High definition video, also known as “hi-def” or “HD,” isthe future of broadcasting. The movement towards HD was influenced by widescreen television. High-definition television (HDTV) productions are shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio (16 units wide by nine units high), versus standard television’s 4:3 aspect ratio.
Although the movie industry’s early interest in HD revolved around theatrical viewing, current excitement revolves around commercial broadcasting. There are three broadcast options that are being considered for the HDTV standard. The first, which is presently the most popular, is that HD should be broadcast simultaneously with existing standards for at least the next few years. The second choice for the standard is that HD would replace the existing standard immediately (not likely to happen). The third choice is that HD should be compatible with the current broadcast standard.
Globalization and standardization are essential in launching digital television. The standard that specifically addresses high definition formats is SMPTE 274 (not to be confused with SMTP, or Small Mail Transfer Protocol). The SMPTE 274 standard defines various frame rates in frames-per-second as well as the high-definition resolution of 1920x1080 pixels. For example, a specific SMPTE 274 format is “1080p/24,” abbreviated as 24p. The number 1080 refers to the number of horizontal lines in the image. The letter “p” stands for progressive scanning (as opposed to interlaced scanning), and the number 24 indicates the frame rate. In other words, the standard 24p or 1080p/24 means “24 frames per second with a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels.” 24p is a logical global standard since it can be converted into the PAL and NTSC national signal standards easily and successfully. Because of this ease of conversion, HD’s universal popularity is rising quickly.
Productions shot on DV are currently popular due to the same ease of conversion; but there is a significant lack of image quality when compared to HD video. Most adult production companies shoot on DV and edit in the form of digital data, but even the productions shot on film need to be digitized for post-production. Shooting image data in an already digital form can increase quality, align audio with the image concurrently, add information that can be added to the media as metadata, and significantly reduce the costs of post-production. Features that are shot on film can be shot in high definition digital format and facilitate workflow without compromising quality. After all, with respect to quality, “a love scene shot on video is considered ‘Porn.’ A love scene shot on film is considered ‘Art.’” (Bermanfilms.com)
Workflow is “the defined series of tasks within an organization to produce a final outcome” (Webopedia.com). In the case of movie production, this generally encompasses everything from casting and location scouting to shooting, digitizing, editing, screening, and releasing the product.
A well-organized workflow can help keep the costs of production minimal. To create an HD feature requires large capital for buy-in, even if you merely rent the necessary equipment. However, as most have seen with DV, an all-digital workflow reduces costs dramatically. When considering the switch to HD, the production company can assess Return On Investment (ROI). ROI is the time it will take to recoup the costs of the investment. For larger companies that would likely produce multiple HD features and other productions in a year, a good ROI is inevitable. Smaller companies should consider a good ROI to span two years or less. In other words, if an HD production will pay for itself in two years or less, then making the switch to HD would appear to be an acceptable risk.
Despite what the buy-in costs for HD production equipment may be, a digital workflow may significantly save on the cost of editing. The data stream of a high definition camera can be stored on hard disks without compression. This eliminates the need for film or tapes. Uncompressed images are of optimal quality, and can be reviewed on location. A hard drive for HD footage can also be networked for easy access by the post-production team, which will eliminate the need for tape forwarding or rewinding or tape feed processing. A good hard disk should be able to house over 95 minutes of footage at a rate of 24 frames per second.
Issues to Consider
Because of bandwidth limitations on HD broadcast, it is important to recognize that compression will most likely be performed on your feature, and the quality of the broadcast may be less than what was shown in your screening room or at the edit bay. Even if the HD service provider has extra channel space available, it most likely will not be enough to accommodate the bandwidth of HD. MPEG-2 is a popular compression technique. “The use of MPEG-2 [permits] HD to interact with computer multimedia applications directly. For example, HD [can] be recorded on a multimedia computer, and CD-ROM applications [can] be played on HD systems” (washington.edu).
Different types of compression are used in different international territories. Japan uses the MUSE system, which utilizes subsamples of images, which results in the signal transmission of every third picture element. What this means for production companies is that certain scenes may not appear exactly as they’re meant to appear. Stationary shots with the MUSE system are fine, but moving objects may not be transmitted on a stationary plane, causing the image to smear a bit. Most viewers will not notice, but it is still a quality concern nonetheless. Image smearing is noticeable, however, during camera panning. Thus, if your primary market utilizes this sort of compression, you may want to limit the use of panning and excessive camera movement. Smaller adult companies in the U.S. may not need to worry about the MUSE system as much, due to the fact that the adult market in Japan is usually proprietary – Japan does not import much American adult material; most everything is produced in Japan for Japan. This is unfortunate for U.S. production companies, for Japan represents an enormous market for HD, and has been successfully broadcasting HD services for quite some time.
Broadcast distribution is another consideration. The question to ask regarding broadcast distribution is, “Will the feature be broadcasted by terrestrial, satellite, or cable channels?” Terrestrial broadcast is the term for standard television broadcasting (via an antenna). This distribution option is currently not available to adult entertainment, so you want to decide if your primary market watches mostly through satellite or cable, for each may have different bandwidth needs.
You also want to consider whether the production will be viewed as interlaced versus non-interlaced (progressively scanned). This is another quality-control issue. Interlaced images may result in lower resolutions, and may produce choppy edges, misaligned frames, or occasional flicker. Most services will attempt to provide progressively scanned feeds, but you want to make sure your product looks good even when interlaced, so you don’t alienate viewers without superior service.
Another important aspect to consider is the future value of the production material. Due to rapid technological advancements, it is probably a good idea to question the usefulness of an HD image or HD footage down the road. Digital standards may change. Global markets may change. Can the footage shot today be used for future productions?
Producers can rest assured that conversion houses will always exist to convert a finished product from its native format to the format needed for broadcasting. However, when considering the scalability of HD productions, the underlying difference in format is the aspect ratio. As mentioned earlier, current NTSC productions are presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, meaning that regardless of the size of the screen, the image will be four units wide and three units high. The primary characteristic of HD format (aside from higher resolution) is that the picture is 20 percent wider (16 units horizontally and nine units vertically). Conversion houses have successfully converted 4:3 ratio images to 16:9. In a worst-case scenario, black or gray bars are used to fill the additional space on the sides of the 4:3 image, usually in the event that increasing the size of the picture results in framing problems and/or cropping of important picture elements. It is easier to accomplish “down conversion” (converting from 16:9 aspect ratio to 4:3 aspect ratio).
Film can be converted to any television standard without a loss of quality, but you can guard against HD obsolescence by using the highest pixel count possible, which will minimize the impact on resolution and aliasing during conversion. Despite the impending costs associated with HD’s potential usability issues as compared to film, film is still the more expensive medium overall. HD tape/hard disks have reusability potential that can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars per production as compared to film.
AVN Online interviewed director Eli Cross to get some real-world answers to our HD production questions. Cross has shot and directed several adult productions on film, DV, and high-definition video.
AVN Online: What is the first thing a production company should consider when shooting and editing in HD?
Eli Cross: Step one is to think about the back end – post production. Your post bay has to handle the format you’re shooting in. Workflow planning is most important. A lot of people shoot the stuff and then try to cut it only to find that posting high-def is extremely difficult. HD is almost treated as film these days – cut it to DV, transfer it, export the EDL. Costs get out of hand if not planned for. The final output could take hours of rendering time. Post could cost tens of thousands of dollars if you don’t know what you’re doing. The first thing we did was set up our editing bays to handle HD. We bought pre-configured hard drives. We also decided to rent our decks, because a deck is between $50-60,000 to purchase.
AO: Was there an embedding issue with the pre-configured drives and your existing system? Did you have to purchase adapters in order to connect with the existing architecture?
EC: It’s easy to build into an existing system, but I recommend buying or building a whole new system because you need all the horsepower you can get for high definition. You want the fastest system, the hottest video card.
AO: What software system do you use?
EC: I use Sony’s Vegas. It has full-resolution previewing, as does Final Cut Pro. This is very important because looking at an HD image on an HD monitor is critical. An NTSC monitor will not show everything; you will get surprises. We were shooting a feature and there was some visual noise; we saw it [on the HD monitor] and were able to correct for it. If we had an NTSC monitor, we would never have seen that noise, but it would have shown up in broadcast.
AO: What is the next step, once you have your back-end system in place?
EC: You then start worrying about pre-production. Decide on format (Panasonic versus Sony). Format wouldn’t make much of a difference if I were making a [higher-budget] mainstream feature, but for shooting low-budget – and even the most expensive adult feature definitely qualifies as “low budget” – I find that Sony cameras are too heavy. Also they’re slower, and they only shoot in 24p. Panasonic’s VariCam can shoot 24p, 30p, 45p, 60p, and others. I use the VariCam. The Sony cameras are much larger, much heavier, harder to maneuver. The tape stock is almost three times as expensive. The VariCam is lighter, smaller, and the critical focus is better.
AO: How much consideration do you give interlaced broadcast versus progressively scanned?
EC: There are really two types of HD in the United States: 720p and 1080i. There is also 1080p, but that’s really only used for making theatrical movies. 1080p is what LucasFilm used to shoot the last Star Wars. Broadcast is either 720p or 1080i. 720p is progressive scan and 1080i is interlaced, but they’re effectively, to the eye, the same resolution. The United States wants 1080i. Playboy wants 1080i. But it doesn’t really matter what it’s shot in. Footage can be converted from one to the other.
AO: What about frames per second?
EC: All HD is recorded at 60 frames per second, regardless of what rate it’s shot at. For example, if the camera is shooting at 24p (24 frames per second progressive), it’s duplicating frames so it’s still recording at 60 frames per second. When a camera is shooting at 24p, it shoots one frame two times, then the next frame three times, then the next frame two times, the next frame three times, and so on. It does this in dual fields, so the result is still, in actuality, 60 frames per second. The number of exposures per frame varies at different shooting speeds, but it always comes out to 60 frames per second. I know it sounds confusing, but it’s really not.
AO: What are your concerns regarding jumping on the HD bandwagon?
EC: HD is a whole new ballgame in every sense of the word. HD is a horrible porn format. Porn isn’t moving to HD because we want to, it’s because we have to. Playboy wants HD, cable and satellite channels want HD. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fan of standard video and am all for quality, but DV is inexpensive and very forgiving. Just about any idiot can pick up a DV camera and shoot a decent-looking image. HD has the capability to produce a far superior image, but if you don’t know what you’re doing it is unforgiving and is capable of producing a far worse image than DV. These are not cameras you walk up to, set them on “idiot mode,” and shoot.
AO: You’re talking about low Independence From Experts. It sounds similar to film in that respect. This must be a hard concept for producers to grasp, being that “digital” is often equated with “easy.”
EC: One producer I was shooting HD for noticed we were filtering the lens and got upset. “Why are you filtering the lens?” he asked. “We want higher resolution! That’s the point!” I said, “I’ll show you.” I had two young performers that day who were very pleasing to the eye. I stood them up in front of the camera and removed the filter. You could see every pore, every blemish, every vein, every hair, every follicle – and this is on the monitor. I said, “Now imagine this while they’re having sex.” He quickly said, “Put the filter back on.”
AO: Do you have any advice in closing?
EC: Make sure your product is going to meet the quality standard of the format you’re shooting. If you just want an HD master for broadcast, and you’re shooting gonzo, do what a number of companies are doing and upconvert DV to a high-definition master. You may not experience the exact video quality you want, but it’s still an HD master. If you’re going to spend $6-7,000 renting the camera for a week, you should spend the extra money on the lights and crew, on moving the camera professionally. You need to aspire to hand-hold the camera as little as possible, especially during sex. HD is very unforgiving of shaky motion. There are pieces of equipment you can rent for only $100 or so that will help.
Anand Bhatt is CTO of SWI Labs, a technical consulting and research group, and is an executive at Sonic Wave International Entertainment. His name is also recognizable from his mainstream music career. Anand can be reached at email@example.com.