Skip to main content

Cameron Diaz Looks Fine On HDTV TelevisionSo Might Your Talent

Thomas Edison began using 35mm movie film in the 19th century. Cameron Diaz began appearing on 35mm movie film in the 1994 movie The Mask. HDTV has begun replacing 35mm movie film. None of the above should cause anyone to seek surgery, but, apparently, it has.

In a New York Times Magazine piece called “Not Ready for Their Close-Up,” Clive Thompson reported that a female newscaster “in her 30s” who “still looked terrific” sought help from New York plastic surgeon Cap Lesesne because her station was shifting to HDTV. “When she walked in here,” Lesesne was quoted as saying, “‘high-def’ was the first thing that came out of her mouth.”

Articles like Thompson’s may have precipitated the newscaster’s panic. Thompson called HDTV “unforgiving” and compared the transition from standard TV to HDTV to those from silent movies to sound and from black & white to color, both of which, he said, “destroyed many actors’ careers.”

HDTV, he said, utilizes screens “the size of a tabletop” and offers “some formerly forbidden shades of red—which means that blotches, zits and tiny nose-veins can be presented with the brutal clarity of a surgery textbook.” Thompson also provided comments from the editors of OnHD.TV on “heartthrobs who (they claim) wither under the unblinking gaze of high-def, including Cameron Diaz (‘littered with unfortunate pockmarks’)....”

Those comments on Diaz have been picked up by other media outlets worldwide. After all, they involve both celebrity and sensationalism. “Cover-Girl Movie Star Looks Hideous” is worthy of the front page of any supermarket tabloid. But, like “Space Aliens Impregnate Toddler With Elvis Clone,” perhaps the headline isn’t all that’s claimed.

Consider the specifics of the Thompson piece. It’s true that some home HDTV screens are the size of tabletops. But theater screens are bigger. Even given the increased viewer distance in a cinema auditorium, a movie will probably appear perceptually larger than an HDTV set. So screen size won’t explain why HDTV should make someone look bad.

Then there are those “formerly forbidden shades of red.” Unfortunately, the 1953 NTSC color standard actually offered a greater range of reds than does HDTV’s. The red primary chosen for NTSC has coordinates of 0.67x and 0.33y, closer to the maximum perceptible red saturation than HDTV’s 0.64x and 0.33y.

Could HDTV’s spatial detail be the culprit? The maximum resolution of modern HDTV is 1920 x 1080, though common HDTV recorders reduce the 1920 to either 1440 (HDCAM and HDV) or 1280 (DVCPRO HD and D9 HD). What’s the maximum detail of 35mm movie film?

Answers vary wildly, largely because the meaning of “maximum detail” in film is so difficult to define. Perhaps the lowest figures have come from tests performed by CBS in movie theaters, where mechanical jitter and weave in a projector can reduce perceived resolution. They found that 875 lines per picture height was the average resolution perceived in a Hollywood auditorium (meaning some observers saw more).

That’s 81% of the theoretical maximum detail captured by a high-end HDTV camera. Can it be that the other 19% is sufficient to make a beautiful woman look ugly?

That seems unlikely, especially since home displays typically don’t show everything picked up by an HDTV camera. For one thing, they blow up the image slightly.

In 1994, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences presented engineering-achievement Emmy awards to BTS and Ikegami for the development of “controlled edge enhancement utilizing skin hue keying.” The technology is better known as “skin detail,” and it helps hide facial flaws without affecting the sharpness of anything else in the image.
That achievement was for standard-definition TV, which can also brutally depict acne. Camera settings, lighting and makeup are among the crafts used to help people look their best in any visual medium, be it photography, film-based movies, TV or HDTV.

Makeup artist Gucci Westman has been credited with the extraordinary achievement of making Diaz—one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World”—look plain in Being John Malkovich. Could an HDTV camera have accomplished the same thing? In a word, no.

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.