Who Needs HDV?

No, seriously... all joking aside... who needs it? Can you give me some names?

I know everybody wants HDV. I was in Las Vegas in April, and like those other 100,000 NAB attendees, I saw folks lined up six deep waiting to see the cameras and to look at the pretty pictures. I was one of them.

My parents trained me well, however, and when the Sears holiday toy catalog arrived each year way back when, it was made clear to me that what you wanted wasn't necessarily what you needed. To this day, I can sometimes draw that distinction, and I've begun to wonder about HDV.


In case you've been off napping behind the racks, you ought to know that HDV is the next hot thing in production circles. Everyone loves an ingenious technical solution, and HDV's got it--if full-bandwidth HDTV video won't fit on affordable, small-format tapes, how about recording a skinny little MPEG-2 stream instead? Problem solved, mostly. HDV brings HDTV to the economically challenged.

One of the few remaining challenges was editing. Compressed streams hate having their I,- P- and B-frames rearranged, and it took a year or so before editing software developers began to find ways to accommodate HDV without third-party plug-ins. With this hurdle cleared, HDV has leapt forward in the last months.

HDV, it could be argued, was a phenomenon that burst upon the scene at exactly the right moment. Small-format HD imaging chips were just out of development; and not only were core HDV ingredients like DV tape transports and high-speed IEEE 1394 hookups at their most mature and market-ready, but an entire aftermarket of production tools--lights, sound mixers and mics, camera support gear, external hard drive recorders--had sprung up to serve the booming quasi-pro DV community.

What's more, this same DV constituency had helped to popularize run-and-gun small camera shooting. No longer was it required that beefy cameramen shoulder 35 pounds of battery, lens and circuitry just to make attractive pictures. We watched lithe young PAs in scrubs glide around emergency rooms, grabbing DV footage from impossibly discreet vantage points.


Against this backdrop, there was a whole lotta HDV love in Las Vegas this past April, where systems integrators and "box houses" alike peddled HDV production bundles--a mini-set of Sachtler sticks, a wee matte box, an HDV studio deck and the camera itself, all for a price that barely broke five figures.

There were newly announced cameras and accessories at the NAB show, and more diversity of features and pricing. Camera support vendors dangled HDV cams from the ends of jib arms and cranes. And both Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro HD were seen busily cutting HDV footage.

And then there were the pictures. It's rare to find a video rat who isn't in love with high-def, and despite small-format imaging and aggressive compression, the HDV picture remains, at its essence, a high-def picture.

Pretty, with nice resolution and lots of texture--a shooter's dream come true. Personally, I couldn't wait to get my hands on one and just start taking pictures of pretty things and beautiful places, whether anyone was willing to pay for them or not.


It's always a lot of fun to peruse the pages of this fine publication; I can honestly say that I have never failed to learn a thing or two from each issue (although I'll confess that I haven't used those tips from "Transmitter Cooling Techniques" lately). One recent issue featured two seemingly unrelated topics: Jay Ankeney's post-NAB editing wrap-up, including HDV coverage; and yet another blast from our beloved Mario, one which characterized the relatively weak sales of HDTV sets among mainstream American audiences. And then it struck me.

Mentally, I'd been mapping our little company's migration to HDV, smiling at the thought of the rich images I'd bring back and of the unbridled creativity that would result. I'd planned out which aftermarket goodies I'd buy, which editing workflow would work best, and even how we'd route FireWire connections between devices. I'd only failed to plan for one fundamental criterion: Who, exactly, would be buying these HDV projects?


Now right off the bat, I can think of some outstanding uses for HDV. I think of the veteran documentarian Albert Maysles, who turned up unexpectedly last fall at a concert in my neighborhood, shooting a musician profile on mini-DV... a real eye-opener for me. Now that's a great use for HDV. I think about a big project I just finished for a Fortune 500 corporation involving dozens of interviews from key employees across the country. That would have been ideal--but wait--they couldn't handle an HDTV finished program. They can't even handle 16:9-formatted shows. Come to think of it, none of my business clients can play anything except standard-def, 4:3 video.

Therein lies the problem: If broadcasters, addressing the largest and most responsive TV audience can't motivate the purchase of HD or even widescreen SD TV receivers, it's not reasonable to expect that non-broadcast users... corporate, educational, medical and so on... are going to lead the charge. Historically, these folks have lagged behind consumers in time-to-adoption; we're still pushing to get $49 DVD players into our clients' conference rooms.

Like everyone, we've been waiting anxiously for the HDTV Revolution--nervous about the necessary expenditures, but nonetheless thrilled at the prospect of working in a big, beautiful format. And like everyone, we're still waiting, watching, looking for opportunities to stretch our legs with HD. To date, we've used high def mostly for its "look," immediately downconverting to 4:3 SD for post. We've rented VariCams and finished other jobs in native HD, but in all but one case, the client was a technology firm promoting its HD products and capabilities. I have difficulty accepting HD-for-HD's-sake as evidence of a growing trend.

I want HDV. I know it's coming. I can't stand the wait--I want to be out scampering around with an HDV camera, editing and compositing in HD at no more cost than standard definition. But until I can clearly identify a bunch of paying customers who need it, HDV is going to be a tough sale.

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.