HDV Hits Airwaves

WCVB shoots with new Sony camera
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WCVB shoots with new Sony camera

BOSTON

At NAB2003, JVC shook up the high-definition market by introducing a $3,000 camcorder that delivers 720p onto miniDV tape.This ushered in the new HDV format, which raised the prospect of low-cost, high-definition production. Although it was good news for consumers, the format failed to meet the demands of professional broadcast acquisition. Then Sony entered the game and upped the ante by offering a three-chip, 1080i consumer-level camcorder--the $4,000 HDR-FX1.

Now, ABC affiliate WCVB-TV in Boston has proved the broadcast viability of HDV by airing an original production shot with Sony's HDR-FX1. "Haunted New England," aired Jan. 26 on the magazine-format program, "Chronicle", was a full-fledged HD broadcast shot with Sony's HDV camcorder.

LEANER & LIGHTER

"We experiment with new cameras whenever we get a chance," said Mike Keller, director of engineering for Hearst-Argyle Television, Eastern Division. The bulk of HD production at WCVB is shot using three Ikegami HL-V90 1080i cameras with $27,000 lenses. Each package costs about $80,000. Sony lent an HDR-FX1 for them to play with, and the station videographers and engineers were startled.

"We compared the footage," to the Ikegami, Keller said, "and we could see a difference, but it wasn't the type of thing where we'd say, 'we can't use that.'"

WCVB has produced "Chronicle" for 24 years, and recently began making segments in high definition.

"We can't do all 'Chronicles' in HD," Keller said. "The cameras are big and attract a lot of attention. They're hard to put in small places and need a fair amount of light. We were looking for something leaner and lighter, not to replace our Ikegamis, but to complement them."

The high-end Ikegamis will still handle the bulk of the acquisition, but the addition of small hand-held HDV cameras will enable them to capture shots that would otherwise be too difficult. And in some cases, as with "Haunted New England," production could involve entire programs with HDV footage.

"With this small camera you don't attract attention," said Art Donahue, videographers and producer on "Chronicle." "People think you're just some geek with a video camera."

Donahue was effusive about the HDV camera during a demonstration screening of "Haunted New England" held at the station last month. Of paramount importance is that footage can be cut together with footage shot on high-end HD cameras. While Donahue acknowledges the HDV footage is not as crisp, he sites advantages that make it an ideal part of an HD camera arsenal.

The LCD viewfinder allows an HD videographer to work alone, which is not feasible with most HD outfits. The camera is about two stops more sensitive to light, which combined with the small size, allows the user to shoot in smaller, darker places formerly hostile to the HD videographer. In addition, it has twice the battery life, and the miniDV tapes are cheap and widely available. And of course the cost is very attractive.

"The Sony camera costs less than our field monitor," Keller said.

Said Donahue: "I was out in a rural area shooting HD footage, and I ran out of tape. I just went to Wal-Mart and picked up some miniDV tapes and we were back in business."

"The cons are that it doesn't look very professional," Donahue said. "It's hard to keep steady doing hand-held shots because it doesn't sit on your shoulder. It's more fragile [than the Ikegamis] and the optics are not that sharp."

But the engineers at the screening were all impressed by the relative sharpness of the image and its viability for broadcast. There was some debate over whether the image softness is due to the lens or the MPEG-2 compression.

"I would love to see a great lens on this camera and see how it performs" Keller said.

Sony is set to release its professional version of the camera, which, according to Sony sales representative, Steve Dirksmeier, will add about 40 improvements to the consumer version, including XLR audio inputs and SMPTE timecode, and sell for around $5,000.

The Sony HDR-FX1 is a three-chip 1080i camera using MPEG-2 compression to reduce the data rate to 25 Mbps. Donahue had to improvise an editing workflow because the camera outputs didn't interface with the editing system. So he took the analog component out and re-digitized onto Panasonic DVCPRO HD for online editing.

All major NLE systems will soon provide HDV editing support. Avid plans to add HDV capability to Avid Xpress Pro HD and Media Composer Adrenaline HD in mid-2005.

What this portends for the future is low-cost HD production acceptable for most professional applications. While A&E initially rejected HDV for high-definition, it may reconsider the format as the cameras and quality steadily improve. Currently, JVC is upgrading its HDV camera line and Canon will soon enter the mix. From here, there is nowhere to go but up, and low-budget producers and independent filmmakers can ease the fear that they will be shut out of the HD playing field.