The challenges of making an HD master

When HD Technology Updateinterviewed Pinlight president Rick Shaw in February, he briefly discussed “Beat the Drum,” an independent film he co-produced.

When HDTU caught up with the head of the Hollywood-based production and post company, he had just completed all of the HD deliverables for distribution of the film in the United States and abroad.

HDTU talked with Shaw about the intricacies of making a 1080p master and some of the surprises he encountered along the way.

HD Technology Update:
You recently completed mastering your film “Beat the Drum” for international distribution and on Showtime HD here in the United States. What lessons did you learn from your first experience making an HD master from film?

Rick Shaw: We first had to create a high resolution HD master because Showtime agreed to air the HD version, and because we suspected there might be other networks around the world wanting to air it in HD.

So we created a 1080p master in 1:78 aspect ratio, and then that became the basis for masters for everything else.

The film was shot on Super 35mm. So the 1:78 1080p master allowed us to scan the entire IP so that we had the entire frame to work with. On the deliverable copies, we simply put a 2:35 matte over the picture so it looks like it does on the screen in the theaters.

HDTU: What were some of the intricacies of the process that surprised you?

RS: Showtime’s deliverables specifications are very stringent and the requirements for audio internationally are incredibly complicated. We had to have Turbosound in Hollywood do seven different versions of soundtrack, depending on where the film was going to be aired or be shown theaters. Some countries wanted to put their own languages in, and they are all in different formats.

When you are starting with six-channel Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, it does get a little complicated. But we found that for most cases four-channel audio was suitable for broadcast. That gave us Channels 1 and 2 as stereo and Channels 3 and 4 as music and effects.

HDTU: What were some of the Showtime deliverable specs that were surprising?

RS: Well there is a long list. You have to have so many seconds of bars and tone. You can’t have anything but the movie on the tape. There can’t be any technical problems. The tone has to be at a certain level. It’s quite a long list of things. And since there are so many audio effects, the way people produce movies, you could do four-channel audio, or six-channel, but it all had to be in Showtime’s specifications.

Also, Showtime can’t air a 1080p tape. It doesn’t have the D5 format. We had to provide the staff with an HDCAM tape in 1080i, which required us to downconvert our 24p master to 1080i. The general feeling out here in Hollywood is that the 1080p 23.98fps master is the one that you should always make. Then you can go to any other version from that with the least amount of damage.

HDTU: You have a long history with the Macintosh in television production. Are there some similarities between your After Effects experience and making a pan-and-scan master?

RS: Well, I had never done a pan and scan before, and my colorist, David Block, did it for me. But the process to me seemed very familiar since I have worked in After Effects.

Basically, After Effects is a resolution-independent piece of software, and you can have a high-resolution image and look at it through a D1 composition window. Basically you have this understanding that you are cropping and looking through a hole. The pan-and-scan process is very similar to that, except it happens in real time.

We did this work in the Spirit room at Ascent Media in Burbank, probably the largest post house I have ever been to. It’s like a city block long. The engineering room is filled with D5 and HDCAM decks.

I had done the original color timing for the DVDs of “Beat the Drum” at the facility a couple of years ago. But now that we have to do all of these deliverables, I wanted to work with David Block again because I thought he did a great job.

HDTU: The last time we talked, your company Pinlight was using the Canon XL H1 for a documentary on singer Rickie Lee Jones. There seems to be a difference of opinion in the industry about the viability of the HDV format for broadcast acquisition. What are your thoughts on the subject based on your experience?

RS: I think the images we’ve gotten with the Canon are very good. I haven’t compared them with images from D5 or HDCAM with a split-screen analysis. But the other day I was over at Birns and Sawyer in Hollywood, and they were using a projection system to project some Canon video on a pretty large screen. It was incredibly crisp. I didn’t look for refreshing errors, which is the complaint — I guess — about HDV since it’s an MPEG stream.

Still compared to NTSC and what we watch most of the time, HDV is a huge improvement. And also the data rates are small enough that it doesn’t consume an enormous amount of drive space. I think the new Panasonic AG-HVX200 looks very interesting. They aren’t compressing it as a stream, but dealing with each frame independently.

I think we are in this crossroads here between jumping out of NTSC into HD, but all of a sudden now there’s a resurgence of NTSC again, and it’s because of the Internet. The data rates for HD are pretty demanding for Internet use, so a good old 4:3 clean image is still very useful.

So for example, with the marketing we are doing for “Beat the Drum” in South Africa, they are talking about having video downloads for cell phones and ring tones, and stuff like that about the film. You wouldn’t want to do that in HD. You’re trying to cut down on the data rate as much as you can and get it to fit on the screen.

Then you have Apple doing all kinds of video podcasts of normal NTSC shows that fit nicely on the iPod, and they look intensely crisp. So I think all of these interesting high-tech things are still for a while going to need a 4:3 image, so it’s not time to throw out NTSC.

Editor’s note
To learn more about the independent film “Beat the Drum” visit:

Tell us what you think!
HDTU invites response from our readers. Please submit your comments to We'll follow up with your comments in an upcoming issue.