Panasonic Varicam HD Cameras Better Define 'Idol'

Now into its fourth season, "American Idol" on Fox is now capturing all its 720p HD feature material via Panasonic with VariCam HD Cinema cameras. The weekly program, which enjoys some of the highest ratings in television, is an entertainment variety show with contestants performing before live studio audiences, and relies heavily on multiple camera angles. It also features back-stage coverage where portability a necessity. (The non-performance aspects of the show were still taped in SD until this year.) Since August 2004, the "Idol" production has rented up to five VariCam camera packages.

Producer Simon Lythgoe said not only is his crew shooting in the wider 16:9 (where even the most talented camera people--he calls them "reality shooters"--must adjust), but they also are acclimating themselves to 5.1 surround sound and all the new elements that enhanced audio can lend to any HD production, especially one that features live-on-tape singing performances.

Lythgoe said the transition from Beta SP to HD went smoothly. Typically, they are using some of the HD cameras up to 18 hours a day, almost always in impromptu situations (i.e., contestants' homes and work places). The only noticeable difference, he said, is the need for more light when shooting for the far greater detail inherent in HD.

So far, the HD production has chosen to add off-speed effects in post production (and not yet using VariCam's variable frame-rate capabilities). Editing is done at the show's regular post house, Chainsaw of Santa Monica, Calif., where the off-line is done on the Avid Media Composer. The on-line uses the Avid DS. "Idol" also uses HD Canon lenses at CBS Television City in Los Angeles (see HD Notebook, 3/9/05).