Skip to main content

Producing HD, Look Before You Leap

For the fourth straight year, Los Angeles' KTLA-TV is producing the Rose Parade in high definition TV. While the station's employees have become relative experts in HD production, there are still many broadcasters who've yet to delve into this new medium. If you had to do an HDTV production today, would you know where to start? If you said "No," you're not alone.

Recently, the production community's feelings toward HD have taken a turn. Many in the Hollywood film and video industry have taken to this new medium. The technology is now available to do most any show in HD. However, there's a lot to consider before doing an HD production. The 16:9 HD world is more complex and costly than traditional 4:3 NTSC. Navigating through an HD production requires an important mantra: If an idea is too expensive to execute, modify your vision to match your budget.

Just how do you determine what's expensive or difficult in HD and how do you work around those constraints once you know them? Planning is key. Proper planning will cut costs on any production, however it's more critical and financially prudent on an HD show. This includes site surveys, shot plans, shooting for the edit, and taking extra care that the field shoot details are nailed down. Wise HD producers pour themselves into pre- production planning because it avoids unnecessary costs down the line. For example, one creative idea might be to include a retrospective storyline that allows you to upconvert NTSC video made to look archival. This saves money by not having to shoot and/or edit everything in HD. As for learning the new rules for planning an HD production, below is a hot-list for both live shows and field shoots.

Live And Multicamera

When planning for HD, live remote producers need to consider the following:
*Determine early on what equipment is required to get a signal from the mobile unit to master control. You'll need an encoder/decoder pair that talk to each other. Most HD trucks do not travel with decoders for receiving their signal at your studio; many don't carry encoders either. Many cite this as the single greatest obstacle to getting a live production on the air. Encoders/decoders are expensive and few rental companies carry them.
*Are you doing 1080i or 720p? It's not always easy to convert to another standard, so choose wisely.
*From trucks to editing gear to backup equipment, 1080i has been field tested the most because the format was first on the scene, but 720p is gaining speed.
*As for trucks, consider their company's track record and look for discounts for mobile units that are less agile or have more dated equipment. In the world of HD, gear that's two years old will be less likely to provide the flexibility of contemporary equipment— much of which is similar to their 4:3 cousins.
*Investigate carefully the equipment on-board, particularly the production switcher's capabilities. Some trucks have switchers with only one and a half mix effects (M/E). This is a particular problem for dual-format shows (HD and SD) where NTSC viewers are accustomed to a level of sophistication not possible on such a limited switcher.
*Both switchers and audio boards can be a challenge if they are unfamiliar to the crew. Decide on the truck first using equipment demands as the yardstick, then investigate which operators can run the gear. Most truck companies offer experienced operators from past shows, but their fees may come at a higher price.
*Do you want to produce in Dolby Digital multichannel audio? Although more and more audio operators are skilled at handling the challenge, the art of mixing in 5.1 is less developed than stereo surround.
*Confirm you're maintaining lip sync and know what to do if you're not. This is especially true for a dual-format show where the audio must match both the compressed HD signal and the uncompressed NTSC path.
*Shading video in HD is a new world. Get a video operator that the truck manufacturer recommends since the scopes don't operate in any manner that's familiar. Cross train your own staff if you have the money, but don't let a novice go it alone. n HD stillstores are not prevalent. Many producers use a character generator or videotape for graphics. Some trucks come standard with an upconverted NTSC CG, while others travel with HD character generators already on board.
*Trucks with a graphics machine often lack the robust flexibility sports producers are used to from a Chyron Infinit. This is quickly changing with the latest generation of character generators. You can upconvert graphics from an Infinit if the production is highly demanding, such as a sporting event done with an existing NTSC graphics package. Sometimes graphics tied to your NTSC look take too long to recreate in HD for a single show so converting can be a wise choice.
*If it's an HD CG, get an operator who knows the machine. For single-event telecasts, either of the two main HD character generators on trucks today will do fine. If you're upconverting from an Infinit, be aware that you'll need to do a font conversion after composing in 4:3, so things look normal on a 16:9 screen.
*If you're planning to use a jib, make sure you rent a portable HD monitor that displays the resolution format you're working in. Also, make sure that the jib controls match the lens you're using. Canon controllers don't work on Fujinon HD lenses and vice-versa.
*As for crews, this is a bit more difficult. Your TD, CG, audio, and video operator must be familiar with the new HD gear. Top-notch camera and tape operators will easily adapt to an HD environment with limited training.
*Put your best camera operators on close-up assignments. Being good at close-up, follow-focus in HD comes with experience. With handheld cameras, plan to follow-focus more often when moving into and out of shots. Be warned that handheld operators aren't used to focusing when they're zoomed out, yet in HD they'll need to do this.
*Carefully consider set and makeup issues. KTLA's HD Producer Joe Quasarano suggests that sets can no longer be fixed with a Sharpie and that airbrush makeup is a must for anyone over the age of 25.

Field Productions On single camera shoots, even if you're just shooting an open or tease, there are other considerations to keep in mind. Most HD veterans claim the biggest challenge is affording HD post-production costs. Here are some tips on how to save money.
*Get downconverted, time code-burned dubs or an HD tape machine to view and log material before editing.
*Do an offline edit first; the cost of editing online can be up to $1,000 an hour at many HD post-houses.
*Budget for travel if the HD edit house is not in town; knowing their rates and locations in advance is critical.
*n The camera viewfinder can hide flaws, so rent a portable HD monitor for confidence playback in the field.
*The cost of HD tape is high; budget in advance and get enough so that you don't end up short.

West coast HD veteran Larry Shenosky recently remarked, "The saying really is true: You can have it good, fast, or cheap—pick any two. Only with HD, 'good' requires superior planning and 'cheap' is relative to what you'll pay if you miss something in the pre-production phase."

While the technical issues may appear to be hassles, the new world of HDTV offers much for both the creator and the viewer. The gear exists to do most anything you want in HD, what's important is to match the demands of the show with the equipment, people, and budget available.