Series debuts as first hi-def reality show
Fox Broadcasting has rolled the dice on a new series, "The Casino," an unscripted reality drama that brings to life the glamorous excesses and seedy desperation of casino life in Las Vegas.
The network also put its faith and its pocketbook behind shooting the first 13 episodes of "The Casino" in HD, a move that initially raised some eyebrows since Fox is not currently broadcasting programming in the high-definition format. The show marks the first reality program across all networks to be shot in HD.
It's also a first for Mark Burnett Productions, producers of "The Casino" and other reality programming series, including "Survivor" and "The Apprentice."
SIN CITY IN HD
"The Casino," which began airing in June, showcases how bizarre life in Sin City can be-an odd juxtaposition of people and personalities from all walks of life, thrown together in an adult theme park of gaming, fighting, dancing and drinking.
There's a reason the advertisements warn, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." What's happening on "The Casino," however, is very much up for public consumption. The program centers on two, newly rich dot-com multimillionaires, Timothy Poster and Thomas Breitling, who sold the travel site Travelscape.com to Expedia in 2000 for a handsome sum.
The two decided to embark on a lifelong dream of owning a casino, and purchased the Golden Nugget, a downtown casino and hotel. The cameras follow Poster and Breitling around in their efforts to revamp the dilapidated hotel to its swanky, retro beginnings.
"The city attracts people from all over the world with two things on their mind-getting rich quick and having as much fun as possible in a short period of time," said Mark Burnett, producer of the show and founder of the production company that bears his name. "It is the magnetism of Las Vegas that we will try to capture on-camera."
To capture that magnetism, "The Casino" has employed 18 Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam high-definition digital cinema cameras, selected for their ability to replicate many of the features of film-based cameras, including 24-frame progressive scan images, time-lapse recording and a range of variable frame rates (4 fps to 60 fps in single-frame increments). According to Panasonic, the AJ-HDC27 also features CineGamma software, which allows HD cinema camera systems to more closely match the latitude of film stocks.
In addition to the 18 VariCam cameras, the production is using Panasonic TH-42PHD6Y 42-inch high-definition plasma displays, BT-LH900 9-inch HD monitors and Panasonic DVCPRO AJ-HD1700 HD decks. The production is also using Avid Media Composers and Avid|DS systems.
Members of the team working on "The Casino" praise the clarity and precision of the high-definition results, highlighting the technology's ability to pinpoint even the smallest details.
"We did a camera test to show off the capabilities of the technology, and even I was surprised at the clarity of some of the images," said Chris Campbell, executive in charge of post production for the series. "We were able to see the definition of the individual chips as they sat on the [gaming] table, and the individual green threads that make up the felt on the [craps] table. We shot scenes out on one of the desert roads that lead into Las Vegas, and the detail you can see in the pavement is incredible."
The downside to shooting in HD remains the cost, Campbell said.
"Budget is the biggest issue," he said. "Everything is more expensive when you're working in HD."
The production costs remain "tight," he said, but with the proper management "HD for reality television can be done."
The production received assistance from Bexel, which is renting the cameras to the production company, as well as from Panasonic, which provided camera operator training.
Plus, many of the things you take for granted in standard definition can pop up as an issue in HD, said Jim Sterling, post-production supervisor for the show.
The resultant images, however, "are phenomenal," Sterling said. "When we screen in HD, the folks who work in post are often blown away at the finished images, as they are looking at 3/4-inch tape of Beta SP. But instead of simply being surprised with SD, with HD it's like being hit by a freight train."
While other reality programs such as "The Contender" and "Rock Star" are not currently shooting in HD, the success of shooting in high definition on "The Casino" may push others in that direction, Campbell said.
Fox is set to begin broadcasting in high definition later this year.
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Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.