ITV Productions director of Northern Resources Paul Bennett discusses plans to move Emmerdale and Coronation Street to a tapeless HD production cycle.

ITV Productions is going HD and tapeless with Emmerdale. It has spent half a million pounds on Eight Ikegami HDK-79EXIII HD cameras and Canon HD lenses. And now, working along a timeline that will run parallel to Coronation Street's transition to HD, the production of the Yorkshire soap will be completely overhauled.

All shooting and post will be done in HD, using a tapeless workflow, by roughly 2011.

Here, Paul Bennett, ITV Productions director of Northern Resources, explains how, why and when this will all happen.

Two years ago you started this process by replacing the SD lenses on Coronation Street with Canon HD ones. Did this lead the thinking behind the changes to Emmerdale?
“When you focus pull on a zoom lens you get this thing called pumping so it zooms very slightly. A Prime lens doesn't do that. You can get these lovely deep focus pulls but the focal length of the lens stays rock solid. And we wanted to get that for soaps as essentially they are dramas.

“Canon came out with the XJ22 and it's got these clever electronics which links the zoom and focus together so you can do these big focus pulls and not see the zoom. We bought that lens for Corrie.”

“The price differential between SD and HD cameras has dropped and, knowing that ultimately the soaps will go High def, we said right we'll buy XJ22 lenses again and this time we'll go for a High Definition camera. As yet, the rest of the kit in Emmerdale is not HD but we're starting at the front end. Some of the kit will be on a natural replacement cycle.”

How long before Emmerdale is done HD from start to finish?
“We're going to accelerate the cycle as we need to be High Def in the next couple of years. We're not sticking a set timescale on this but we do have a plan that would see this [happen] within the next two to three years end-to-end.”

Does the plan involve going tapeless too?
“Part of changing the technology to HD is tapeless. The two get woven together. If you want to take the advantages of tapeless well you're not going to invest in SD so we're doing the two things at the same time. [Technical manager] Nick [Sanders] has been working on a timeline to take the soaps to fully tapeless HD. It will be within the next two to three years.

What are the dangers with such a big change?
“The soaps have a very high throughput of work, six episodes a week and you can't afford to take them offline. All we normally do is give them two weeks off at Christmas.”

“We have to be absolutely guaranteed that any technical changes we make are not going to restrict production and we that in a piecemeal fashion.

Are Coronation Street and Emmerdale pretty similar then?
“Nick Sanders has been working in a different capacity as project manager, continuing drama in the North. They do shoot in a subtly different way Coronation Street and Emmerdale. What we've been looking to do is learn the different processes. The workflow is quite complex to see where we can match them where appropriate and see the benefits. Part of his remit is to look at this camera replacement [on Emmerdale].”

How did you come to the decision about Ikegami?
“We quickly got down to two finalists that were very closely matched. In the end Ikegami won out on support, quality of product and cost. We've had considerable experience within ITV at London Studios and 3sixtymedia of Ikegami cameras and we've found them to be very reliable.”

What other factors did you have to consider?
“There are two main stages on Emmerdale and then the village. The village scenes are shot on Sony 790s. The 790s are built for single camera production. If you're working a two camera shoot the camera guys need to see each other's shots so they can match shots when they're cross shooting so you end up with a loom of cables between the two cameras using BNC connectors that really aren't made for the rigours of Yorkshire in the winter.

“On Coronation Street we stuck in location vans and we used Triax connectors as we use in studios and OBs. These are really bullet proof. You jump out of the van, take the camera out, bang in the Triax and you're ready to go. We'll do the same on Emmerdale.

What about post production?
“Currently everything is recorded on Digibeta. The next stage will be to go fully server based. Coronation Street is now using Avid Isis but we don't have Airspeed so we're not recording straight into the server. That'll be the next phase for Coronation Street. Emmerdale will upgrade to server based technology and direct ingest as well. Incidentally, Isis is not necessarily our final decision. We might go down the Final Cut Pro route. We haven't finished that decision.”

“Coronation Street is still on SD cameras but we're further ahead in post production because we've got the Isis and we're looking now at using Interplay that's the next stage. Emmerdale is already on an Avid Unity so they've already got a shared storage solution.”

How will you manage the switchover from SD to HD cameras?
“We'll parallel run for a bit as we check the cameras through and then we'll do a straight change over. That is a testing period which will get through in a couple of weeks and then we'll swap over across a weekend. We want to go at the start of a new recording block so we don't get odd scenes cropping up that are on old technology and new technology.”

Will the change to HD affect other parts of the production process?
“If you use the rule of thumb that the resolution is five times better than SD you've got to consider the effects. There's been lots mentioned about set and the need to refurbish them. Most of our camera test has shown us that the sets stand up. The main bulk of the sets are already good enough. Simply because you very rarely zoom into the corner of the set. Where you are looking is at the talent. We've been running HD make-up courses so that our make-up artists can have a look and check what they're doing because it's the talent that takes the big close ups.

What about the look of Emmerdale, will that change?
“When the cameras arrive proper we'll be reviewing our whole lighting set-up and checking the whole look of Emmerdale. We might choose to use different filtering or lighting set-ups. We're very aware that it will subtly change. We must continue the product that the viewer is used to. Our intention is not to force a look change on the production. From our resources point of view we must re-produce it.”

Will the whole way that Emmerdale is made be different?
“Any new technology going in will give us the ability to have desktop browsing. What we're not doing is being prescriptive. We have to let the production have a look and let them decide how they can change the editing of it.

Will being HD affect how Emmerdale is shot?
“One of the challenges will be to minimise depth of field. Obviously if you're getting in very close and you're going on to the wide end of the lens you get lots of depth of field and you don't particularly want that. So, because of the effect of not pumping while focus pulling, you might find us dropping back a bit. You have to be very careful with the nuances of shooting a soap and perhaps one of the things that distinguishes Emmerdale is that look of being right in the production so we'll be careful not to destroy that.”

ITV Productions - ITV Productions is a production and resources division. Its facilities comprise of 3sixtymedia, located at The Manchester Studios, together with The Leeds Studios, ProVision, Film Lab North and The Finishing School in Yorkshire.

Paul Bennett - Paul Bennett is responsible for sales and marketing, planning and co-ordination for the five Manchester and Leeds business areas, with particular emphasis on studio operations. Previously, Bennett was controller of operations at Carlton and held a number of other management roles for Carlton/Central. His original training was as a Sound Technician at ATV's Elstree Studios.

[Biog details courtesy of UK Screen]