High Definition On The Rise

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 08/30/2004 - 16:00

If you were watching the action in Athens or moseying about the festivals in the "Athens of North" this last month, you may have picked up on the increased buzz about High Definition (HD).

For years, we have heard how HD's high resolution pictures would augur in a golden age for digital video. It would sweep aside current analogue broadcast systems and usurp film itself.

The revolution has been slow in coming. Broadcast HD, or HDTV, is still not a reality in Britain. While it's true that film and television programme-makers are shooting more programmes with HD, like the Beeb's Blue Planet series, broadcasters still have to downrez HD footage for traditional analogue broadcast, so viewers are not really seeing HD in its full glory.

Even in countries that broadcast HDTV more extensively, like the U.S. and Canada, this early transition stage from traditional broadcast to HD is proving an awkward one.

Take the Olympian spectacle in the Greek capital: it provided the perfect opportunity to showcase the crisp, clear footage, and although the verdict on the images was highly positive, the HD coverage of events was lacklustre beside the standard definition coverage.

U.S. viewers who had just plonked down a wad for a nice new HD-ready plasma or LCD screen were rightly miffed when they tuned in for the opening ceremony, only to find that NBC was showing highlights of the Winter Olympics from two years earlier instead. HD coverage of the games was reportedly spotty throughout with delays of a day, or longer, for some events.

Various excuses were given - lack of HD equipment in Europe, technical shortcomings of the host country, etc. Pundits suggest NBC, with only 2 million homes wired to receive HDTV signals, simply worked out the most cost-efficient service with a calculator in hand, and delivered that, even if it was poor one.

Athens only reveals one of the problems that has beset HD in these early years. There have been constant reports saying people are confused about how they make the transition to HD. Television manufacturers and jargon-heavy sales literature do not explain in clear terms whether a television is HDTV-ready or not. The fact that HD comes in two somewhat compatible but competing formats - the 1080i (1920 x 1080) or 720p (1280 x 720) - has not helped.

Although sports fans in North America are raving about the crisp pictures of their favourite teams in HD, there's still a dearth of good, HD-shot content which means that often, conventionally shot programming is simply being uprezed for HDTV broadcast.

Some consumers have complained that, watching standard definition channels, images actually look worse on their brand new screens because the higher resolution sets show up all the flaws they didn't see before. Aspect ratio is another problem: since HD's aspect ratio is 16:9 and standard def broadcasts at 4:3, HD viewers have to watch standard def programmes with bars at the side or with the image stretched to fill the screen.

I haven't even mentioned the cost: you could buy a small car with some of the HD systems that are on offer.

While many consumers try to puzzle out what this HD malarkey is all about it's clear that there is a growing appetite for HD and increasing opportunities for content creators.

"There's a big market out there if you have shot something in High Definition," says Rob Newton, marketing manager with Sony UK, pointing to HD's progress made in Japan and North America.

In the US, Congress has set a 2006 deadline for a switch from standard analogue broadcast to HD, although, with only a minority of the population having made the changeover already, it looks more like a line in the sand than in stone.

In spite of the shortcomings, high profile events like the Olympics are expected to bring a new wave of consumers on board in the coming months and years.

In Britain, the BBC, who sell many of their programs to overseas networks, are also gearing up to be 100% digital by the government's 2010 deadline for turning off analogue transmission and Sky has committed to introduce a HDTV package on its digital satellite service in 2006. Other broadcasters, that use Sky's satellite service, will be able to offer HD programming via satellite too.

In January of this year, Belgium-based Euro 1080 became the first European exclusively HDTV channel to launch, although its satellite-delivered service has been in something of trial mode, at least until tomorrow. Over a period of the next four months Euro 1080 is promising 500 hours of HD programmes covering "rock music, sports, lifestyle, concerts and operas".

Newton says that these kinds of initiatives at home and abroad have encouraged "more of a take-up" of Sony's professional equipment like HD cameras and VCRs. Programme-makers are already looking to future-proof their projects.

In Edinburgh, a mini HD film festival, devoted to the new technology, with debates and digitally projected public screenings of HD features, offered further anecdotal evidence that HD is winning more converts.

The fact that well-produced HD-shot footage transferred to 35mm film is almost indistinguishable to untrained eyes from 35mm is a selling point for directors. Producers like the fact that great cost-savings can be made in post-production. Also, HD tape has come down significantly since the format debuted and offers big cost savings over 35mm film stock. For example, London-based post-production house S2Spost says the stock spend on HD-shot 16 Years of Alcohol was "just under £2,000" out of a reported £500,000 budget.

There are other advantages to remaining in the digital realm with HD, in particular the ease with which source footage can be re-edited and transferred from a master to other media or format (HD to DVD, HD to Standard Def, HD to 35mm, HD to web, and so on). And when digital projection is eventually ubiquitous, some years down the road, the cost-savings of HD will really come into their own.

What about DV, which many of us are strapped with? When the HD bandwagon builds up some speed, DV will be left behind. DV may have its place, but it will be as poor cousin second removed to HD's exquisitely fine pictures. A good story might make up for low production values as it always has. The project might even work better with that particular aesthetic that you can only get on DV. But audiences that have trouble watching DV features now will really struggle, when we are living in a HD universe, to sit patiently through 90 minutes of flat, muddy footage.

We are still a few years away from the time where content creators can't avoid working with HD, and besides rental costs of HD equipment may seem prohibitive. But serious filmmakers would be wise to start familiarising themselves with the new format. Its star is rising.