HD production at Pepper

Based in London’s Covent Garden, Pepper Film & Television is a post-production facility that specializes in long-form drama and documentary post-production, as well as feature film mastering. The company has a wet-gate C-Reality telecine and, with its other Ursa Diamond wet-gate suite, it handles fine grading of material shot on film and tape.

For “Ashes and Sand,” a feature shot in HDCAM, Pepper Film & Television used an SD/HD approach to create some special effects, such as making exotic golden statues smile as the camera tracked past them.

The editing side of the company concentrates on the finishing of the pictures, including digital special effects, titling and versioning for the international film market.

The rumblings of a high-definition marketplace have been in evidence for many years, and the post-production facility has been monitoring the progress of HD as a deliverable medium to ensure that, as and when its clients required it, the facility already had the necessary expertise. To that end, it purchased an Avid|DS HD nonlinear editor, and it now has two Avid|DS HD Version 6 systems with increased processing speed and enhanced conform capabilities.

The initial issue with HD post was timing the equipment purchase with likely demand. While the HD camera suppliers and manufacturers were only too pleased to help subsidize and loan HD equipment for shooting, they were reluctant to do likewise for the post community. This caused a problem for those companies that were looking to be early adopters. The manufacturers believed that by creating a demand for HD post by subsidizing the shooting, it would force the speedy uptake of HD in the UK, even though the UK does not transmit HD and will not for years to come.

The high cost of an HD post kit such as VTRs, monitors and editing equipment meant that there were few post facilities able to invest early at significant cost, and these facilities were unable to reduce the post costs to match the small budgets of the early HD shoots. Many of those making short films and documentaries budgeted for Digibeta acquisition, and when they were offered a subsidized HD kit, they naturally jumped at the chance.

They failed, however, to appreciate the greater costs of the consequential HD post-production. As a guide, a single frame of HD picture is six times the size of a standard-definition one, so the ability to work as quickly as in SD is limited. If you add together the cost of the equipment, the longer post time, the cost of stock and the downconversions, it is little surprise that a budget for a Digibeta edit will not cover it.

Pepper created post-production routes that helped these shows to be finished, but the early promise of significant commissions from the Japanese and American HD markets failed to emerge. This was exacerbated by UK production companies being able to remove HD deliverables from their requirements by negotiating from the point of view that the prime delivery was to the UK.

The interesting twist to all this was the emergence of DV-shot short films and full-length features. These form an experimental wave of electronic filmmaking in the UK, and pioneers of this medium, such as Mike Figgis and Michael Winterbottom, have created unique visual styles. Figgis’ “Hotel” was shot entirely on DV, and Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” was shot on a combination of DV, Digibeta, 35mm, Super 16 and archive 16mm, 8mm and Super 8 film.

These films were able to exploit the powers of electronic post-production to the full, and to introduce these filmmakers to the world of sub-4k feature film techniques.

The single message emerging was the comfort people felt when post-producing with experienced broadcast-based operators. The speed and flexibility of the staff and the kit offered huge advantages for the directing world and allowed it to appreciate the transition to HD.

This proving ground has given production companies the confidence to gain commissions and funding, and to budget sensibly for HD post. One such example is “Ashes and Sand,” a new HDCAM-shot feature. Pepper was asked to create some special effects, which included making exotic golden statues smile as the camera tracked past them.

The company suggested that the most cost-effective way of achieving this was to supply its senior editor and director with the Beta full-height anamorphic downconversions to start work on. He was quickly able to create and change the effects on the Avid|DS with the director, Bob Blagden, present. Then when the director was happy, the post-production facility’s senior editor opened a new HD sequence and redigitized from the HD master rushes, and the Avid|DS reapplied all his work at HD quality, instantly.

Thus, the actual time spent in HD was minimal, and the main costs were incurred at SD rates. This SD/HD approach has enabled many projects on limited budgets to see the light of day when they otherwise might not have.

The post facility also has guided feature films to be shot at 25p instead of 24p. The productions have found that working at 25 fps and scanning the result to create a 24 fps feature is appealing because the simple tasks of creating viewing copies, etc., are easier; panning shots are smoother due to the faster shooting speed; and the downconversions are all simple to achieve.

There has been an increased uptake of this approach to post, so suggesting to UK productions that they explore the idea of creating their show in HD is paying dividends, both in the short-term by boosting the value of their libraries of finished productions for when the market demand kicks in, and also in the long-term by preparing production companies for the time when HD does finally take off in the UK.

Shane Warden is the senior editor and director of Pepper Film & Television.

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