Lights, Camera... Ouch!

I was swapping war stories with a former tech manager for one of the networks when he told me about the day new cameras went into service on one of the news magazine shows.

Zing... his cell phone rang.

"Hey, [insert anchor's name] looks terrible!"

He pointed out that the anchor's likeness was faithfully reproduced by the camera. In fact, it was too faithful.

The rest of his story was a kind of Chinese fire drill, where everybody did whatever each could so that (insert anchor's name) no longer looked terrible on-camera.

The tech manager's story got me thinking about a camera change that's eventually coming up for all TV stations that do newscasts--the change to HD.

For a recent story I wrote on studio-type cameras, camera makers told me they've seen the pendulum swing heavily in favor of HD-capable studio cameras in the last year. They said in almost all cases, the cameras are to be used initially for SD production but will allow purchasers to switch to HD at any point.

That switch-over day may not be right away, but there's no time like the present to start experimenting with what it's going to take to make good high-definition pictures of your talent in the studio.

I've not been through this for HD, but I've experienced it plenty in SD. From those experiences, I can tell you it's not a case of fixing one thing, then the next, then the next. It's a dynamic process of adjusting many elements until they all work in unison. That's why you can't do it in an afternoon.

I mentioned that many elements are involved. In addition to the skin detail and other camera adjustments, they include lighting, clothing, set design, makeup, lens treatment and camera blocking.

There are experts either in the station or available for hire who know a lot more about each of these elements than you or me. But since this is a production management column, I'll tell you where you come in--you've got to orchestrate.


I use that symphony metaphor because you've got to get everybody working together. Any change that you make in one element, such as lighting, can require adjustments in makeup, camera setup and the rest.

Where to start? How about arranging to have the cameras switched over to HD after a news program and take shots of the talent from all the angles the show currently uses? Capture them in high definition so you can play them back on a high-quality high-definition monitor.

This can scare the giblets out of the talent, because it may be their first look at themselves in HD. But the fact you're working on this with lots of lead time should assure them it's going to get much better before an HD newscast hits the air.

I don't know that there's any one next step, except to get help. If you're part of a group that has a station or so that's already gone HD, you might send a copy of the test recording to your counterpart.

It doesn't have to be someone in your group. If you know someone who's been through this HD transition anywhere, you might ask that person for help.

Help can come in a couple of forms. Whoever you consult can tell you they'd do this, that or the other as a start. Or maybe what they'll do is identify someone else you can work with. Either way, it's good to have someone to bounce your experiences off of, and if you're lucky, you can send them progress recordings to get more advice as you go along.

Here's a suggestion, a strong suggestion, almost an order--document, document, document. When someone makes a suggestion, write it down.

There's one section of your orchestra that makes changes at a relatively glacial pace. While you can move a light, tweak a camera or dab a new shade of makeup in a matter of minutes, changing the news set, even a background color, is a time-consuming and potentially expensive undertaking.

Find out what's working for new sets among the pioneers. Is there a different depth required? Are there colors that work better? Is a greater level of finish detail required to satisfy all that additional resolution?

Arrange to get the members of your orchestra together in the studio where they can experiment with the elements they control. You're not going to get the anchors to sit there for hours on end, but ultimately they need to be the guinea pigs because this is all for them.

And the reason I said document, document, document is that since everything's got to be returned to the status quo for the next SD newscast, you want to know what your orchestra did to make the progress they did. Get the results on tape and the steps to get there on paper.

With enough lead time and enough teamwork out of your orchestra, the phone call you get when the HD switch is thrown may contain a compliment.