HD post in Europe

While Australia, Canada, Japan and the USA are aggressively trying to nurture interest in high-definition television broadcasting, something curious is happening in Europe. Despite little interest in over-the-air HDTV throughout the continent and the UK, many European post-production facilities are experiencing a boom in demand for high-definition post-production services.

There seem to be three reasons for this interest in independent, high-end HD post. First, with uncertainty about which increased resolution format will eventually emerge as the popular choice, clients want to future-proof their productions by posting them in the highest quality possible.

Second, although most European governments have not issued the “unfunded mandate” of insisting that their mostly state-funded public TV programming providers switch to digital broadcasting as in the USA, the cost of HD equipment has come down so dramatically compared to even a few years ago that thanks to its accelerated processing speed, HD technology has increasingly become cost-effective, even when used for standard-definition post-production.

And third, because of the rapid adoption of digital cinema projection in European theaters, which regularly present big-screen commercials before rolling their main feature films, many advertising agencies want their products ready to be shown in the same format both in the community Kino and on the home telly.

As in the USA, Avid has sold more HD finishing systems on the continent than any other equipment manufacturer since the release of its new family of Digital Nonlinear Accelerators (DNA), which enable SDI and HD-SDI digital video I/O and real-time effects compositing. M2 Television, a large independent post-production facility located in the heart of Soho, London, has just purchased its first Avid|DS Nitris DNA edit system for long-form HD broadcasting clients as well as theatrical promo producers. Another Avid DS|Nitris with a DNA accelerator and a Shake compositing system have found a home in Covent Garden at Skaramoosh, the graphics and effects specialists that do a lot of work on home-sale DVDs.

Avid's success has spearheaded the investment in HD post on the other side of the Atlantic, with 50 Avid DNA Nitris systems sold in each of the past two quarters.

But they are far from the only player in European HD post. Edithouse, a production and post-production company in Gothenburg, Sweden, has just invested in a Discreet smoke nonlinear editor running the new version 6.0 software on an SGI Octane2 platform to accompany its flame 8.5 visual effects system on the high-performance Tezro visual workstation. Because both systems are resolution-independent, Edithouse has been able to accelerate its post-production work-flow to meet the needs of its blue-chip clients such as Volvo, Saab, Ericsson and Compaq, finding that the speed of HD processing on the flame 8.5 is twice as fast as manipulating PAL on its older legacy systems.

Five other Discreet smoke systems can be found at Matchbox in Brussels, Belgium, where they are employed for commercials, music video clips and special-effects creation on long-form entertainment projects. Matchbox's span of applications is reflected by the fact that one smoke is on Tezro, one on Octane2, two on Octane1 and the last on Linux platforms. Matchbox sees HD as an alternative to 35mm film projects, especially when complex effects will be called for. Currently, it averages finishing at least two commercial spots shot with HDCAM on its high-definition systems every week. The advent of digital cinema projection has been a boon to Matchbox, since the largest European Cineplex chain, Kinepolis, converted a third of its theaters to DLP projection technology within the last two years.

To service that increased demand for theatrical promos, and to avoid compression artifacts that occasionally crop up when compositing HDCAM, Matchbox is considering becoming one of the first European post houses to adopt Sony's new uncompressed HDCAM SR recording format shortly after it vetted the system at NAB2004.

Quantel is also making inroads into the European market with its generationQ family of products. But the split in the attitude about HD between post-production facilities and broadcasters induced Yorkshire Television (YTV) — part of ITV, the largest independent TV network in the UK — to refrain from high-definition finishing for the time being. To service its 5.7 million viewers from North Yorkshire to North Norfolk, when YTV installed its new Edit One nonlinear edit bay a month ago, it decided to build it around Quantel's predominantly standard-definition eQ system. Although eQ can also handle HD, YTV could have upped the ante to Quantel's premiere iQ technology, which can process up to 4K resolutions. But since most of the entertainment programming that YTV produces — including the wildly popular “Heartbeat” series and its medical spin-off “The Royal” — are still mostly all being finished in standard definition, Yorkshire Television's engineering management simply did not feel the investment in the higher resolution iQ system could be warranted by the expectations of its current television audience. The processing power of the less expensive eQ would be valuable even for standard-definition projects, however, especially since for the past four years YTV's playlist has included 16 × 9 widescreen PAL presentations.

One European TV enterprise, Euro1080, took the leap into all high-definition programming last January by beaming its signal across the continent via satellite. The HDTV display technology that Euro1080 has chosen to use is the 50kHz interlaced format using1920 pixels × 1080 lines (also known as 1080i/50) — hence “Euro1080.” To create its promos and identity spots at its facility outside Hove, Belgium, Euro1080 has purchased one Avid DS|Nitris and is awaiting delivery of the HD upgrade to its two meridian-based Avid Media Composers.

Up to now, Euro1080 has been providing two programming channels: a main channel distributing four hours of daily entertainment to European households and small venues such as sports bars, hotel chains and conference centers; and an event channel sending live or pre-recorded specialty programming to so-called “event cinemas” equipped with electronic projection and 5.1 surround sound audio systems.

It hasn't been easy. Euro1080 admits that right now, only 10,000 viewers can receive its signal. But this is rapidly increasing. It estimates that by the end of the year, viewership should probably be somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000.

In March, the global research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics released a report in which its principal analyst, David Mercer, states, “Europeans are now watching their U.S. rivals with some degree of envy. In spite of the difficulties the Americans have faced in launching HDTV, demand there is now growing steadily. Europe realizes it cannot afford to be left behind.”

The report claims that Europeans bought 70,000 HDTV displays in 2003. Analysts predict that by 2008, 17.4 million homes will have HD-capable TV sets, and 2.6 million of these homes will have bought set-top boxes to receive HD broadcasts.

So although the majority of Europeans are still content to receive 625 PAL signals for their TV entertainment, the future holds a rosy potential for the adoption of HD. And when that HD future comes to pass, many European post-production facilities will already have the technology and experience to satisfy their needs.

L.T. Martin is a freelance writer and post-production consultant.