Pushing the HD Editing Envelope

We've seen high definition being edited on desktop NLEs for a while, but in the past it has always involved feeding the source HD into the system via HD-SDI, which, with its required video cards, makes it more expensive than long-form features can usually afford. But when Panasonic released its AJ-HD1200A deck, the whole equation changed.

(click thumbnail)Panasonic AJ-HD1200A
The AJ-HD1200A can output DVCPRO HD over FireWire directly into editing software such as Apple's Final Cut Pro HD. This, combined with the vastly lower storage costs of the 100 Mbps DVCPRO HD, has resulted in lowering the cost of high-definition post to a level that even indie features can afford.

One of the first films to employ this approach, "Sweet William," is due to get its final film-out this month and its editor, Mitch Stanley ("City by the Sea"), has found this is a remarkably practical alternative to conventional HD post. Produced by Josh Liveright ("Angels in America"), "Sweet William" was directed by J. Miller Tobin ("CSI," "OZ") and shot with a Panasonic VariCam by veteran DP Michael Caporale.

Starring Frank Langella and Bruce Marshall Roman, who also penned the script, it's a coming-of-age story about a young man who wants to leave the family's horse business to become a writer.

Stanley edited the feature on an Apple Macintosh G4 last fall in his apartment overlooking the Marina del Rey harbor outside Los Angeles. But the key is that because of the storage efficiency of DVCPRO HD, he was able to hold 45 hours of native HD dailies on 900 GB of off-the-shelf drives that cost less than $1,000.

When he needed to expand, Stanley simply went to CompUSA and bought a 250 GB Maxtor drive that gave him an additional 12 hours of high-def capacity.

"Actually, the director, J. Miller Tobin and I spent only 12 edit sessions together since he was shooting another project up in Vancouver," Stanley said. "And since I had to do some personal traveling, I was able to have Final Cut Pro recompress all the source bins into 80 GB of low-rez JPEG files that I could carry along on my Titanium 17-inch G4 laptop. Tobin had a similar setup, so he could log onto my laptop at night and see the latest cut after each day's editing. Heck, I even did some of the editing on the plane flying back and forth from New York."

Every film Stanley had previously cut had been edited with standard-definition video dubbed from telecined dailies. But this time, back in his apartment, he was able to see the native high-definition images on his living room monitors without squinting at offline resolutions.

"I'm a convert," he said. "Whatever future project I work on, I'll encourage the producers to go high definition all the way."

The enabling technology for this breakthrough is the ability of Final Cut Pro HD and other editing software to import high-definition material over FireWire from Panasonic's AJ-HD1200A deck that was introduced at NAB2004 and began shipping just as "Sweet William" started shooting last June.

"It's the only deck in the world that can record and output 720p or 1080i HD over IEEE-1394 FireWire, thanks to the DVCPRO HD codec," said Jeff Merritt, Panasonic HD product line business manager. "Since 24p high def recorded by our VariCam is stored at 5.8 Mbps, you don't need massive RAID arrays to hold it compared to the 1.5 Gbps of uncompressed HD. Suddenly, HD becomes affordable for long-form productions because, with an HD1200A deck, FCP software and a standard G4 or G5 Mac, you can create a complete native HD edit system for under $30,000."


But Stanley wasn't done pushing the HD envelope. Instead of outputting to tape, he used FCP software to create large 23.98 fps QuickTime files for each of the film's five reels. The 35 GB of locked picture was then delivered on an external hard drive to Complete Post in the heart of Hollywood for color correction and eventual film record out.

Anton Linecker is the technical adviser at Complete Post who is overseeing the finishing of "Sweet William" and who upconverted the QuickTime files to 1080p on D-5 tape for daVinci 2K color correction.

"It went very smoothly, with the output to D-5 requiring only about three hours and the color correction proceeding as it normally does," Linecker said. "It's useful for editors to understand the way VariCam records slo-mo and how Final Cut Pro handles it, but the daVinci 2K can give it a very professional look. The good thing is this process lets you edit the HD format at a data rate you can handle on a desktop or PowerBook system, and even though you avoid the cost of the traditional online mastering, you get an uncompromised result. It's another option and in some cases, a better option."

"Complete Post did a great job," Stanley said, "and we are hoping with a star like Frank Langella and debut performance from Bruce Marshall Roman, 'Sweet William' has a good shot for festival consideration. In fact, we have already had some very successful test screenings, playing the film back directly from my PowerBook in HD."

He plans to take the tapeless post concept even further.

"Next time, I hope to stay completely in the computer file world by converting my QuickTime directly to sequential Targa files, which the da Vinci system needs, and thereby bypassing tape altogether. It's interesting to see the reactions of my contemporary editors. Some are blown away by the process; others are still skeptical. But with this kind of cost-savings from desktop HD editing, it's certain this approach is going to progressively gain acceptance. Independent productions like 'Sweet William' are the ones who are re-inventing the post-production process so I feel that this is a snowball that is just beginning to roll."