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HDTV Veterans Offer Insight

Aug 23, 2005 3:24 PM


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Even though the television world’s march toward an all-HD acquisition paradigm is far from complete, the ongoing transition is far enough along for a small group of HDTV production veterans to have emerged. These people are experts at all levels—from network programming suites to various production jobs on sets—in transitioning shows, budgets, pipelines, crews, and workflows into the HD universe.

Their insight can be beneficial for those now following in their footsteps. To get some of that insight, Millimeter chatted recently with three experienced professionals who have been working on the HDTV transition for some time. They are Mike Rauch, executive vice president of production for Showtime Networks, which recently switched to all-HD production for original programming; veteran producer John Amodeo, currently a producer on the HD-acquired Fox show Arrested Development, and a key player in transitioning the first network sitcom to shoot HD, Fox’s Titus a few years ago; and DP Tom Houghton, currently shooting FX’s Rescue Me using Sony HD cameras. Following are highlights of their comments:

Showtime’s Mike Rauch
Rauch says Showtime is currently shooting its entire slate of 2006 pilots in HD, using Panavised Sony HDW-F900 cameras, as well as four new series (Sleeper Cell, Barbershop, The L-Word, and a show with the working title of Brotherhood). All original Showtime programming from now on will be shot in HD, Rauch says, and any acquired movies shot on film will be re-mastered to HD for broadcast.

“We got the mandate from the network to make this change three years ago,” Rauch says. “Every step of the way, HD is cheaper than 35mm for us, and distribution costs are also far less. In addition to the obvious cost savings in stock and lab processing costs, there are the less-discussed advantages of archiving to HD. Aside from the lack of quality degradation, the amount of space on HD tape permits us to store the master, stems, M&E, and picture all on one piece—if you make copies, they are just clones! You never have to go back to a negative, which can be so time-consuming and costly.

“And we can absolutely achieve the same look (as film) with HD. Now that Panavision and Sony have introduced cameras that use film lenses, for a television audience, the difference will be virtually indistinguishable.

“Also, programming we could not do before we can now look at because of HD. For example, our episodic shows (in the past) could never have incorporated anything that was heavy with visual effects, because it was cost-prohibitive. Now, we can look at shows and specials in the scientific realm, and in space, thanks to this digital technology.”

Rauch adds that Showtime’s shift was simply something that had to be done.

“Pragmatically, almost everything (in the TV industry) will shift to HD,” he says. “Economics will force the issue. There has been a really rapid change in the technological improvement of products, when compared to previous innovations, from black-and-white to color, for example. We’ve seen the equivalent of 30 years of improvements in the past five years. In the next five years, we won’t be discussing a comparison of this technology to film. We’ll be comparing it to some other electronic innovation.”

Producer John Amodeo
Amodeo was on the bleeding edge of the HDTV revolution as the Titus producer responsible for converting that show from film acquisition to HD in 2001. Now, he says, HD production on Arrested Development is a lot more straightforward and mainstream than it was back in those days. Amodeo says that in many ways, this acceptance has been the biggest change in the TV industry’s movement toward HD.

“The acceptance is now here,” he says. “The argument is no longer about limits of the technology. For television, HD workflows can be adapted for just about any kind of show. That wasn’t quite the situation, or at least it wasn’t perceived to be, back when we did Titus. In a sense, little has changed technologically (since then)—HD just works even better today. But what has changed is the industry’s acceptance of this workflow. It’s extremely well accepted today. In the multi-camera world, everyone is shooting HD now, except in specialty situations or if a powerful star or director demands film.

“Also, the crews are trained now. On Titus, we all had to learn how to best use the medium. Directors of photography, production designers, set decorators, makeup, and hair artists all had to experiment and learn what to adjust to get the best look from the digital cameras. Now, all the departments have been through their period of experimentation, and have figured out what to do to make a great-looking show.

“We used to have conversations about whether it was worth making the change to digital. What were the benefits? Cost savings? We no longer have those conversations. These days, what is unusual (on TV sitcoms) is if someone does not want to shoot HD.”

So, what’s the logical next step in the HD production evolution, in Amodeo’s opinion?

“First, the next step is to get rid of tape—to go completely tapeless,” he explains. “Whatever that means—disc based or some other kind of media. There would be a tremendous benefit for us to get data out of camera as fast as we can, and directly into the editing system. That is obviously the way we want to go eventually. The second thing is, we’d like to have smaller, lighter, high-quality versions of the cameras. We would love to have true 24p, 1080 MiniDV cameras.”

Rescue Me DP Tom Houghton
Houghton says the creative and technical nature of a modest-budget, run-and-gun, handheld production like Rescue Me benefits from modern HD technology—a major leap forward from just a couple of years ago.

“We often have two cameras, mostly handheld, and generally shooting as fast as possible, since that is how (creator/star Denis Leary) envisioned the show,” says Houghton. “It’s about a firehouse and the firemen and the fires themselves, so we wanted it to look spontaneous and rough. That’s a look you can get in 16mm, which, I believe, is how they shoot (FX’s cop drama) The Shield. But what is interesting is that look also lends itself to the HD medium, and on our show, I think it fits together nicely. Since 90% of (the production) is handheld, that is kind of an evolution for HD production—it used to be complicated to do lots of handheld work with this technology.”

Houghton adds that he has been pleasantly surprised by how well fire/action sequences have turned out, and says he has learned a great deal about shooting such effects with HD cameras.

“You really learn a lot about what this format can take in terms of exposure and latitude shooting stuff like this,” he says. “For fires, we have very few CGI embellishments most of the time. Denis wanted to show the experiences firemen really go through in real fires. He wanted to show dark, smoky environments, as real firefighters have described it to us. They are disoriented. They are crawling around. It’s dark, smoky, and confusing. So that approach keeps us away, most of the time, from having to shoot real bright fires. We do shoot real fires, under control, of course. We had a fear of exposure issues relating to fires, and that is still valid. If you are shooting a big explosion or something, you could overexpose at a certain point if you aren’t careful. But generally, you just learn the best ways to do it.

“For instance, if you zoom into the middle of the fire, it will white out on you. But when you are shooting a fire scene in daylight, which is what we usually do, your base light level is the daylight itself, and therefore, the fires do not overexpose easily. One trick I learned was to evaluate how much the fire is dominating the frame overall. Then, you stop down with it. Plus, with HD, you have the advantage of looking at the fire on a high-end monitor, and so you can adjust and make judgments as you go.

“You can shoot quickly with film too, obviously, and with HD you do have to set up the cables and the monitor, but the fact that I can get 30 to 40 minutes on a cassette and still see what I’m getting on the monitor right away is a blessing,” Houghton adds. “I talk to the assistants by walkie-talkie so that I can stay at my monitor, and that allows us to quickly communicate about adjustments on the fly. It’s true that I don’t feel quite as close to the work as I would on a film job, but the camera viewfinders and monitors can’t help me much with my decision-making, so I need to use the big HD monitor as my reference. It has become my viewfinder in a sense.”
—Michael Goldman

For a detailed look at the production and postproduction pipelines developed for Rescue Me, and creator Denis Leary’s view of the HD shift, as well as more comments from John Amodeo on recent industry changes, see the upcoming September issue of Millimeter.

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