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Forget HDTV; Get HDTV!
May 4th, 2001 Posted in Schubin's Greatest Hits by sfelix | Print This Post Print This Post
First published in Videography May 2001

Never mind what’s going on with broadcast transmitters and consumer receivers.  If you’re considering major equipment purchases, there’s never been a better time to look at HDTV.

A funny thing happened on the way to the live broadcast of the 100th Anniversary concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra last November. A different funny thing happened on the way to the taped broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s Semiramide a decade earlier. The difference between those funny things suggests that HDTV production equipment has come a long way.

Semiramide was shot in high-definition television (HDTV). That prevented the show’s director from having as many cameras as he would have liked to have used and also restricted their positions.

The restriction on number of cameras was based, in part, on the extremely limited HDTV production switcher. Even the few cameras used stretched the capability of the switcher so much that one camera had to replace the “black” signal. The director couldn’t fade to black, but that wasn’t a big problem, because the show would later be edited.

Another problem was the cost of the HDTV equipment. Each camera cost more than $300,000. Some of the lenses used cost even more, and they had to be flown in from Japan.

The Semiramide HDTV cameras used multicore camera cables with a maximum-length restriction. That, in part, governed where the cameras could be placed in the auditorium.

In 1990, when standard-definition cameras all used solid-state imaging chips, HDTV cameras used tubes. They were much less sensitive than their standard-definition counterparts and exhibited the many flaws that camera tubes were known for: stickiness, lag, comet-tailing, blooming, etc.

The open-reel digital HDTV videotape recorders cost even more than the cameras or lenses, and they were huge and heavy. A fork-lift was needed to get an extra machine into the production truck, a vehicle so small that foam had to be placed on the ceiling above the director so he would not hurt himself if he got too enthusiastic.

The digital HDTV tape stock cost as much as $1500 an hour, and it needed to be burnished before use: Each reel needed to be run through the machine slowly without recording, so the spinning heads could scrape the rough surface of the tape. Then the tape had to be rewound and the heads cleaned thoroughly before normal recording could take place.

Every HDTV connection or patch in that 1990 HDTV truck involved three separate signals. A misconnection wouldn’t necessarily be obvious during recording, but it could be deadly in editing. When it came time for the editing, the necessary personnel had to fly to Japan.

As was the case at the time, the HDTV signals had 1035 picture-carrying scanning lines, as specified in a standard of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) that had been opposed as an American National Standard. The signals also had 60.00 images per second instead of standard-definition video’s 59.94.

That last characteristic meant that different time codes had to be used for the HDTV tapes and the downconverted VHS viewing tapes. Unusual connections and settings were required to ensure that separate audio recordings could be synchronized to the video.

The end result, as seen by U.S. TV viewers, it was generally agreed, was not as good as it might have been had the show been shot with the Met’s usual standard-definition facilities. So, why shoot it in HDTV? The show was a co-production with Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. NHK was promoting their HDTV transmission service and wanted the opera in HDTV.

Ten years later, many of the same people who’d worked on that Metropolitan Opera HDTV production of Semiramide wound up working on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 100th Anniversary concert. Again, NHK wanted the show — this time as a live broadcast — but they did not request HDTV; an ordinary NTSC (National Television System Committee) feed, of the sort used in the United States since 1953, would be fine. The local PBS station, WHYY, also carried the show live and transmitted it by satellite to PBS — both, again, as ordinary NTSC.

The show had the same director as did Semiramide, but this time he wasn’t restricted by the technology. Not only could he safely jump up and down in the control room without hitting his head, but he could also have as many cameras as he wanted, put them wherever he wanted, and have the sorts of lenses he wanted. He could fade to black at will, and there was plenty of room left over in the switcher.

There was no need to increase lighting for insensitive cameras, and the very thought of having to deal with lag, comet-tailing, and other tube-related artifacts was essentially a joke. All of the cameras, of course, used high-sensitivity solid-state imaging chips.

Naturally, the signals were recorded onto relatively inexpensive videocassettes inserted into small, lightweight recorders, not gargantuan open-reel machines demanding pre-burnishing of expensive tapes as a condition of possible success. There was no difference in frame rate between the VHS recordings and the more professional formats, so there was only one time code. Video patching required only one wire per path, but most signals simply passed through a routing switcher. There were no opposed standards in use.

In short, the concert was a standard, multi-camera, live event. The ordinary, NTSC pictures looked gorgeous — better than the look of any other show from the same venue that anyone could recall. But the show was shot in HDTV.

Why? The name on the side of the All-Mobile Video production truck said it all. Originally, when it was the second of three HDTV mobile facilities, the vehicle had been called HD-2. When All-Mobile Video got it, they renamed it “HD, Too.”

In other words, it’s a full-fledged, high-end production truck, fully equipped to provide standard-definition tapes and feeds. If one wants HDTV, however, it’s “HD, Too.”
What’s going on? HDTV has finally come of age.

All of the cameras and lenses in the truck are HDTV. The production switcher is HDTV. There are plenty of HDTV recorders. But, thanks to built-in downconverters in all of the cameras, recorders, and switcher, there are also plenty of standard-definition recorders and feeds. The truck is special in not treating HDTV as being special. It’s where we’ve already come in color.

Suppose you’re shooting video for a director who wants everything in black and white. Do you shoot with a black-&-white camera and record on a black-&-white recorder? Of course you don’t!
There are only a few black-&-white video cameras that can be purchased these days, and none of them are of the quality necessary for video production. There may no longer be any black-&-white recorders available for purchase.

That wasn’t always the case, of course. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, it was much harder to find color equipment for videography than black-&-white. And the use of that color equipment usually resulted in worse black-&-white images than would have been obtained with black-&-white shooting equipment.

Times have changed. Videography in 2001 is not the same as it was in 1956. There’s little question that color equipment would be used to shoot essentially anything today, including black-&-white video. In 1956, color equipment needed the adjective color; today, black-&-white is the unusual adjective.

Someday, the same will be true of HDTV. Someday, all video production will use HDTV equipment in the same way that all video production today uses color equipment.

Today is not yet that day, but something extraordinary happened at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention last month. Sony offered the HDW-2000 HDCAM HDTV videotape recorder for a list price of $40,000. At the same time, they were selling the DVW-500 Digital Betacam standard-definition videotape recorder for $40,600. Yes, the HDTV model was (and is) actually priced lower than the standard-definition model.

That was not the case in all of Sony’s product categories. Consider camcorders, for example. Back in 1990, when Semiramide was being shot, there were no HDTV camcorders of any kind, but the closest equivalent to a Digital Betacam camcorder would have been a separate camera and recorder costing around $700,000 combined. At NAB 2001, an HDW-750 digital HDTV camcorder had a list price of $65,000, less than a tenth as much as the 1990 combination. That’s not quite as low as a roughly equivalent Digital Betacam version, the DVW-790WS at $60,100, but it’s awfully close. Panasonic has even less expensive HDTV camcorders, but, for the purposes of this comparison, it’s probably best to stick to products from the same manufacturer.

Before the introduction of their new multiformat-switcher product line at NAB 2001, a Sony HDTV switcher with three mix/effects banks (M/E) and two channels of digital video effects (DVE) cost $1.3 million. Now, a 3-M/E 2-DVE Sony multiformat switcher that can be set to handle either HDTV or standard-definition signals lists for just $500,000, not far from the $475,000 of Sony’s pre-NAB-2001 4-M/E 2-DVE standard-definition digital switcher.

HDTV prices are not yet entirely magical. Sony’s new Xpri non-linear editing system can cost $150,000 for an HDTV version versus $90,000 for a standard-definition version, due to the additional memory required for HDTV. Sony’s highest-end 20-inch standard-definition evaluation monitor, the BVM-20E1U, is just about $10,000; although the 20-inch BVM-D20F1U HDTV monitor is only $12,900, it’s actually not quite as sharp as the standard-definition version (another amazing fact about HDTV in 2001). The nice-and-sharp BVM-D24E1WU HDTV monitor is $23,000, but it looks better and does more. At the Philadelphia Orchestra show, for example, one such monitor in the control room was set to show HDTV detail; another was set to show true NTSC (not merely standard-definition video, but color-subcarrier-affected NTSC), so there would be no question of what was being transmitted to homes.

What was transmitted to those homes looked beautiful, thanks both to the oversampling inherent when an HDTV camera is used for standard-definition video and to improved technology and technique used to convert HDTV signals to standard-definition. Even after HDTV cameras started using sensitive imaging chips and produced beautiful HDTV pictures, their downconverted imagery sometimes looked bland when viewed on an NTSC TV. Today, appropriately downconverted HDTV looks better than the best standard-definition-shot material — even when viewed on an ordinary TV set from an ordinary NTSC broadcast.

Contrary to some belief, there is no U.S. government requirement for any U.S. broadcaster to carry any HDTV at any time, now or in the future. All commercial television broadcasters are supposed to be transmitting digitally by May 1 of next year, but that digital transmission need not be HDTV. In fact, WJLA-DT, the digital ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., is equipped to transmit only standard-definition programming and is in accord with all laws, rules, and regulations in doing so.

Non-commercial broadcasters have until May 1, 2003 to transmit digitally, but they don’t have to carry HDTV either. Cable operators are under no obligation to transmit HDTV (but if they carry the digital signals of a broadcaster that is transmitting HDTV, they’re supposed to deliver that signal as HDTV). Satellite-service providers also have no HDTV obligations.

In theory, 2006 was to have been the date when NTSC analog television stations were to have been shut down, leaving only digital broadcasts. There may no longer be a single person who believes in the 2006 deadline, but, even if it were to be, none of the digital broadcasts would have to be in HDTV.

If that’s the case, why should videographers even consider HDTV now? First, it offers improved picture quality, visible even on ordinary TV sets receiving ordinary (non-HDTV) signals. Second, it helps make programming “evergreen.” A program may not have any HDTV distribution today, but will that always be the case? HDTV also looks better when converted to a foreign image format than does standard-definition TV, and it’s good for extracting photographic still images.
Third, HDTV is unquestionably the wave of the future. As the pricing and availability at NAB 2001 shows, it is well on its way towards become tomorrow’s color. Fujinon showed the longest zoom-range lens at NAB 2001, an 87:1 following on the heels of the 86:1 that Canon introduced last year. Both are HDTV lenses (usable on standard-definition cameras). It’s no longer the case that HDTV means using a more restricted range of equipment.

Still, HDTV is not yet for everyone. Buying a single HDW-2000 to replace an aging DVW-500 is probably not such a good idea. The new deck may be $600 cheaper and include a built-in downconverter, but it won’t play existing Digital Betacam tapes. The HDW-M2000 will (as well as Betacam, Betacam SP, Betacam SX, and MPEG IMX), but it’s $60,000, not $40,000.

It seems almost as foolish, however, not to consider HDTV when making a major equipment purchase. Is it wise to buy a routing switcher today that can’t handle HDTV? Might it be a smart investment to get an HDTV camcorder and a multiformat player?

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the only reason to buy HDTV equipment was to distribute HDTV programming. Now it’s arguably the highest-quality way to make even standard-definition programming. Sony’s multiformat decks and JVC’s and Panasonic’s backwards-compatible recorders, as well as a broad range of converters from many manufacturers, allow HDTV and standard-definition equipment to coexist.

So they live happily ever after.

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Compromise

Today’s HDTV cameras, like high-end standard-definition cameras, use 2/3-inch imaging chips (which do not have a single 2/3-inch dimension). That’s good, because it allows standard-definition lenses to be used on HDTV cameras in a pinch. That may be bad, however, because the optical path appears to have lost some of its quality.

Today’s HDTV recorders usually use half-inch or even quarter-inch tape in convenient cassettes instead of one-inch tape on open reels. That’s good. But the old recorders captured uncompressed signals with 1920 picture elements (pixels) of brightness detail across the picture and 960 of color detail; most of the newer recorders capture (in 1080i mode) compressed signals with either 1440 and 480 (HDCAM) or 1280 and 640 (D-9 HD and DVCPRO HD). That’s probably not as good.

Two versions of HDTV cassette recorders, HD D-5 and D-6 (the latter using 3/4-inch tape), capture the full 1920 and 960. That’s good. But neither is available in a camcorder. That’s bad.
The compressed D-5 HD format is more expensive than DVCPRO HD, D-9 HD, or HDCAM — enough to discourage a videographer from buying HDTV equipment. That’s bad. But HD D-5 is downright inexpensive compared to D-6. That’s… YIKES!

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