I had dinner with Kurt the filmmaker during a recent visit to Los Angeles. Kurt and I met selling restaurant computer systems back in the late '80s. He went on to Hollywood filmmaking while I went into the technology side of video. It was an interesting switch from computer-based cash registers for both of us, and the common interest in video has helped keep our friendship alive.
Kurt had recently struck oil by getting a film funded with a guaranteed 200-theater release. He's always been pretty technical, producing one low-budget movie by shooting 35mm film, digitizing the source, editing the digital proxy files with the Pinnacle DV500 and Premiere 6.5, then applying the result to film. He says that the video is still playing on late-night TV and that both Pinnacle and Adobe are mentioned in the credits.
Kurt set his sights higher for the current film, which he will co-produce, direct, and edit. He will shoot in HD and edit digitally. After reviewing a number of multi-platform HD editing solutions, Kurt concluded—regretfully—that the Final Cut Pro-based Macintosh solution was the most elegant and usable.
Specifically, Kurt needed Final Cut's Offline RT features, which allow him to capture all 25 rolls of HD tape as sequential JPEG images that offer very high-quality at a fraction of the bandwidth of the actual HD video. This lets him capture all video to a single computer without expensive storage hardware.
In Final Cut Pro, Kurt will edit the JPEG files into the final movie, using effects solely from Final Cut Pro, since it's a thriller with minimal true special effects. Kurt will then use a source/record deck to feed the source tapes in as required for the edits, and record the result to one HD tape, which he'll take to a processing house to convert to 35mm film.
Kurt would prefer to work in Windows, since he knows XP well and can get more horsepower for his dollar on the Windows platform. But when he factored in storage requirements, deck rental costs, and other factors, the Mac-based solution was cheaper, faster, and more elegant. I should emphasize that these are Kurt's calculations, not mine, but I trust his judgment as a technologist and businessperson.
Kurt said that Windows-based video editors made a critical error by not offering such a solution. I countered that there were probably less than 500 producers who needed to edit HD video, and that given these small numbers, these features shouldn't be a development priority for a sub-$1,000 program.
Kurt replied, "You're right. There probably are less than 500 producers who need this solution. But they work in Hollywood studios, or in major broadcast networks, so Final Cut Pro is now being taught in film and broadcast school, which is a huge multiplier. Perception is reality in this business, and Apple is now perceived as the technology leader. And leaders lead by being in front, irrespective of mass-market demand."
Kurt then turned his attention to the new HDV format, which he derisively labeled HD junior or DV plus. In the rarified air in which Kurt works, if it ain't true HD, it's irrelevant.
With a review of Sony's new HDR-FX1 HDV camcorder in the works, Kurt's comments gave me pause. On the surface, it's easy to dismiss HDV, particularly because there is no mass-market mechanism to distribute HDV video to CE devices, and there won't be until HD-DVD or Blu-ray becomes widely available. For now, your only option for playing "true" HDV is to view it on your computer.
The higher resolution offered by HDV may produce higher-quality 16:9 DVDs than DV source video and may produce higher-quality VHS tape output, but we won't know until we test. To be fair, Sony isn't making either claim.
So, you may ask about the Sony FX1, why this product and why now? Because leaders lead by being in front, as Kurt says, to which I'll add the obvious "with the right product at the right time." And there are numerous reasons to think the first sub-$4,000 3-CCD HDV camcorder is the right product at the right time.
First, though true HD systems are rare, there are several native, end-to-end HDV editing solutions available, including Pinnacle Edition and Ulead MediaStudio Pro, with support in Premiere Pro and Vegas coming in late 2004. This means you can edit HDV almost as cheaply as DV. There are hundreds of thousands of HDTVs installed, creating pent-up demand for HD-DVD or Blu-ray (the two competing hi-def DVD specs), which should hit the streets sometime in late 2005. Finally, unlike JVC's first HDV camcorder, the Sony FX1 has three CCDs rather than one, so the quality should be much better.
Equally important, the FX1 can shoot DV in addition to HDV, allowing FX1 owners to offer clients multiple options. For example, you can offer to shoot in HDV, downsampling to produce SD DVDs while retaining the HDV video to produce HD DVDs when available. Or, you can offer to shoot standard DV.
This provides the client with the option to choose, and fosters the impression that your video productions are ahead of the technology curve and that you are, in fact, a leader.
In essence, this is what Jim Rough said in Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen's "HDV Goes Mainstream" in our October issue [pp. 60-65], though I read it with some skepticism it at the time. Viewed in light of Kurt's comments, however, adopting HDV early seems like a low-risk, high-reward strategy, both for Sony and the producers who buy the FX1.