Q&A: Peter Symes, SMPTE Director of Standards and Engineering

Peter Symes is the director of standards and engineering at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. He recently spoke with HD Notebook.

HD Notebook:How is the steady conversion to HD in the American TV industry most affecting SMPTE and its members at this stage?

Symes: At present, it is affecting our members much more than SMPTE itself, as more and more organizations join the HD ‘club’ and deal with the realities of implementation. Thanks to our members, SMPTE was well ahead of the game with HDTV. We’ve been working on HD for over 20 years—from the original work leading to SMPTE 240M, then the later 274M and 296M covering 1080- and 720-line standards, tape formats, file formats, interfaces, and so on. And I think this timetable is about to repeat itself. SMPTE is currently working on the first standards for the proposed 4320-line UHDTV—a technology that its proponent, NHK, expects to be between 15 and 20 years away from wide-scale deployment.

HD Notebook:What’s it like starting up a standards process?

Symes: Any standards process works best if it starts early. Then new technology can be brought to reality on the basis of known standards. If we’re late, the standards may have to be based on a choice, or compromise, among existing and competing implementations. Of course, it’s all more complicated than that; standards coming too early may assume [using] technology that becomes obsolete before widespread use. It’s good to get some fundamental parameters agreed to, and then rely on the combination of users and manufacturers to build the implementation standards later.

HD Notebook:Do you see HD-level digital technology playing a major role in motion picture production in the years ahead?

Symes: The standards and practices of the motion picture industry are somewhat different from HD but, yes, it’s fundamentally the same technology. It’s high-resolution digital processing applied to imagery—but in a different craft. Now that ‘digital intermediate’ has progressed to meet the demands of cinematographers, it’s an important part of most new motion pictures. It works both ways: HD provided the technology for DI [digital intermediate], but now the demands of DI—such as enhanced color gamut, greater bit-depth, and in some cases, 4K resolution—are pushing both technology and standards further than demanded by HD.

HD Notebook:What current work at SMPTE in HD or a related field is exciting you most these days?

Symes: We’ve just formed a joint task force with the European Broadcasting Union to look at new solutions for synchronization and time labeling. These are two very fundamental technologies that impact just about every aspect of our users’ work, and the current technology for both is really old!

Today we synchronize systems using color black signals that date back to the 1950s. We achieve stability by averaging zero crossings of short bursts of NTSC or PAL subcarrier frequencies that have little relevance in the digital world. The systems are robust, but do not provide everything we would like in a complex, multistandard world—and a production facility that operates at both 50 Hz and 59.94 Hz needs two reference distribution systems.