High definition is at last becoming a reality as the number of shows being shot on the format continues to rise. Bu...
High definition is at last becoming a reality as the number of shows being shot on the format continues to rise. But as HD moves into the mainstream, how is it performing? Ian White and Rick Dacey report.


Storyteller's camera of choice is digital

Camera: Sony HDW-750P

Programme: Bleak House

Production Co: Deep Indigo

Broadcaster: BBC1

The BBC's major new drama series for the autumn is a reworking of Charles Dickens' Bleak House as a soap-style series of 16 x 30-minute episodes. Director of photography Kieran McGuigan decided that he was going to "use the limitation of the medium to be more expressive" in order to achieve a distinctive look.

"People say that with digital cameras you should shoot it wide open, keep it flat and then bring it to life in the grade during the post-production process - but I don't want to have a little man in a telecine suite controlling the images," he says. "It goes against the grain to leave it to someone else."

To achieve his colour palette McGuigan dispensed with fill lights and used a grading box attached to the two Sony HDW-750P cameras to "put in some greens, add some yellow and crunch the blacks".

He adds: "For me, that little box was the most important tool of the whole shoot," he says. "Taking this approach was the only way I was going to be happy working with a digital camera rather than film."

McGuigan says that he enjoyed playing with the exposure on the grading box, often using it for dramatic effect. "For instance, when someone walked towards a window, I would squeeze it down a bit and then move into more of a silhouette sort of feel and, as the character comes out through the shadows again, I'd open it up a bit to create an emotional narrative to the movement of the medium. I knew that if I left it to the grade, this sort of information wouldn't be there."

The DoP also eschewed film lenses, describing them as unsuitable for hand-held work. "We just used the Sony lenses and they worked fine," he says.

Filming 'off speed' gives a better result

Camera: Panasonic AJ-HDC27FE Varicam

Programme: E=MC2

Production Co: Darlow Smithson

Broadcaster: Channel 4/Arte/NDR/PBS

A co-production between Channel 4, Arte in France, NDR in Germany and PBS Nova in the US, E=MC2 is a 110-minute drama from Darlow Smithson, the maker of Touching the Void, to air in the autumn on C4. The production takes Einstein's equation and focuses on the characters behind the discovery of each of its constituent parts.

As the biggest investor in the production, PBS required it be shot on HD in the 720/24P format and asked that it be edited on Apple's Final Cut Pro - which, according to Darlow Smithson, makes Panasonic's Varicam an obvious choice.

DoP Chris Titus King is pleased with the results despite encountering a technical problem with one of the two camera bodies hired for the making of this costume docu-drama. "I've shot on [Sony's] HDCam before and that gives more detail but I found that the look the Panasonic Varicam gives is more pleasing to the eye," he reasons. "It seems to replicate what the eyeball sees rather than what Sony technicians think you should see.

"Many scenes look better when you shoot slightly off-speed - it takes the edge off normal movement to make people and animals move more gracefully. The camera records at 60 frames per second all the time but, when you set the front end to the speed you want, it throws away the frames you don't need. It's good to be able to do that in-camera rather than in post where you would have to make up frames."

But, warns the DoP: "Whereas film gives you a lot of latitude above and below the correct stop, HD is less forgiving. Overexposed whites are unrecoverable in the grade. That, coupled with the fact that you often want to keep exposures as wide open as possible to achieve a low depth of field (for a more filmic look), means your focus puller has to be well trained."

Live broadcast

Rehearsal for World Cup

Camera: Thomson Grass Valley LDK6000

Programme: The Confederations Cup

Production Co: Granada Sport

Broadcaster: Five

The Confederations Cup broadcast in June this year on Five saw some of the best football teams in the world clash - bringing together the continental cup holders in a precursor to the World Cup. Brazil, somewhat unsurprisingly, walked away with the trophy while host broadcaster HBS, outside broadcaster NEP Visions, facilities group Input and Granada Sport crews left with a strong HD grounding for the big one in Germany next summer.

The NEP Visions trucks were kitted out with Thomson Grass Valley LDK 6000 Worldcam high-def cameras, shooting on a widescreen 16 x 9 format and also produced extra super slo-mo feeds.

Two of the four crews chosen for the event were from Granada Sport because of their experience on the Champions League campaign, which was a huge ratings success for ITV.

John Watts, senior director at Granada Sport for ITV, says: "The Confederations Cup had two aims. We had to produce great programming for the competition and we also used it as a rehearsal for the World Cup - also in Germany - next year."

"Ninety-nine per cent of the world will be watching the football in 2006 on the standard four by three television but we're shooting 16:9 [widescreen] HD, which poses some interesting problems. You have to make sure that you're not chopping off important action for most of the viewers at home."

Watts says that until there is widespread true HD uptake with content being shot and broadcast HD and viewed on high-def ready widescreen sets there will continue to be unseen challenges for production teams shooting with HD cameras.

Still working at -12·

Camera: Panasonic AJ-HDX400

Programme: The Arctic Challenge 2005

Production Co: Friday Productions

Broadcaster: NRK, Sky Sports, Eurosport, Channel 4

Staged inside the Arctic Circle on a tiny island off the north-west coast of Norway this April, the annual Arctic Challenge is acknowledged as the premier snowboarding contest in the world and one of the country's key sporting events. Sponsored by Panasonic, the event was covered by Brighton-based Friday Productions for Norwegian broadcaster NRK which owns the international rights. This year, due to demand and the desire to "future-proof" footage, Friday used three Panasonic AJ-HDX400 cameras along with the AJ-HD1200 portable editing deck.

Emma Smith, head of production at Friday, opted to shoot at the highest resolution possible (1080i/50i) and down-convert to SD for immediate transmission on NRK before preparing edited HD and SD versions for broadcasters including Sky Sports, Eurosport and Channel 4.

Smith has previously shot on both 16mm and video but found high-def brought both quality and immediacy to the production. "The HD pictures are as good as film and there's no way that we could have turned something of that quality around in that time if we'd used 16mm," explains Smith.

The crew took the cameras to the slopes a day earlier to test their performance. "The snowboarders can hit 55 miles per hour on the run-in. The cameras could handle the motion," says Smith.

"The cameras were just as easy to use as Digibetas," reports Smith's fellow producer at Friday, Sandy Stevenson. "We used them in minus 12 temperatures and they were fine. You really notice the super detail they capture."


Attention to detail is vital

Camera: Sony HDW-F900

Programme: Herod

Production Co: Atlantic Productions

Broadcaster: National Geographic

Atlantic Productions produces a high volume of factual HD content for international broadcasters including National Geographic and Discovery. Atlantic's forthcoming docu-drama Herod, about the king whose rule shaped the world in which the Christian faith arose, was shot on both the Sony HDCam 900 and the Panasonic Varicam - the former for the documentary aspects and the latter for the drama.

Director Nigel Levy, who took Sony's HD camera across the Middle East in May for the documentary half of Herod, said that the format's added detail brings new challenges to locations and challenged how he directed: "You see so much detail and weight in these shots you feel compelled to hold longer and linger over these beautiful shots."

Herod had to be shot in HD for National Geographic. The decision to shoot in the 1080 resolution was made for future proofing. This means that if programmes are canned at high resolution and each frame is stored as an image file, a television show or film may be retrieved at a later date and converted into any television standard.

Says Levy: "The HDCam is a quality camera. The images it produces make you feel like you're staring at a great picture and I think that will start to affect how you cut the edit. We don't fully understand all the repercussions HD will have but I think it could lead to slower cuts because there's so much to take in."

The director also warns that attention to detail is vital: "Any out of focus shots or out of place hairs are exposed due to the cameras' intensity."

HD cameras should not have B&W viewfinders

Format: AJ-HDC27FE Varicam

Programme: Amazon Adventures

Production Co: Pioneer Productions

Broadcaster: The History Channel

When commissioned to make Amazon Adventures, a 2 x 60-minute documentary which had to be shot on HD for The History Channel, Pioneer Productions head of production Kirstie McLure opted for Panasonic's Varicam. The documentary chronicles the fate of explorers who have attempted to tame this infamously hot and humid region of Brazil and it presented quite a challenge for this sensitive video camera without a cooling fan. But according to DoP David Langham, the Varicam passed the audition. "The camera did get extremely hot," he says. "almost too hot to touch which is a problem when you're shooting a lot of hand-held footage, but I was impressed with its reliability. In four weeks of shooting in difficult circumstances, it didn't let us down once."

Langham had been looking forward to using the Varicam's variable frame rate to shoot "off-speed" for slo-mo sequences (individual frame rates may be selected from four to 60 frames per second and the unit didn't disappoint when he shot at 60 fps).

"We shot a lot of material at 60 fps (slow-motion) and some footage at six and 12 fps, especially at low light where you benefit from the extra stops. At present the Varicam is the only camera able to shoot slo mo at this kind of resolution (720 lines) except for very specialised camera systems that costs a fortune and can only record a small amount of footage before having to have their hard drives emptied." But, he's not keen on the black and white viewfinders to be found on both Panasonic and Sony HD cameras. "For the cost and, more importantly, the image capture of both systems, it is almost criminal that you're composing and setting your exposure and contrast levels through a black and white viewfinder that is showing you only 150 lines of resolution."

Natural History

HD filming essential to getting co-pro interest

Camera: AJ-HDC27FE Varicam

Programme: Planet Earth (dry land)

Production Co: BBC NHU

Broadcaster: BBC, Discovery US and Japan's NHK

BBC executive producer and director Alastair Fothergill was told that the only way he would get co-production money for the epic 11-hour natural history series Planet Earth (the£16m follow-up to The Blue Planet series) would be to shoot it in HD. Initially, he was not best pleased.

"For a project of this scale we were talking about 30 camera operators. It was real concern to move over from Arri [film] cameras, which we know very well, just for one series."

Nevertheless, he complied and the BBC chose Panasonic's AJ-HDC27FE Varicam to shoot all footage above ground to take advantage of both its ability to operate at variable frame rates and its new gamma curves feature, developed to emulate the tonal qualities of film.

"Now we're pleased that we went that route," says Fothergill. "Although Varicam can only work from 4fps to 60fps, which isn't as much as we'd like, an awful lot of wildlife photography is done at high speed and subjects like a walking elephant look much more beautiful when shot at 30 to 40fps - audiences don't generally perceive that their movement has been slowed down. There's no doubt that the images are absolutely beautiful and it's lovely to lose the grain. Varicam gives us a warm progressive look that we've always enjoyed in making wildlife documentaries on film."

He adds that Panasonic was "very helpful" and cites the way in which the camera's vari-speed setting is now available at the push of a button. "We used to have to go into the menu to do it which, when you're filming a running cheetah and you want to change the speed in seconds, was a big problem for us."

(Underwater and aerial shots)

Camera: Sony HDW-750P, HDC-950; HVR-Z1E

The BBC and its co-partners on Planet Earth chose three Sony HDW-750Ps for the underwater sequences and two additional Sony HD cameras, the HDC-950 and the HVR-Z1E, for aerial shooting.

According to Peter Scoones, an underwater cameraman on the series, a big advantage of the HDW-750P is its compatibility with most of the underwater equipment which was used on Blue Planet, the award-winning series whose success the BBC hopes to emulate with Planet Earth this winter. Another important factor in choosing the HDCam camcorder was the HDVF-C30W colour viewfinder (currently no colour viewfinders are available for Panasonic HD camcorders).

"Different parameters apply underwater," says Scoones whose company Underwater Visual Systems is supplying camera housings for the series. "A colour viewfinder and colour control is very important."

"The new colour viewfinder is particularly good for underwater work where we need to colour balance at different depths," explains series producer Alastair Fothergill. "It also has an optional cache board that allows us to permanently pre-record the previous eight seconds in a loop before pressing the record button. This is fantastically useful for natural history."

In the skies above the Antarctic, the HVR-Z1E was used for scenic shots and "the making of" footage as well as a handy back-up camera. But the BBC also plans to submerge the diminutive camcorder in a specially made underwater housing. "The real value of a camcorder in this situation is its size," reasons Fothergill. "With some of the work we do in the open oceans, we have to jump into the water to record events quickly and, if you have a big camera, that causes a disturbance." The HVR-Z1E on the other hand will be a drop in the ocean.