Is HD the Holy Grail?

phone.gifToday, 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 needs?

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.enregistreur.gif

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.

confroom.jpgCorporate 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. Moreover, those rooms are built around 4:3 screens, with speakers, lighting projector wiring and more all specifically set to a 4:3 image size. You can’t just replace the projector, you have to rebuild the room.

On top of that, video is being incorporated into more online resources, both for instruction and training as well as entertainment. webcast.jpgPicture 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 300×300 pixels for the talking head.

Exciting, eh?

nano2.jpgNow 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 480×320 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. output.jpgThe 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 computerrender.jpg 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.multicore.jpg

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.

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 EventDV Magazine

4 thoughts on “Is HD the Holy Grail?

Add yours

  1. Very useful indeed, so much of this is missed by so many and the scramble for “HD” at any cost and for any use is fearsome.

    It’s long been time time for a reality check so thank you!

  2. To shoot today in SD is something I hope all my competiton will continue to do for as long as possible.

    I don’t know what multi core systems you’re editing HD on, but my little 2.4 Core 2 Duo with Edius 3 can do it no problem at all in real time. Multi layers, slow motion – anything and everything I have yet required. Your requirements may differ, but that’s not my problem.

    Sure it takes more time to create final HD content, but that’s what computers do while you sleep. And I get plenty of that.

    I shoot in HD, load HD to one hard drive, back up to another then load SD converted from the cam (JVC HD7) to a third HD which solves all those HD to SD conversion issues.

    The load time is roughly twice what my old SD tape loading was (big deal, and I can pick and choose clips for rush work), the hard drive space required a bit more (big deal), but I have it all and can edit and distribute any format I want with little more than a consumer cam, consumer computer and a bunch of dirt cheap hard drives with a Lian Li tray system and even cheaper external back up drives. I will soon upgrade to a hot swap drive system that will be even easier.

    I offer my clients SD DVDs or, at a higher price, M2t files on a regular DVD that they can play on a PS3, most newer computers and some Blu-ray players. I e-mail them a small test M2t file so they can see if it works for them. No hassle, no problem, again no big deal.

    And make no mistake, they are ALL very happy with what they get. No returns, no refunds, just happy, smiling faces as they play back their awesome HD stuff on their Play Stations. My clients may not be your clients, so again, that’s not my problem.

    We’re not all broadcast and/or corporate types, but this is my full time job and I do quite well thank you very much. I have even converted my HD footage to SD on MiniDV which has been used by broadcasters a number of times with NO problems. ESPN2 being one of them.

    To not shoot in HD today is a mistake for my competition, a blessing for me.


  3. For someone like me, trying to sort out formats, software, cameras, etc., your various comments and points of view are very helpful. I appreciate the pragmatic and intelligent discussion.


  4. I think they key point is that, today, there is so much media being produced and consumed every second that it is critical to determine the long-term needs of the project, and product. If the need is “now” then SD gets it done now, and will be discarded and outdated in a year. No need for futureproofing.

    However, if you have a product that is more “evergreen” then shooting HD gives you that safety net. As Larry echoes, you can shoot HD and deliver SD. Then, if things take off, you can go back to your source footage and make a HD version in the future.


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