HD Today: Is HD the Holy Grail?
Posted Mar 29, 2008

Today, video producers are forced to handle more variables than ever before. They are tasked with making their productions look great on any screen on which people may see it—from HD screens and home TVs to continual demand for SD video DVDs, to the need to make the same video available on the web or PMP at a much lower resolution. What’s the best way to produce for today’s mixed media and tomorrow’s?

Camcorder manufacturers are certainly pushing us toward HD acquisition in one format or another. Panasonic has announced yet another 13Mbps AVCHD camcorder, this time based on the form factor of the DVC100. Panasonic seems to be putting all its prosumer eggs in the AVCHD basket.

Meanwhile Sony’s HVR-S270 and HVR-Z7U (see Shawn Lam’s Z7U review) bring compact flash media capability into HDV. JVC has the hard drive adapter for its GY-HD200U. Canon is full-on with 1080i HDV. The consumer offerings are all over the place.

But is HD necessary? Certainly, as more and more network shows go HD and cable, and satellite and fiber duke it out as to who offers more HD to the home, there is more clamoring for HD content. The big-box houses push widescreen HD-capable screens (not all are really HD resolution, but consumers don’t know that). So for the home and broadcast markets, HD certainly is a necessity now.

Corporate work is a completely different animal. Much of the video I shoot ends up with 4:3 SD distribution. There are very few 16:9 projectors and projector screens in corporate America. On top of that, video is being incorporated into more online resources, both for instruction and training as well as entertainment. Picture talking heads embedded inside a PowerPoint presentation.

Then there’s training webcasts that are normally computer slides shared over the internet, with someone talking you through the online PowerPoint presentation. Doesn’t sound very interesting, and in reality, it isn’t. But to spice it up, they add a little video window in the corner, maybe 300x300 pixels for the talking head. Exciting, eh?

Now think about the cellphone business: iPods and other portable media players (PMP) with little 2", 3", and 4" screens are now being used to watch video. Does that same glorious wide shot with full 1080p24 resolution translate well to a 4" screen with a 480x320 pixel resolution? No, it doesn’t. Viewers can get the gist of what they’re seeing in an HD image on a cellphone, but they’re not getting the HD experience. A true HD screen has more than 13 times the amount of visual information that it’s possible to show on a typical cellphone screen. Subtle detail is absolutely, positively, gone.

So you need to consider how to produce media for different kinds of markets, different distribution channels, and different screens. In essence, you can enjoy the widescreen video, but plan your shots for center-crop or pan and scan so that a PMP version can show much closer shots to more accurately convey what’s happening.

One thing that can help with this big/small issue is a camcorder that can capture both SD and HD at the same time. The new Sony HDV camcorders have a compact flash accessory that clips on and the camcorder can write HDV to tape while recording DV to the compact flash. Outside of this new functionality, many HDV camcorders can be set to spit an SD picture out the FireWire jack. This can be fed to a portable hard drive recorder, or you can use one of the many computer-based video software packages that enable critical monitoring, assessment, and recording of the incoming signal right to the computer of your choice—usually a laptop. You can even record this signal to a deck or another SD camcorder.

Why bother with SD when you already have HD? The answer is time. Even with the rapid growth of processing speeds, a PC or Mac compressing center-cropped SD for web distribution is going to get the job done a lot faster than the same computer working with as much as six times the data if you start with 1080i30. Starting with an SD source will cut down your rendering time significantly.

The advantage of concurrent recording is that it all happens in real-time while you are shooting. There is no post process to export the SD signal after the fact. I’m a big fan of doing as much as you can while shooting because it saves so much time on the back end.

Most clients see you there videotaping. They see your setup. They see all the wires and stuff. They seldom sit there in your edit bay with you for the days it takes to slog through all the raw footage and put things together. They do not value editing time as much because it is imperceptible to them. They know it was shot, and then ... magically, there’s a finished product.

HD hasn’t taken over completely. Multicore computer systems haven’t made HD render times irrelevant, and new compression schemes are going to increase the challenge for even the fastest processors. SD continues to be something we have to deal with today, even if tomorrow, all we’ll want is the HD version. So if you can walk away from an event with all your footage in both SD and HD, you’re covering all your bases. That’s the holy grail to me.

Anthony Burokas (a1burokas at ieba.com) of IEBA Communications runs the industry blog TechThoughts.org, hosted by EventDV.