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HDV transforms sitcom budgets

When producer Ron Greenwood and co-producers Leslie Taylor and Roger Dragsdorf put together their original budget to cover shooting the pilot of their upcoming sitcom, “Hollywood Alive,” they calculated the cost of producing it in high definition would come in at around $1.5 million. However, by deciding to tape this 3-camera shoot with JVC's new JY-HD10U cameras, the producers were able to bring the total production costs down to only $150,000.

The JVC JY-HD10U camera works well with a smaller crew, such as the group of technicians who worked on the 3-camera set of “Hollywood Alive.”

When JVC introduced its JY-HD10U camera in June 2003, it was greeted with some understandable skepticism, especially when the professional videographers saw its $4000 price tag. Based on JVC's consumer-level GR-HD1 camera, the JY-HD10U manages to squeeze a 16×9 high-definition signal onto a standard mini-DV cassette by using an HD version of MPEG-2 compression (MP@H-14). Although the specifications for the HDV format formulated by a consortium of Canon, Sharp, Sony, and Victor of Japan (JVC), include recording the 720 scanning lines (progressive)/1280 horizontal pixels 720p format (60p, 30p, 50p, 25p), and the 1080 scanning lines (interlace)/1440 horizontal pixels 1080i format (60i, 50i), JVC's first HDV camera uses a single-imaging chip to record 720/30P high-definition images.

Robert Shuster, the executive producer of “Hollywood Alive,” is the corporation manager of Hollywood Studio Rentals, a house that specializes in DV equipment. He has long-awaited an alternative to HDCAM or D-5 recording technologies, but he was well aware that the necessary ancillary equipment such as dollies, cranes, matte boxes and follow-focus systems did not yet exist for the smaller format cameras. When JVC announced its hand-held JY-HD10U at NAB2003, Shuster recognized its potential and began designing add-on production gear that would outfit the camera for professional production applications. By the time Greenwood brought the production to him, Shuster had designed add-on gear for pulling focus, lightweight body mounts and mini cranes that would adapt the HDV camera for the kind of studio shoot most crews were familiar with.

The rate card speaks for itself when comparing weekly camera-rental charges between conventional HD equipment with the new HDV format based on a month-long shooting schedule. Recognizing many variables, a Panasonic VariCam package, including a lens tripod, head and battery rents, for around $3000 a week from most Hollywood equipment providers, while a similar Sony CineAlta camera set-up usually goes for $4000 to $5000 a week depending upon configuration. A JVC JY-HD10U with lens and sticks can be had for less than $1000 for the same time frame. Given the ability to shoot with a smaller crew, the lack of specialized technicians, and comparable savings on body mounts, smaller dollies and cranes can leave a lot of budget left over.

Posting the HDV footage proved straightforward thanks to the Aspect HD plug-in software that Cineform created to prepare the short Group of Pictures (GOP) MPEG-2 high-definition footage for editing in Adobe Premiere 6.5. Aspect HD uses wavelet compression to convert the HDV transport stream into Cineform's own visually loss-less proprietary CFHD format based on the Windows AVI file structure. CFHD increases 19Mb/s HDV bandwidth to roughly 6-10 Mb/s, allowing two simultaneous real-time HD channels from a 7200-rpm hard drive. Hollywood Studio Rentals set up an edit bay based on a single Pentium 4 processor Windows platform with RAID array storage that could handle up to six HD streams at the same time, while Aspect HD provided an enhanced video pipeline with improved HD transitions, effects and motion control over those available from Premiere by itself. The final version will be converted to either D-5 or HDCAM, depending upon their client's submission requirements.

Of course, there were obstacles to overcome when pioneering the implementation of a new recording technology. HDV is less forgiving when maintaining definition in brightly lit areas than other HD formats and directors have to tailor their lighting schemes to accommodate the MPEG-2 recording's requirements. Crews accustomed to more robust HD equipment had to adjust to the light weight of the JY-HD10U camera, and the new follow-focus controls and matte box equipment designed by Hollywood Studio Rentals took some getting used to. But the look of the HDV footage, even before color correction, while not satisfying the ideals of HD purists should easily fulfill the expectations of a television audience weaned on videos and DVDs.

Greenwood and Taylor don't necessarily expect the pilot for “Hollywood Alive” will actually see broadcast. So far, it is more of a vehicle to demonstrate the story lines, the character mix and their own ability to bring such a project to fruition. But several technologies exist to convert the HDV 720P/30 images to other HD delivery formats, and tests are under way to demonstrate HDV's validity as the original source for ultimate over-the-air transmission.

With HDV making inroads into documentaries and independent features, as well as being ideal for entry-level HD ENG applications, the cost advantages of using a camera such as JVC's JY-HD10U are starting to let producers put their money on the screen rather than into equipment rentals.

L. T. Martin is a freelance writer and post-production consultant living outside of Los Angeles.