Traditionally, producers of costume drama have opted for film as a production format. But a combination of pressure from broadcasters to make more programmes in high-definition formats and a growing confidence among programme-makers about the medium's dramatic potential has given rise to a recent spate of period pieces shot in HD. The BBC is leading the way with HD adaptations of Bleak House, Cranford, Lark Rise to Candleford and this autumn Tess of the D'Urbervilles. And Company Pictures' forthcoming English Civil War production The Devil's Whore for HBO/Channel 4 is also being shot in HD.
According to C4 acting head of drama Luke Alkin: “There's pressure from the channel to deliver as much on HD as possible. There's a need to future-proof dramas, not least because of emerging HD DVD formats and pressure from international partners in the US and Far East.”
The Devil's Whore is a good example of this trend. “Traditionally it would have been shot on 16mm but the production has significant potential international sales plus we think there are cost savings to HD over film in this case,” says Alkin.
“Drama is so reliant on international advances just to make the programme,” agrees Frith Tiplady, Tiger Aspect head of production. “HD was natural for Robin Hood because we knew such a big show needed future-proofing. Even ITV which normally requires DigiBeta is pushing HD.” The broadcaster's romantic comedy Mr Eleven is an HD commission for Tiger Aspect. “Long-running series are most likely to go HD because they have the scale to absorb new production costs,” suggests Alkin. “But if directors feel strongly about film their views may still hold sway, particularly for singles.”
Film does retain a certain cachet among members of the creative community, although this is disappearing. “When HD first emerged there was a tremendous suspicion of it as a craft tool and some directors refused to work in the medium,” recalls Ashes to Ashes writer Ashley Pharaoh, whose creations Bonekickers and Wild at Heart are HD. “The main reason Ashes to Ashes is film is because aesthetically it suited the feel of the 1980s. It was eye-opening for me to see the incredible, crisp South African landscapes of Wild at Heart and I'm sure [this clarity] helps explain HD's
Does HD raise post costs?
One reason for avoiding HD in period drama is its reputation for creating extra work and cost in post-production. “That's a myth,” says Tiger Aspect executive producer Foz Allan. “If extra time is needed it says more about the lack of familiarity crews have with the technology. It's getting quicker all the time.” The costs of filming in HD compared to 16mm are about equal, he adds, “because there are a whole series of hybrid production routes.”
For example, high-end HD cameras tend to be more expensive than Super 16 but posting digitally avoids the hefty cost of processing film. “We shot The Secret Diary of a Call Girl on HD despite getting an SD commission from ITV2,” reveals Allan. “We paid for the extra production costs ourselves but posted SD. We've subsequently sold an HD version and the second series to [US network] Showtime, justifying our gamble.”
The pivotal creative responsibility for devising the look of any drama tends to fall to the lighting cameraman. His or her decisions on where to place lights or how much exposure to set are most influenced by format choice. Film captures a greater dynamic range of light levels and is better for contrasting light and dark areas of the frame. In HD this results in a narrowing of the depth of field, throwing backgrounds into sharp relief - although new optical systems are overcoming this.
“Fundamentally the decision should always be script-driven, not one based on economics,” believes DoP Nick Dance, who has alternated between film and HD video for Sorted (HD), Mansfield Park (16mm) and Skins (HD). “For Sorted HD worked well for a naturalistic modern-day feel, but Mansfield Park required a softer palette. I find it easier to work with film than HD especially with today's tight time schedules. Shallow depth of field is easier to achieve and we have a much greater choice of lenses and accessories.”
For Mansfield Park, Dance wanted viewers to see the landscape beyond the rooms and film helped him to achieve that. “With HD we would have had to light the interiors to cope with the contrast, killing the atmosphere and compromising the way we shot.”
Dance believes the optimum workflow - “the best of both worlds” - is to shoot on film, edit, re-scan the negative to HD and grade in an HD/DI suite for total manipulation of the image. “DoPs have to work harder to achieve a softer look in HD. I tend not to use hard light on faces that will pick up blemishes, although HD was perfect for Skins because we didn't want to hide what teenagers have - acne.”
DoPs often prefer 16mm because, with greater light sensitivity than all but the most expensive digital systems, scenes can be set up more quickly. Tracking or handheld shots are easier without wires connecting an HD camera to its recording unit or monitor.
“HD is still in its infancy in terms of being able to shoot drama for TV,” declares DoP Balazs Bolygo, whose HD experience includes Lark Rise to Candleford and Hustle series 4. “HD becomes a logistical nightmare the moment you try anything different like high-speed photography. It doesn't have the reliability, freedom of movement or image quality of 16mm.”
Bolygo has spent years assessing the effect of different aperture stops on particular film stock. “It's something you can't do with certainty on HD. You can replicate the film look, but it's best to play the format to its own strengths.”
Bolygo also feels that the transmission of HD programming, even over HD channels, leaves something to be desired. “I suspect it's something to do with the quality of compression at transmission. It's something I am fighting.”
“I think HD affects our work massively,” declares Amelia Shankland, who won a 2007 RTS craft and design award for Skins. “It's like having a school teacher looking over your shoulder and judging everything you do.”
Top production designers (PDs) like Shankland pay close attention to detail as a matter of course, but the format's clarity will catch out the unwary. “You can't get away with black tack or gaffer tape over holes. Chipped furniture will show,” she says. “You have to embrace detail and make it work for you.”
Skins' chief characteristic is its bright colour palette used to define both characters and age group. “We used muted shades of orange or pink in the background so as not to detract from the foreground characters,” she says. “We did quite a few tests, even plastering under wallpaper to give it an unsmooth finish because even houses that are supposed to be new can look false under HD.”
In contrast, Lark Rise to Candleford required major exterior and interior builds. “The quality of construction methods is the biggest concern and that had knock-on effects in terms of budget and planning,” says PD Malcolm Thornton. “HD shifted all construction requirements up a notch. For period pieces you have to apply layers of paint to achieve a patina of age. One layer just won't stand up to scrutiny under HD. I think the interesting experiment will come with more studio-based productions where treatments for a modern look and feel are simpler.”
Simon Elliot, who helped pioneer HD on period drama with Bleak House, feels “the general experience is slower. There has to be more truth to your paint finishes”. Working in the format led him to fear everything would be exposed. “Details such as smoke alarms in National Trust properties need to be disguised when it wasn't critical before. A hessian sack thrown over a manhole cover will no longer cut it. But HD isn't the complete upheaval some believe. If you're good at your job and from a film background then your approach shouldn't change.”
Dramas are not being blanket-produced in HD, notes Elliot, who has just finished BBC drama The Passion on location in Morocco. “Because of intense light levels as well as the hot, dusty environment this was a 16mm shoot.”
HD probably affects the costume department the least of all the TV crafts. In fact the enhanced detail the format brings is welcomed by most dressers who are pleased viewers can now appreciate the authenticity of accessories or fabrics.
“HD doesn't affect [my costumes] because I use the best of everything I possibly can,” says Nick Eade, who costumed The Palace. “But dandruff, stray hairs, thread scream at you, whereas on film it's not such an issue.”
In addition, HD can throw up occasional wrinkles. “The depth of field is so compacted you have to be really careful with patterns, says Michael Johnson whose first foray into HD was Hotel Babylon. “They tend to back up like a car crash.” Babylon's glossy look means “everything has to look immaculate, shiny and brand new, which HD is well suited to.”
“While HD highlights the glories of pattern and fabric details, you become much more aware of ugly zips or lumps,” adds Susannah Baxter, who designed Hat Trick's Fairy Tale: Emperor's New Clothes.” It's actually more like working on 35mm where the image is blown up for all to see. 16mm on TV means you could get away with tricks but HD puts everyone on their mettle.”
Hair and make-up
Facial hair and wigs are the traps that lie in wait for make-up artists. “Realism is all important on period dramas. You don't want to blow it with a wig lace [used to attach the wig to the actor's head],” reports Pamela Haddock, whose first HD experience was as head of department on Lark Rise to Candleford. “Colleagues who had prepped HD features said that since I was good at my job I should continue to check by eye. They warned that if I could see lace it will appear on screen.”
For Lark Rise, Haddock used the actor's real hair and hairlines as much as possible, reducing the amount of wig lace from what she'd normally have used. “We had no time for tests and we were all a bit nervous but we watched everything very closely. Don't rely on the monitors but look at the actual lighting and trust that your own eyes will be the best judge.”
Kay Bilk had a similar experience assisting on Bleak House before going on to design make-up for Hotel Babylon. “It's no good looking at old-fashioned monitors and saying it looks fabulous because you won't see how it really looks until post. We need properly calibrated HD monitors on set.”
The already tight shooting schedule for Babylon was exacerbated, she believes, by having to check and double check the entire cast. “You're more conscious of background detail,” she says.
The format demands new techniques and products such as primers under foundation to make skin smoother.
It's a make-up designer's job to liaise with the lighting cameraman and director and alert them to any errant wrinkles or pores. “Blondes tend to have downy facial hair which you can see under HD,” says Bilk. “The director might want a really tight close-up on the actress but it may not be flattering. I can express an opinion but if the director needs that shot to tell the story there's little I can do about it.”