and HD by the Numbers

Resolution1280x720 or 1440x1080 1280x720 or 1920x1080
Tape formatMiniDV HDCAM (Sony)/DVCPRO HD (Panasonic)
Compression formatMPEG-2 N/A COLOR SPACE
Compression ratio4:2:04:2:2
Bit rate19Mbps@720p/25Mbps@1080i 143Mbps@1080i/(HDCAM; no 720p) 100Mbps@720p/60Mbps@1080i (DVCPRO HD)
CamerasJVC GR-HD1
Sony HDR-FX1
Panasonic AJ-HDC series
Sony HDW series

Companies Mentioned in this Article

Adobe Systems, Inc., www.adobe.com
Apple Computer, Inc., www.apple.com
Applied Magic, LLC www.applied-magic.com
ATI Technologies, Inc. www.ati.com
BOXX Technologies, Inc. www.boxxtech.com
Cannon Video Productions www.cannonvideo.com
Canopus Co., Ltd. www.canopus.com
CineForm, Inc. www.cineform.com
Digital Video Consulting (HDVpartner Pro) www.mindspring.com/~d-v-c/ 
DV411 www.dv411.com
Focus Enhancements, Inc. www.focusinfo.com
Heuris Logic, Inc. www.heuris.com
Interface Video www.interfacevideo.com
JVC (Victor Corporation of Japan) www.jvc.com
Lumiere HD, LLC www.lumiere.com
Matrox Graphics, Inc. www.matrox.com
Mina Systems, Inc. www.minatv.com
Our Wedding Video www.ourweddingvideo.com
Pinnacle Systems, Inc. www.pinnaclesys.com
Sony Electronics, Inc. www.sony.com
Sony Pictures Digital www.mediasoftware.sonypictures.com
Ulead Systems, Inc. www.ulead.com