Is HDV really the next big thing? In potential for greatness, perhaps. In "file size" surprisingly not. But in "gotchas"… maybe.
So… you've decided to take the leap and spring for a shiny new HDV camcorder. Tight! You're ready to move your video projects to the next level! Right? Well, maybe. It turns out that as good as HDV is (and make no mistake, it's a big leap forward in affordable video production quality), it's a format that has its own unique quirks and workflow issues. A short list of HDV "Dos" and "Don'ts," if you will.
So let's start out with a big fat Do. Do get excited about the potential of this hot video format. But don't be fooled into thinking that going out and buying an HDV camcorder is an end in itself. Unless you're planning to show your un-edited HDV footage direct to your new 16:9
"widescreen" TV, you're going to quickly confront the fact that the easy editing we've all become used to with standard definition DV is a bit hard to match in an HDV production chain.
One of the current buzzwords in the video production world is "workflow." It's a catchall term for the process you use to make your videos. Scripting and planning aside, your production workflow typically only begins with shooting the footage.
After shooting, the next step is capturing your HDV footage into your editor. While more and more editing software packages are being re-written or adapted to edit HDV natively or at least transcode the MPEG compressed footage, not all can work with the Long GOP (Group of Pictures) footage. So don't assume your editing system is HDV ready until you check. Do that by checking the product’s Web site — perhaps all you need is a version upgrade.
Meanwhile, Back at the Edit Bay
Okay, let’s assume your edit software is HDV ready. How about your edit bay itself? One very cool thing about HDV is that it's happy zipping around your edit suite on standard FireWire. No need for expensive re-cabling! Do celebrate! Are you planning to monitor your HDV work in actual high definition? Then a Hi-Def capable display is required. This is definitely in the don't celebrate category.
The last time I looked, true Hi-Def monitors came with price tags somewhere between "You're joking" and "Whatareyou — Nuts?!" Don't panic. The best-designed HDV software often sports an interface where you can see your work on your computer screen in decent resolution, even if it's not actually Hi-Def output. So do yourself a favor and relax. You can often do basic work in HDV without an actual HD monitor.
In fact, the first time I worked with Hi-Def footage on my SD (Standard Def) DV system, I had no problem watching the footage on my computer's LCD screens — and it looked really nice. But when I reflexively looked up to check the picture on my reference monitor, I got a bit of a shock. I noticed that instead of moving pictures, I had frozen SD frames displayed. That's not unusual. Remember your computer and software are doing a lot of work "behind the scenes" decoding, displaying, and re-coding all those GOP structures that make up the HDV stream.
Even a fast stock computer might have problems handling HDV data rates while transcoding and displaying your HDV scenes in SD NTSC simultaneously.
File Size Surprise?
Another challenge that used to go hand in hand with high definition files was massive file sizes. The HDV format has made a huge impact in this area. The truth of the matter is that HDV files can be SMALLER than standard def DV files. Really. Surprised me too!
I did a quick test and exported 10-second clips from similar QuickTime files — one shot in DV using DV compression and the other in HDV in its native HDV compression — to compare file sizes. The standard def file was occupying 36.2 megs of drive space, while the HDV files consumed only 32.1 megs. Yep, the HDV data file was SMALLER than the equivalent DV file!
Clearly the HDV compression scheme excels in potentially packing 16:9 1440×1080 frames in correspondingly smaller files than its standard def 4:3 720×480 DV cousin.
Until the Blu-ray and HD DVD battle sees a truce, DVD and the Internet are the only distribution media for most HDV projects. (Currently HDV "consumer" tape decks aren't on the horizon.) So when it comes to distributing your work, the best you can do at the moment to get your project out to a big audience is to pull out your DVD authoring software manuals and dive in. Hopefully, you'll find that your DVD software is HD, or at least HDV ready.
And don't forget that at playback time; once again, if your goal is to play back your shiny new HD authored DVD in full res, it means an HD capable monitor, projector, and Plasma or LCD screen.
Finally, some good news. There was a lot of speculation when the HDV format was announced about how its GOP (group of pictures) structure was going to make editing difficult. Turned out to be a false alarm. Under the hood it might appear to be pretty complex, but the software engineers have got this pretty much licked.
The first time I slapped some fresh HDV files on my Final Cut Pro timeline and started slicing and dicing, dissolving and flipping the footage around, it worked (drum roll please) exactly like my standard def DV files have been behaving for years.
So do hold onto your sense of excitement. HDV is putting better quality video options in our hands without breaking our bank accounts (well, too badly, at least!). Just don't forget that there's more to the HDV workflow puzzle than the camera. So, feel free to pull out your HDV camera and have some fun. Eventually, we'll all have Hi-Def TV sets and other production tools to make working with HDV as easy as working with DV is today.
Until then, just don't DO anything crazy. (Or if you do, please send me a copy. I enjoy watching crazy as much as the next guy!)
Contributing Editor Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits,
and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.