HD Sets Make All The Difference

High definition is indeed a broadcast revolution. And not just for the obvious eye candy of the sexy 16:9 screen, amazing resolution and gorgeous pictures.

From the moment your station makes the switch to HD, it’ll revolutionize the way you do business in every corner of the station, from engineering to production, from news to promotion.

The key to a successful transition, according to Dan Devlin, creative director of Devlin Design Group of Breckenridge, CO, is truly in the preplanning process. We’re talking the mother of all planning here—a realistic, comprehensive Magna Carta that’ll help the whole station deal with HD’s big changes, before, during and after you flip the switch.

Devlin Design Group has helped HD pioneers WRAL and KSL, the very first broadcasters to make the switch to HD. Most recently, DDG’s clients with HD-ready sets include AOL, KMGH, KYTV, WOAI, WFMZ and WMC.

Because of the intense visual scrutiny of HD, it’s critical to factor in the creative side when choosing the equipment. “A lot of clients come in and say, ‘We’re putting in this equipment, these cameras and this transmitter,’” Devlin said. “Then, almost as an afterthought, they’ll realize they have to do something about the set and lighting.”

Engineers are dialed into the latest and greatest equipment from yearly trips to NAB. The creative folks? Well, many are basically clueless about the gear, and often there’s little or no real discussion about lighting, makeup or graphics in initial planning meetings. Devlin advised that as you plan your HD pitch to corporate, it’s critical to factor in the resources and time for a new set, new lighting and a new graphics package.

HD goes where no camera has gone before, which is right into the depths of your talent’s face. The wrinkles, the scars, the acne; it’s all there—in potentially devastating detail. HD’s incredibly sharp focus brings it all to the forefront: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Without the right lighting, on-air talent can look washed out, wrinkled and...dare we say it...older. A great set and lighting is a must.

Plan for a dimmable, computer-controlled lighting system that lets you set up key, fill and backlight for a variety of people and a variety of newscasts. While you’re at it, throw in a few bucks for some good advice from a makeup artist who’s worked with HD. It’s money well spent.

With SD, we traditionally want our anchors to cozy up on set, with chairs close together for that warm and fuzzy “team” look. But that won’t fly with HD. The 16:9 composition requires wider shot blocking that includes more background elements.

This revised approach to blocking affects literally everything on the set: OTS shots, anchor positioning, graphics and background elements. You’ll need a set designer who really understands HD. A true HD pro does a lot of left-brain math work before bringing in any right-brain creativity.

“When we plot out a set, we plot everything,” explained Devlin. “The camera angles, the relationship between the desk, the arc of the desk, the background, what’s behind the anchor’s head—it all needs to be very carefully calculated for the 16:9 format choreography and blocked.” Other considerations include camera and lens specs, graphics insertion and more.

Devlin said the majority of stations’ old sets just can’t make the HD transition because of the structural layout. “You’re not going to be able to dictate the composition of the shot like you could if you started from scratch,” he offered. “Most older sets just can’t give you the new shot blocking HD requires.”

He also warned that background element design is critical. “If you want your talent to pop,” he said, “you don’t want background elements to interfere.”

For most stations, that critical first decision is almost always about the gear. But it’s also key from a design standpoint. Deciding whether to go 720p or 1080i will affect the equipment and graphics. Stations that try to “get by” with existing graphics packages almost always end up spending more.

“It’s extremely important to include the money for a great HD graphics package right from the start,” Devlin said. “The ‘band-aids’ have gotten so much more expensive. Mistakes such as poor budget planning, and not considering the set design, lighting and graphics from the beginning can really cost you in the end.”

Simpler, cleaner backgrounds are generally better for the HD format. “That HD ‘pop’ can sometimes make backgrounds seem too busy,” Devlin added. Resolution is another key factor when making the HD switch. “Some stations decide not to use the entire 16:9 canvas. Instead, they build a graphics bed, then have a 4:3 insert for talent, using the rest of the space for news and information,” Devlin explained.

Of course, HD budgets can vary wildly depending on the size of your market, your studio, weather center requirements and the generosity of your GM. But according to Devlin, a new HD set will cost anywhere from $150,000 on the low end to $350,000 and up on the high side. For a dimmable fluorescent Briteline package that will augment the existing lighting in your studio, prices start at about $50,000. To get a custom lighting package for new, large studios, expect to pay between $150,000 and $200,000.