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How to Make HD Pay

Whether building a digital signage network or broadcasting content in a house of worship, these days, pro AV users have a similar request of their integrators: Help me do it in high definition. The reason? It's what they've come to know.

Trinity Broadcast Network's new HD studio in Costa Mesa, Calif., is used to produce its flagship programming and other shows.

Trinity Broadcast Network's new HD studio in Costa Mesa, Calif., is used to produce its flagship programming and other shows.

Whether building a digital signage network or broadcasting content in a house of worship, these days, pro AV users have a similar request of their integrators: Help me do it in high definition. The reason? It's what they've come to know.

High-resolution, widescreen content is becoming the standard for video displays everywhere. Consumers continue to purchase HD-capable televisions and to invest in HD programming, and with the Feb. 17, 2009, transition of the broadcast industry to digital, people watching on any type of screen will see an improvement in the quality of television programming even if they are watching in standard definition. Simply put, the bar has been raised, and HD is the standard by which video is judged, regardless of the setting.

The visual quality of SD content on any type of large-screen display—in the home, corporate setting, house of worship, or digital signage network—simply isn't acceptable to the majority of viewers. While investing in HD equipment and HD production can be a daunting prospect, AV pros have little choice if they want to be able to offer premium services and maintain archives of content that can be leveraged in the future for new projects and further revenue generation.

The widespread misconception that 16:9 content is HD means that, at the very least, professionals in the AV market need to consider moving to 16:9 delivery. And if they're going to make the move, they may as well go ahead and make the shift to HD. Those that don't keep up with the technology run the risk of being left behind, becoming less competitive, and losing out on the long-term value of HD acquisition, production, and delivery.

If anything, moving to HD covers all the bases. For those clients asking only for SD deliverables, it's easy to output SD content from an HD production. At this point, the content producer can offer SD as a standard product and HD at a premium. Down the road, when that client returns and requests a special video for a 10th anniversary retrospective, the HD archive provides valuable source material with a level of quality that will stand the test of time.

Working in HD is a sound way to grow an AV business, whether you're creating content or building HD production capabilities for a client.

THE MIGRATION CHALLENGE

The move to HD involves critical decisions about equipment purchases. For many shops, and smaller businesses in particular, the technology outlay is by far their greatest expenditure. What's more, technical gear is key to the success of the business, and the livelihoods of many business owners depend on a fairly quick ROI. Making the right HD equipment choices the first time around has the potential to make or break a business.

Trinity Broadcast Network recently began broadcasting from a new digital master control facility that supports nine SD channels and one HD channel.

Trinity Broadcast Network recently began broadcasting from a new digital master control facility that supports nine SD channels and one HD channel.

While legacy SD equipment is of little use in an HD workflow, the good news is that there now is very little difference in the price points of SD and HD cameras. For just about the same price as an SD camera, today's HD systems offer a whole new level of picture quality. Prosumer products are being improved all the time, and lingering issues such as lower light sensitivity are being addressed to mitigate the effects of trying to capture four times the data on an image sensor the same size as in SD cameras. Lenses and audio features also are being adapted to help ensure quality HD acquisition.

While prices for HD cameras have dropped, lenses continue to be somewhat pricey. The HD lens is a mechanical device, not an electronic device, and as a result it's been harder for manufacturers to bring costs down. That said, it's important that camera hardware—including the lens—not be a limiting factor in the types of productions an integrator or its client can complete successfully.

When comparing cameras, consider the advantages of working with fixed lenses and removable lenses. There are ways to compensate electronically for a lens' shortcomings. However, on-location shooting in churches and other challenging sites may require a specific type of lens. Do the camera's standard lenses have the zoom range or length needed? Can they offer a wide enough angle, or are there after-market adapters that can accommodate for this? An understanding of clients' needs and their projects can help the AV pro make the best choice of camera and lens.

The audio flexibility of the HD camcorder is an added consideration. The audio capabilities of the camera will have a direct impact on the viewer's experience. Audio is a challenge in any project, and one of the gravest mistakes often made in the prosumer market is focusing almost exclusively on images and not spending adequate time to ensure that good, clean audio is being captured, too.

While, for example, wedding videography focuses on capturing lasting images of the couple exchanging vows, the “I do” needs to be captured at the same level of quality. When video from the big day is shown on a big-screen TV with a state-of-the-art sound system, the audio must match the improved visual quality provided by HD images. Similar scenarios unfold when corporate video is shown in the boardroom or at an annual meeting. The baseline—even for mono audio—is higher now, and the AV pro needs to upgrade his or her recording equipment accordingly.

SELECTING RECORDING MEDIA

What tends to be a more difficult issue for AV pros than choice of HD camera is the selection of recording media. Solid-state, hard-drive, and optical disc recording are all options—and each has different codecs and editing requirements. The flux created by the industry's concurrent move away from tape adds complexity to the HD transition. Producers are in a tough spot because they need to move forward with one of these options but are concerned about the possibility of obsolescence, whether in reality or in their clients' perception.

The HD gear at the Crystal Cathedral allows crews to send all camera feeds, ISO feeds, and the director's cut to the editing system and have them ready for editing 10 minutes after the service ends.

The HD gear at the Crystal Cathedral allows crews to send all camera feeds, ISO feeds, and the director's cut to the editing system and have them ready for editing 10 minutes after the service ends.

The best way to select a recording technology is to ignore the hype, try out various options, and evaluate the resulting workflow from recording through to delivery to the client. Is the recording format compatible with the existing editing software? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the formats that will work with that software? How will content most often be delivered to customers? Will it be delivered on DVD or Blu-ray disc; compressed and distributed over an IP-based delivery network; output to tape; streamed to the Web; shared through an FTP site; played out right from a hard drive to a projector?

It is also very possible that the distribution format will be a different format from the acquisition format. What will happen to the footage after the shooting is done? If the footage needs to be archived, some consideration should be given before going with solid state. If, however, fast turnaround is important, solid state is an appealing option.

Also, the amount of footage that will be captured between shooting and ingesting is a major factor. How much of a continuous record is needed? Some formats allow for media to be changed without interrupting the recording process so there is no real limit to the recording time. An understanding of the current and future needs of clients can help the business owner select the best acquisition format and media for their HD productions.

UPDATING BUILDING BLOCKS

While the move to HD requires investment in new gear almost across the board, the building blocks remain the same. Most mainstream editing applications are versatile enough to handle HD. However, HD often demands bandwidth that's fourfold that of SD and may therefore require a boost in the processing capability of the host system. And it will very likely require an investment in added or new storage systems, as well as in the bandwidth of the network supporting the storage system.

Because HD acquisition does involve capture of a larger image in a wider format, it may be necessary to invest in better camera support to minimize the small movements that can cause significant problems on the big screen. Images shot on wobbly mounting may be okay on a 27-inch screen, but on a larger display, even movement of one-eighth of an inch can confuse the viewer's brain and cause motion sickness.

Shooting in HD and the 16:9 aspect ratio also raises practical concerns that should be addressed well ahead of time with the client. If the customer is expecting a 16:9 HD product, the shooter can take advantage of the wide angle to incorporate more elements within each frame. If both 4:3 and 16:9 versions are expected, then more care needs to be taken so that key people or details don't get cut out of the picture. Looking at each shot through two sets of eyes, geared for 4:3 and 16:9, also can help avoid incorporating unwanted elements into the widescreen version.

By capturing in HD, the producer is equipped to offer clients a variety of format alternatives including a 4:3 letterbox, 4:3 center cut, or 16:9. Each provides a different look, and when shot in HD, each gives the producer an opportunity to offer customers an additional product using the same footage. The improved resolution and widescreen format, in concert with current non-linear editing systems, yield much greater flexibility in how people and events can be framed.

EDUCATING YOURSELF AND THE CLIENT

Of course, before investing in new gear and upgrading the old, it's important to understand your particular market. By polling its customer base, an AV company can get a sense of what its clients want and believe they need. The company can also benefit from educating that client base, explaining what buzzwords mean, outlining the possibilities of the HD workflow, and demonstrating how new technologies have a positive impact on the finished product.

There is more to quality HD production than shooting in HD, and by showing customers examples of quality work, the professional can remind clients that HD capability complements and enhances their talent. As long as AV pros make sound purchasing decisions based on the needs of their clients, they can leverage their new equipment to offer a broader variety of higher-quality products.

Pat Thompson is a senior vice president at TV Magic (www.tvmagic.tv), a video engineering and integration firm. He's been in the video industry for more than 20 years.



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