Getting the Hi-def ROI

If you believe the PR hype, almost all the companies at last week's NAB convention in Las Vegas seemed to be showing off the same thing. Not "systems," not "products," but the universal buzzword "solutions." Yet as today's high-definition shoots crawl their way into post production, many of the first investors in HD finishing linear technologies are learning that the early-generation "solutions" have become late-generation financial boondoggles.

We'll start looking at the editing innovations introduced at NAB2002 next month. But first, even as the dust of the Las Vegas gala is settling, it may be appropriate to reflect on the pitfalls of jumping on a new "solutions" bandwagon too early.

One of the first West Coast companies to offer high-def post production was American Production Services, with facilities in both Seattle and Hollywood, which installed state-of-the-art linear HD tape-based bays in 1998-99. "We spent $2 million on just one of our edit suites, and we are finding it very difficult to recoup our investment," allows Conrad Denke, CEO of APS. "Now, only a few years later, nonlinear disk systems are available for under $50,000 and even though our linear bays may offer more real-time effects, it is becoming more and more difficult to compete with newer technologies at that price point."

Of course, tape-based HD finishing systems with individual source decks, standalone switchers and customized effects boxes may still have some advantages, thanks to a lack of rendering time and sometimes more sophisticated capabilities for the highest end of compositing/effects. But the slow rollout of HD has made it difficult to amortize that high initial capital expenditure.

"First 1080i came out, and then 24P," Denke says, "and there has been a delay in camera availability. We usually cover our costs in the first two years of a format's introduction and even though early on American Production Services had the lion's share of the first HD documentaries and TV Specials before Hollywood got hooked on it, that hasn't been enough to return our investment."

Out of necessity, American Production Services is now looking at new low-cost HD NLE offerings to reduce the cost of its high-definition finishing services. One of the most successful of these disk-based alternatives has been the CinéWave HD system from Pinnacle Systems. According to CinéWave Senior Product Manager Andrew Baum, Pinnacle has sold well over 100 of these systems for the PowerMac platform since they hit the market around last year's NAB, making CinéWave HD one of the most successful rollouts in high-definition technology.

CinéWave comes from Pinnacle's VAR resellers with software and hardware functioning on an Apple PowerMac G4. Its editing capabilities come from Apple's Final Cut Pro 3 software, performing in real time with uncompressed standard-definition video while high-definition effects require rendering. The system can provide unlimited layering, effects, paint and compositing tools, thanks to its TARGA Ciné Engine and CinéWave RT software and the inclusion of a full version of Commotion Pro 4.1 and Knoll Light Factory third-party software. Two Digital Tether ports are available for connecting to a family of SD and HD breakout boxes for flexible I/O options, and CinéWave can deliver in most of the popular formats, including DV, DigiBeta, uncompressed 601, PAL, NTSC, 1080i, 1080p, 4:3, 16:9, DVD and Web streaming.

But it's the system's cost/performance ratio that raises it above many other "solutions" of yesteryear. As Baum calculates it, "With 500 GB of storage that can hold an hour's worth of 1080i HD material, a dual Gigahertz G4 PowerMac, the Apple Cinema display and all the bundled software, you can get a CinéWave HD system for around $30,000." He says, "Even though some effects rendering is required for HD work, we feel our technology is revolutionizing the financial realities of high-definition post. That's one reason we are selling more HD finishing systems per month than anyone in the world."

One facility that has found an innovative way to incorporate the CinéWave HD system into its linear post facility is Colossalvision HDTV in New York City.

Its principal owner, David Niles, has been at the forefront of high-definition production and post since 1985, when the half-million-dollar cameras used hybrid one-inch Saticon pickup tubes and "HDVS" recorders were the size of telephone booths. Despite the fact that Colossalvision has an $8 million linear HD online suite capable of HD finishing, Niles was enthused about CinéWave HD NLE ever since he saw it at NAB2000.

The CinéWave HD system has been readily incorporated into Colossalvision's production flow because instead of using a linear edit controller to direct the facility's post production processes, Niles had written some software for the Snell & Wilcox 1012 switcher that takes over most of the timeline tasks. "We have it set so that the switcher looks at the timecode of the record machine or playback decks," Niles explains. "That way anything that is done on the switcher becomes key-frameable along its timeline. This includes everything from edits to effects to repositioning images and it's much faster than having an edit controller operator triggering the outboard devices."

This approach lets the CinéWave HD become part of the HD finishing process just like another input source.

"Communicating over uncompressed SDI lets us control the CinéWave HD just like a VTR and bring HD material into and back out of the switcher in real time," Niles says. "The combination gives us the speed of nonlinear editing while still having access to any of our stand-alone paint, color correction or effects boxes, just as if the NLE were part of the linear online bay."

This has let Colossalvision maintain competitively low hourly rates for its post-production services. "CinéWave HD gives us the ability to offer cost-effective editing and post-production services for HD that are competitive with NTSC rates without compromising quality," Niles tells us. "The system allows us to put very talented people onto HD without making an enormous investment in another high-end room."

In a few months, Colossalvision intends to build two separate bays with its own CinéWave HD systems. "The product is definitely ready for primetime," Niles says, "but we will be investing in the kind of bells and whistles that producers expect, including precision high-definition monitors for the clients, audio systems and the space to appreciate them, real-time keying that can be patched in and out, and up to 2 1/2 terabytes of additional HD storage. These satellite rooms will function either as offline bays or as additional source workstations to feed the linear online room."

That way customers of Colossalvision can always access the sophisticated dedicated systems in the much more expensive online bay when they need them, without having to pay a higher rate for the full session.

"This is indicative of the way we have approached HD finishing all along," Niles says. "We think everyone should be shooting high definition all the time, and CinéWave, Pinnacle and Apple have given us 'solutions' that are making it affordable."