Building HD news sets

With more stations making the leap to HD newscasts, important lessons are emerging about preparing the front-of-the-camera visual elements to look their best in HD and 16:9.


The first, and most important, consideration in preparing for an HD launch is to allow adequate time to integrate all departments. This factor holds true to everything from installing equipment, designing graphics and building a set.

WFTV-TV in Orlando, FL, launched its HD newscast in June 2006. Coordinating each department's expertise in technology, workflow and day-to-day operations filled gaps in knowledge and pooled information to create better solutions faster for staffers having similar problems.

It took the station 10 months to transition to HD, a time frame that worked well for news operation manager Dave Sirak and his colleagues. However, Sirak says that having a clear plan is key to any changeover.

At KCRA-TV in Sacramento, CA, director of marketing Jessica Rappaport headed up the station's HD conversion with the station's assistant news director and director of engineering. Planning began more than a year in advance, and she says, “the three of us were practically joined at the hip for that entire time.”

A hybrid world

With a realistic, collaborative plan in place, the next challenge stations making the transition to HD face is the fact that today's studio sets and graphics are hybrids. They need to work in the 16:9 aspect ratio as well as the still-dominant 4:3 screen size.

Russ Nelligan, creative services director at Hearst-Argyle's WCVB-TV in Boston, says his crews pay close attention to what viewers in both formats see. During a recent team coverage newscast, the station contemplated using the array of LCD monitors in the station's tech standup center to display multiple live shots for anchors to toss to — something it wasn't designed to do. But during experimentation, getting the shot framed wide enough to allow for the more rectangular 16:9 screen size caused the images on the monitors to be too small for viewers to discern.

Not all shots that work well in one aspect ratio work well in the other, says Glenn Anderson, senior designer at FX Group in Orlando, the company that designed sets for WCVB, KCRA and WFTV. He says it's important to remember that shots for 16:9, which keep active elements within the 4:3 center zone, require wider framing. Once everyone is viewing in 16:9, this will no longer be an issue.

To ensure everything looks its best, WCVB staffers have access to both 4:3 and 16:9 monitors throughout the station and are constantly reviewing how newscasts look in both aspect ratios.

Designing graphics

WCVB's biggest challenge has been designing on-screen graphics that are effective in both 16:9 and 4:3 while keeping in mind that essential information can't spill into the left or right side of the 16:9 screen. The station learned that creating a bottom-of-the-screen graphics ticker that communicates as effectively in 4:3 as 16:9 requires a little give and take.

Nelligan and his team also had to carefully consider where the station's familiar “5” bug would be placed on-screen. They didn't like how the bug floated in the middle of the screen for 16:9 viewers. In the end, WCVB's master control was configured to output two versions of its bug, one for each aspect ratio.

WFTV's bug placement wasn't an issue because the station's graphics package was developed to closely integrate the logo when lower thirds are displayed. Its designers did, however, have to ensure the graphics worked with both the WFTV “9” and its sister station, WRDQ-TV's “27,” because the two share newscast facilities and production.

Getting ready

One way to familiarize production crews with hybrid formats is to do a phased introduction of the new technology. Sirak and his team used this strategy at WFTV. The station was using its HD studio cameras in the weeks leading up to the launch, giving camera operators the chance to practice framing for both aspect ratios. Then, as the launch date grew closer, newscasts were produced from the new HD control room, although the signal leaving the building was still analog.

WCVB took a similar approach by producing its nightly newsmagazine “Chronicle” in HD prior to taking its newscasts HD earlier this year.

Nelligan says that another way to gradually transition to HD news is to do so during the midday newscast. Most midday broadcasts run only 30 to 60 minutes, so it's a good practice run to give crews several hours to work out any issues before the nonstop slew of early evening newscasts.

Shot-by-shot planning

Hybrid sets require careful planning of every shot used in a newscast before construction begins. Beginning with one-shots and working out to wider shots such as four-shots and tosses is the best way to approach this, Anderson says. FX stresses the importance of using 3-D computer renderings for accurate shot previews.

Not only is it crucial to avoid anchors encroaching on each other's shots, but attention must be paid to what's behind the anchors. When WCVB uses its rear-projection screen for nonweather stories, crews are cautious to avoid having weather-themed graphics from the adjoining weather center appear in the wider 16:9 shot.

Something that looks good in one shot won't always look good in another shot, Rappaport says. Her team recognized the detail that goes into shot planning. They spent hours adjusting which graphic and video feeds would be displayed in the dual monitor walls behind the anchors.

In the end, the most important role a set and its shots play is to help newscasters tell stories. Decide how you want to do news, and then design the set around that, Rappaport says. She urges stations to consider what shots they like in addition to what shots they'd like to see on the new set, including those for special coverage and franchise reporting.

Refreshing a set?

When gearing up for HD, many stations consider refreshing their news set instead of replacing it. However, replacing an old set with a new design is usually more cost-effective in the long run — and gets better results.

A refresh can often cost almost as much as a new set, and most older sets don't hold up under the crisper HD resolution, Anderson says.

KCRA originally considered renovating its then six-year-old set but realized it needed to start from scratch. You go into the studio and realize that HD is a completely different ballgame, Rappaport says. Her team found the old set's layout and surfaces wouldn't work in HD.

Depth vs. clarity

Along with HD's more vivid pictures comes a note of caution when considering set backgrounds. The contrast between light and dark in background materials and graphics doesn't need to be as high in HD, says Mack McLaughlin, CEO at FX Group. HD cameras tend to make things look more like humans see them, he says.

WCVB learned the contrast lesson the hard way. The station's creative team developed a unique cityscape background for its main anchor area that featured stylistically blurred outer edges. Within days of debut, the station received hundreds of complaints. Many viewers found the blur distracting, while others found it disappointing after spending thousands on an HDTV. Nelligan says viewers wanted clarity, and they felt they weren't getting it. WCVB tackled the issue head-on by contacting every viewer who registered a complaint. The station sent them samples of the proposed replacements and then picked the best one based on viewer feedback.

Material quality also plays a big role in how a set will look on-air, McLaughlin says. It's important to ensure that HD-ready sets are built by experienced turnkey fabricators who don't skimp by using subgrade materials. Cameras can no longer make low-quality laminates look like expensive, fine-furniture woodwork.

HD sets must be carefully maintained. KCRA, WCVB and WFTV rely on a custom-selected assortment of cleaning supplies provided by their set design firm to keep things looking well-cared for.

Lighting and makeup

The challenges of HD don't end with the set and graphics. Lighting and makeup both play a key role in how the talent and the set look. Combining stellar makeup with professional lighting is key for making HD look 3-D, McLaughlin says.

Professional lighting design should be installed by a trained expert and maintained on a regular basis. WFTV gets periodic visits to fix lamps that have slipped or burned out.

Regarding how a talent's makeup should look for HD, the general rule is less is more. Try to achieve a natural look for the anchors and reporters. Makeup should be clean, lightweight and color-correct. Finer molecule HD makeup offers better coverage and, when applied with an airbrush, looks more natural. Heavier SD makeup absorbs more light, looking blotchy.

Let cameras do the lifting

Another way to help on-air talent look their best is to use the advanced features found in most HD cameras. WFTV uses the skin detailing feature on its Sony HD 1500 studio cameras, using the camera control units to analyze and automatically enhance talent images over a wide range of skin tone, imperfections and hair color.

Sirak appreciates how this technology softens skins tones but still allows viewers to see extreme detail in an anchor's tie, jewelry or hair, for example. Even non-HD viewers notice clearer and sharper images of the set and talent. The station's clearer picture has attracted some viewers from the other, non-HD stations in the market.

The real challenge for HD will come when field cameras move to HD and talent in the field lose the selective flesh tone soften feature installed on the studio cameras, Sirak says. His crews shoot in 16:9 SD when covering stories in the field.

Lessons learned

In the end, KCRA, WCVB, and WFTV all learned valuable lessons during the HD conversion process. Being part of a station group allowed them to share the wealth of information. Rappaport and her team were closely involved with sister station WESH's HD conversion, which launched Nov. 1, 2007. She says she wishes her team had been more knowledeable about the HD process before they started and that they learned something every day.

Still, that shouldn't be a discouragement, McLaughlin says. He points out that everyone is learning new things all the time about HD. It's a rapidly changing area that makes this an exciting time to be in the TV industry.

Michael P. Hill is founder of SetStudio, a television news set design Web site.