(click thumbnail) Think you can't afford to use digital or high-definition equipment in your newsroom or on your sitcom set? It's more likely that in 2002, you can't afford not to.
From the networks to postproduction houses, even amid recession and ad slumps, technological advances such as non-linear editing and 24p HD production are not only improving picture and sound quality, but also helping pay for themselves with big savings of time and money.
Although HD broadcast is still the exception, producers are finding that HD production will pay now and bring increased transferability later. At the station, advanced tools for the digital age are getting news to viewers more quickly.
"I think the trend is there's going to be a pretty massive move to high-definition, and it's mainly because they do save money," said Marker Karahadian, president of Burbank-based Plus 8 Video, a high-end rental house that has doubled its inventory of HD equipment every three months for the past year.
A strong inventory is increasingly important as producers demand more and more new technology such as Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound. Clients also want their final products on DVDs, the burning of which has plummeted in price.
Just two years ago, a DVD burner cost $17,000. Now, "they've totally bottomed out," said Brad Hughes, chief engineer at Henninger Media Services in Arlington, Va.
"People, when they have a high-definition project, they expect us to have all the answers, from shooting to distribution," he said.
SET SAVINGS AND AIRPORT SECURITY
The savings start with HD tape itself. A 40-minute HD cassette can cost as little as $75, compared to $200 and up for 10-minute rolls of 35mm film. That means up to a 90 percent cost savings, running into the tens of thousands of dollars on a project.
"And you still haven't processed the [film] stock, you haven't done the telecine for the dailies," said Plus 8's New York Vice President Jonathan Fishburn. "And [with film] you have to wait a day before you can see your daily."
"From a feature-film standpoint, [using HD] you can strike the set that night," he said. "By the next morning you can have a whole new set built."
CBS Vice President of Engineering and Advanced Technology Bob Seidel ( whose network provides HD feeds of all its primetime dramas and comedies ( said some producers do as much in an eight-hour day as they used to do in 12 hours on film.
"And at the end of the day, you have a high-quality electronic master," he said.
Another advantage of tape, especially for independent producers, has arisen in the formerly minor issue of airport security.
"The realities of air travel in today's environment basically have stipulated that these guys can't travel with film stock very easily," Fishburn said. "They're not going to let you take a [film] canister through that's all metal and you can't X-ray."
Wider access to HD equipment and a generation of powerful non-linear editors are enabling projects big and small to benefit from the technologies. Once the tape is shot, further savings come in the ease of transfer to other formats ( particularly with 24p HD, which has been around less than two years and is coming into wider use.
Most television programs don't turn a profit the first time they're shown, Seidel said. With a program often costing $1.2 million per hour to produce, the profit generally comes in reruns, syndication and overseas sales. With digital 24p masters, tricky math in conversion to European and Japanese formats is avoided, as are the artifacts of NTSC-to-PAL conversion.
"It's readily exportable to any format in the world," Seidel said of 24p. "We think it's cheap insurance to save your asset for syndication."
Editing in digital is also an enormous savings from the benchmark 35mm film format. Seidel said CBS' daytime HD offering "The Young and the Restless," for example, is now edited on a non-linear workstation that costs about $50,000. A comparable high-end edit room for 35mm would cost about $1 million, he said.
Karahadian said about 20 primetime shows are now shot in high-definition, up from about four a year ago. Most observers see that trend increasing, and hope HD production, as well as deals in which consumer electronics makers underwrite HD broadcasts, will help inspire the public to buy the sets.
But 24p and HD in general are not guarantees of quality shooting, nor are they right for every use. The fastest frame-rate available in HD is 60 fps on a Panasonic camera, which may not be fast enough for some film applications. And sports production generally requires more than 24 fps also. And in the wrong hands, with HD's increased sensitivity, problems could arise.
"The picture can be quite good," Karahadian said. "It can also be quite terrible if someone doesn't know what they're doing."
"The biggest thing about HD still is surrounding yourself with people who have done it," said Hughes.
THE DIGITAL NEWSROOM
Bringing high-quality news footage from camera to air more quickly than the competition is bringing big investments from the news stations that choose to go with high-end digital cameras, editors and servers.
WUSA in Washington, D.C. is spending "several million dollars" in a conversion to Avid equipment that, among other things, moves raw footage to servers at four-times-real-time, said photographer and editor Frank McDermott.
"Everyone in the newsroom can see it immediately," he said of the Avid NewsCutter system. "That's the advantage."
The NewsCutter, with features including more than 100 effects, "has an enormous amount of depth," he said. "Once you become handy with this system, you have infinite possibilities. There's nothing you can't do."
But, he adds, getting there is not easy.
The system has a steep learning curve, even for experienced videographers and editors, according to McDermott.
But like their offline counterparts in sitcoms and dramas, news producers say the inevitable transition to digital technologies will be that much less painful for stations that convert in small steps early.
Seidel said CBS is telling affiliates that if they wait to transfer the newsroom all at once, the costs will be more severe.
California-based Grass Valley Group's line of advanced products also packs the punch newsrooms need, with its Vibrint digital production tools.
GVG acquired Massachusetts-based Vibrint in 2000 and has struck deals with ABC and NBC and is wooing many small- and mid-market newsrooms.
"It really gets down to the style of user-interface," said GVG Director of Strategic Marketing Ray Baldock. "The Vibrint system puts only that information on the screen that is required to perform the function that the editor has required."
The system boasts interoperability with both Sony and Panasonic formats and a critical speed level, Baldock.
"That's what people have been testing," he said. "‘Can I do this as fast as I could with tape?'
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