The HDV Breakthrough

The original idea was "HD for the Masses" when JVC introduced its prosumer GR-HD1 camera last March based on a new recording format called HDV. Following its campaign to reduce the bitrate-and cost-of high-def production that was initiated with its D-VHS technology, JVC (Victor Company of Japan) along with a consortium of companies including Canon Inc., Sharp Corp., and Sony Corp., figured out a way to record an HD signal onto standard DV and Mini DV cassettes.

Then last June, JVC began shipping the first professional-level HDV camera, the JY-HD10U, at the breakthrough price of less than $4,000. HDV's specs are broad enough to accommodate the 1280 x 720p (60p, 30p, 50p, 25p), 1440 x 1080i (60i, 50i) and 480p/60 formats, although in its current incarnation JVC's JY-HD10U camera records 720p/30. But at this price level, is that good enough for primetime?

Blue Laser Productions believes the JY-HD10U's cost/benefit advantages may revolutionize HD production, and is using it on a three-camera sitcom intended for summer replacement on CBS called "Hollywood Alive." Executive Producer Robert Shuster reveals that although the company's original budget for the pilot using conventional HD cameras was estimated at well over $1.5 million, the HDV format has enabled Blue Laser to bring it in for $150,000. Are the economics of HDV starting to get your attention?


The fly in the ointment has always been the challenge of editing HDV, since it records its high-definition images in a compressed MPEG-2 transport stream (MP@H-14 if you are keeping score) that gains its data efficiency by using an elusive six-frame Group of Pictures or "GOP" containing I, B and P frames. Many were concerned they would have to decompress the HDV source material through an HD-SDI converter to feed mainstream NLEs that would take a major chunk out of anybody's budget. But now there are several options for addressing the HD MPEG-2 editing challenge directly that brings vital competition to the burgeoning maturation of the HDV post-production market.

The JY-HD10U does come with a rudimentary editing software developed by KDDI called MPEG Edit Studio Pro LE Ver. 1.0, which even JVC's National Marketing Communications Manager, Dave Walton, admits is not designed for professional applications. "It is the same software that comes with our consumer HDV camera," Walton says, "and is really designed for video capture, streaming and limited editing."

But there are alternatives, with several more coming onto the market as you read this. To date, the most widely used professional editing enabling technology has been a plug-in for the Windows-based Adobe Premier 6.5 called Aspect HD from Cineform, Inc. For $1,200, Aspect HD converts the HDV MPEG-2 transport stream into Cineform's own wavelets-based editing format called CFHD. "We call it visually lossless," claims Ed Arrington, vice president of marketing at Cineform, Inc., "and it is designed as an intermediate format for editing on a high-performance PC. By converting the 19 Mbps bitrate of HDV to 70 Mbps wavelet files, you get a balance between uncompressed HD and fully compressed MPEG-2 so you can edit compressed HD footage online just as you would DV material."

Aspect HD includes a video pipeline that offers high-quality HD video transitions and effects, color management, motion control and graphics at a level unattainable for HD work in Premier alone.

On Jan. 19, Cineform also began shipping Connect HD, which includes all its intermediate CFHD codec technology that supports virtually all the HD formats processable on any brand of PC. Based on a technology known internally at Cineform as Carlsbad, Connect HD also offers HD Link, a capture and export tool for HDV either to JVC's JY-HD10U or a D-VHS deck. And, at month's end Cineform released Apsect HD Ver. 2.0 for Premier Pro (originally called Ver. 7.0), supporting even greater real-time HDV editing capabilities.

For Macintosh fans, Heuris Logic Inc. provides the Indie HD Toolkit that lets you import and export HDV into Apple's QuickTime environment so editors can bring the material into applications such as Final Cut Pro. The complete HD Toolkit contains three modules. Heuris is already marketing XtractorHDV, which takes data from the HDV camera via FireWire and puts it on the desktop so it can be imported into Final Cut Pro. The company is also offering XtoHD, which transfers the MPEG-2 transport streams across IEEE-1394 back to the camera or a D-VHS deck for playback. On Feb. 1, the company released XportHD to re-encode the data from QuickTime back to 720p. All three components sell for just $499.

"Basically what is stored on the JY-HD10U camera is not something that QuickTime can deal with because there is just too much information," explains Brian Quandt, president and CEO of Heuris. "So we remove the headers and take the material out of the internal HDV format and underneath we find an MPEG file that we write to the desktop. That's what QuickTime can read and import into Final Cut Pro."

HD Toolkit doesn't require any special hardware. In fact, although the specs call for a dual 1.2 GHz Mac running OS X, Quandt uses his old 1 GHz 12-inch PowerBook for demos.

Another alternative is available from Ulead Systems, which has been editing MPEG in its native format for more than three years. As of Feb. 27, an HDV plug-in will be available for its Media Studio Pro 7 editing application for $299 that can capture the HDV transport stream and edit it on the timeline in MPEG as a program stream, "as if it were any other piece of video," says Travis White, product marketing manager at Ulead. "We can decode the GOP and create new I-frames at the cut point. That gives you frame accuracy without first transcoding the MPEG."

Because of the variable bitrate nature of MPEG, Ulead identifies the location of a cut point based on the time stamp, or presentation time, of the stream. Once there, they decipher the GOP and slice it where the edit is intended. Then Ulead's system decodes the GOP and re-encodes the last frame as an I frame to cap off the edit. That way nothing is lost, but the MPEG stream of HDV has been edited without the quality loss of transcoding.

So the idea of "HD for the Masses" is proving viable thanks in part to the emergence of the HDV format, and its acceptance will be accelerated as more companies enter into the fray. New HDV cameras will undoubtedly be seen at NAB along with supporting post-production systems. The resulting competition may open new horizons for affordable high-definition production.