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HD production in Europe

Rock and pop concerts are increasingly recorded in HD to generate superior DVD programming. Shown here is the Prince’s Trust concert in the UK captured with Sony’s HDC-950 HD studio cameras.

Much of the focus on the HD roll-out in Europe has been on the start of transmissions in Germany, with France, the UK and others following on. The launch will be kick-started with the soccer World Cup. However, television broadcasters will be looking beyond sport to draw viewers to the new medium. This article draws upon the experiences of the BBC, amongst others, to see how the demand for HD program content is to be met.

HDTV becomes a reality in the UK part-way through this year when BSkyB begins transmission of a series of premium HD channels. Cable TV of premium HD channels. Cable TV in the UK also begins HDTV in 2006, with a service from Telewest. In addition, the BBC is set for a limited trial of HD over DTT during the summer of 2006, with World Cup football likely to be a focus of the first transmissions. The BBC also has said that all its production will be in HD by 2010, and senior BBC executives now say HD in the UK is as inevitable as color TV was.

In production, HDTV is already a reality, with many programs being shot in HD. Even the consumer is becoming familiar with the idea of HDTV, as half the plasma displays in stores now carry an “HD Ready” label.

Sky HD is expected to give consumer perception of HDTV a real boost this year, given Sky's acknowledged skills in marketing. Another factor is that Sky's HD service will feature a range of channels, at least two for sport and a couple of movie channels, plus third-party channels from National Geographic, the History Channel and possibly Discovery HD.

Sky now owns Artsworld, and this channel also will be transmitting opera, music and arts programs in HD. Sky One will be simulcast in HD.

Cable and satellite

Cable TV in Europe is also launching HD services, with Telewest in the UK already running a pilot service to 400 customers ahead of a full launch during this year. Both Sky and Telewest will launch the services with an HD PVR. Sky's HD PVR will be the sole consumer device made available to receive the platform's HD channels. With capacity of the Sky Plus box greatly expanded, Sky will reserve up to half of each PVR's capacity to enable streaming of pay per view movies straight into these PVRs for consumers to choose from.

Sky will transmit HD material in both the 1080i and 720p formats, and the newer HD cameras on the market are able to output both formats. One example is Sony's new HDC-1500 camera, already being ordered by European broadcasters as a basis for new HD production infrastructures. Its 1080 chip enables 720p output, and the camera has now been adopted for the TV studios in Denmark Radio's new Byen broadcast center outside Copenhagen. NRK also specified the HDC-1500 for a new HD OB truck due for delivery in early 2006.

The major OB companies are all upgrading their equipment to work in HD. Some, such as Visions Mobiles, are well-established as HD houses, but all now feature dual working vehicles that can record in HD and SD. Sky has been recording some of the major sports it has contracts for in HD since the summer of 2005, with the Premiership in particular now being recorded in HD. This will facilitate the use of HD archive material from earlier in the season, by its football analysts, when Sky actually launches the full HD service.

Sporting events

BBC Outside Broadcasts and BBC Resources used Sony’s HDC-950 HD cameras to capture the first live BBC TV drama in 20 years — “The Quatermass Experiment.”

2006 will see HD coverage expanded at several of the year's landmark sporting events — the Winter Olympics in Torino, the World Cup in Germany and the Asian Games at the end of the year. Rental company Presteigne Broadcast invested more than E10 million during 2005 to boost its HD equipment, and its new Sony HDC-1500 cameras will be deployed at the Winter Olympics, along with its EVS HD super slo-mo systems.

Grass Valley's LDK 6000 HD cameras are also being widely used in Europe, particularly for sport.

Thomson was selected by Swiss-based Host Broadcast Services to provide HDTV OB trucks for its broadcast coverage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Thomson will outfit as many as seven mobile trucks with Grass Valley brand products to support the SD and HD broadcasts of the soccer matches produced by HBS, which was also the host broadcaster of the 2002 FIFA World Cups.

The move to record programs in HD before any widespread HDTV services are ready has been fueled by the expectations of co-producers and TV program buyers. Most large-scale productions now demand some form of co-production or pre-sale, and in the larger TV markets such as the USA and Japan, an HD version is now expected.

The U.S. conception of what is and what isn't accepted as HD origination is also fuelling a rise in HD production. In the UK, super 16mm production had become a standard format for high-end TV drama, but since U.S. broadcasters do not accept Super 16 as HD, the format is giving way to HD production in the UK, with several productions now made that way.

Drama production

In the UK, one of the most successful BBC drama productions of 2005 was Dickens' “Bleak House,” an independent production from Deep Indigo. This was shot on HDCAM and received widespread praise for its visual quality. It was also an efficient production, employing two-camera cross shooting and achieving a high output of material on each shooting day.

BBC Outside Broadcasts and BBC Resources used Sony HD cameras to capture the first live BBC TV drama in 20 years — “The Quatermass Experiment.” The cast and crew had to deliver 83 scenes, spread across nine locations live-to-air for one hour and 45 minutes.

BBC Outside Broadcasts used its multiformat truck, Unit 2. In a huge logistical operation, more than 4000m of fiber-optic cable were rigged, serving eight cameras and 26 camera positions across the nine locations. There were points within the hour and 45 minutes when cameramen literally had 90 seconds to travel from one location to another to make the next scene.

“The Quatermass Experiment” was recorded to HDCAM in order to futureproof the production for broadcast sales and to generate a DVD due for release this year.

The BBC also is shooting several other dramas in HD for transmission this year, including an afternoon play written by Alan Plater and an eight-part police series titled “Gilmayo.” Both are sourced from BBC Birmingham. “Rome,” the BBC's major co-production with HBO, was shot in HD. The second series begins production in March.

Grass Valley’s LDK 6000 HD camera is being widely used in Europe, particularly for sport. Swiss-based Host Broadcast Services selected Thomson to provide HDTV OB trucks for its broadcast coverage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

Natural history

Two major natural history series scheduled for early 2006 on BBC TV also have used HD as their main production formats. Planet Earth has used a variety of HD tape formats and production methods, including HDCAM and Panasonic's Varicam variable frame rate HD camera recording to DVCPROHD. This camera also was the main camera on the BBC Natural History Unit series “Galapagos,” which also used HDCAM for underwater shots.

BBC Resources was commissioned to provide the post-production facilities for both the natural history series at the BBC's Bristol centre, and it provided an infrastructure that used largely Autodesk/Discreet equipment. Ingest, storage, editing, effects, grading and an archive system is based around a 9TB Sledgehammer HD network attached storage system from Maximum Throughput.

The Autodesk systems include Lustre colour grading and Smoke editing. The archive and storage management system is from Breece Hill. XTFX designed the system, working closely with BBC Post Production Bristol, based on a BBC specification that required a data workflow from ingest to publishing. Some high-speed Super 16mm material is being shot for both series, and this is telecined straight into the Sledgehammer system in 4:4:4 from a Shadow telecine.

Music and dance

Rock and pop concerts are increasingly recorded in HD to generate superior DVD programming, and classical music also lends itself to HD production.

Opera and ballet have always been ideal subjects for HD, and now the Royal Opera House (ROH) in the UK has become the first opera house in Europe to install a full HDTV production suite to shoot its opera and ballet productions in HD. In the past, it has put up with all the temporary rigging and disruption of a regular OB.

Comprising mainly Sony equipment, the ROH is now deploying a five-camera set-up in its auditorium to shoot and record productions. It uses remote cameras wherever possible to minimize disruption to seating arrangements, and it uses an innovative method to organize camera production.

Four of the five cameras are split, with the camera head and lens located on remote Vinten robotic heads in the theater. A small studio in the new opera house locates standard Vinten tripods with the camera back end. These also are located on the studio floor to echo the positions they have in the main auditorium, so cameramen have exactly the same camera controls and talkback facilities they'd have if they were physically inside the theater behind the cameras.

The tripods have motion sensors to transmit the cameraman's instructions to the remote camera heads. Only one camera, at the back of the theatre, with an 85 to 1 lens, has a cameraman operating it in situ.

The BBC had committed to double its coverage of ROH productions to about 16 a year. When the BBC now records these, it uses the ROH camera system as well as brings in several more of its own cameras. The ROH also is using its HD camera set-up to allow more live transmission of productions to big screens outside the opera house, and it forms an important part of its drive to offer what it does to a wider audience.


European broadcasters already are priming the feed of locally-sourced HD programming to add to imported shows and major sports coverage. 2006 will present European viewers the means to watch HD, plus a new series of productions created for the medium.

Nick Radlo is an independent technology writer.