In only a decade, we’ve come from analog 8mm and VHS to all-digital camcorders good enough for broadcast. Now we are seeing new technology that will push videography well past the abilities of the average television. For less than $5,000, high-definition (HD) video is going consumer. High definition video gives more to the viewer, but it asks more of the shooter.
HD is Here Today
“Let’s watch the DVD first.” Frederic Haubrich leads me to a DVD player and small monitor in the white outer office of Lumiere Video, his video production facility near the ocean in Pt. Pleasant, New Jersey.
“I want to show you the quality of the DVD and then we can see it in HD. You know, HD is great, but unless you can show it in a way everyone can see it today, it’s useless.” Haubrich, 35, has recently made a career move some would call courageous, but many would call crazy. He walked away from a great job as CIO of Hooked on Phonics, with his Canon XL1 in hand, to pursue a career in video production. If the movie he’s about to show is good, it will be his calling card. He presses the play button and his short film, Hotel Room, starts with the title fading up over a shot of a dark parking lot.
Hotel Room was shot on JVC’s HD-10U. JVC liked Hotel Room so much they used it at NAB to showcase what their HDV cameras could do.
Haubrich moved from California to New Jersey. “I figured [that if] we’re putting an ad in the yellow pages, we have to offer something new, something different, so we’re going to migrate to HD.”The move wasn’t trouble-free and he immediately ran into some issues, “I couldn’t trust my picture on an SD monitor. I had to be really careful [with focus].”Even scarier was the moment on the first night, when he watched the shutter speed change to a setting which made his images blurry. “When we looked at that I was horrified and we couldn’t re-shoot that.” Haubrich shrugs. “It kind of worked for the story. Kind of a strange feeling to it.”
Successful HDV Fundamentals
HD can look incredible, but, like any new technology, it takes work to get there. There are no shortcuts: Learn your camera and check your settings. Yes, fundamentally, it shoots video, just like your current camcorder, but it is different and you’ll have to get used to it.
Good focus is possible, but since you probably don’t have an HD monitor when you are shooting, you’ll have to rely on the LCD, the viewfinder and, ultimately, your experience. On the JVC cameras, you won’t be able to monitor your HDV picture at full resolution. You won’t have control of your audio levels. You can’t control your iris manually. The more you can control your environment, the better your chances of bringing back something you will be happy with.
Fundamentally, HD means higher resolution video. HDV currently comes in two flavors: 1080 lines of vertical resolution or 720 lines. If it were simply a matter of choosing a resolution, more would be better, but there are other factors to consider.
HDV cameras shoot in a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. This means the picture is 16 units wide for every 9 units it is high. Smart shooters will still frame their shots for a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, a technique known as “protecting for 4:3.” The toughest challenge when shooting 16:9 is doing interviews when you want a clean single shot of your subject. You will have to position the camera further off-axis, resulting in a look that is more profile.
Another difference with HDV is whether the frame itself is scanned progressively or whether it is interlaced. Interlaced images look like video, while progressive scan can look like film. The more the motion, the more noticeable the flicker from progressive frames become. The cinematography award at Sundance film festival this year went to a movie shot not on film, not on HD, but on a special format shot on the Panasonic AG-DVX100, at 480 lines of resolution, shooting progressive frames. The JVC HDV camera can shoot with a progressive frame that gives you the film-like look. The camera shoots at 30 fps, which is not the same as film and is also not the same as NTSC television. When in progressive mode, quick pans and tilts make the effect of the flicker more noticeable. If moves are really quick, blurring can start to become disturbing. You might want to pan no faster than five or six seconds, end to end.
Shutter speed is an important consideration. An electronic shutter is the equivalent of the mechanical film shutter. Just as the film shutter cuts the frame exposure in half, so will the electronic shutter cut your exposure time in half. If you are shooting 30 fps interlaced, then you should be at 1/60th. 30fps progressive can use a 1/30th shutter speed.
Watch out for the auto-iris opening and closing while you shoot. Neutral density filters can help moderate swings in brightness while you are shooting. Your challenge is compounded by the fact that there is no evidence of a knee, which would compress the bright sections of your picture so they would not overexpose, unless the light level was higher. You might want to try a low-contrast filter to minimize problems on this front. The filters come in strengths from 1-5, with 5 being the strongest. They raise the black levels and add halation, which is a slight haze around overexposed objects. This will reduce the amount of contrast in the picture, which can really help JVC’s initial HDV cameras produce the best image possible.
Other HDV Issues
Like most smallish consumer cameras in low light, colors can be muted. They look best with bright subjects, so the rules of good lighting apply to the magic of HDV as well.
HDV camcorders shoot in a compressed MPEG-2 video format that can suffer from chromatic aberrations and artifacting. Subtle gradations in color or brightness break into discrete, artificial looking steps. This is not a fatal flaw, but DV looks better in this regard. Then again, the DVDs and digital television you watch also shares this compression problem. If you are happy with those technologies, HDV camcorders will be just fine.
The GR-HD1U’s detail (edge) enhancement processing was cranked way up, probably to squeeze out every detail possible. The image was hyper-crispy video on steroids and was much criticized. The JY-HD10U turned this processing down a tad to a more pleasing level. Detail is not adjustable on either camera, however.
Frederic Haubrich’s initial goals in shooting Hotel Room were modest. “We really did that as an experiment. We wanted to see if we could create a decent product and eventually make a feature.” He met and exceeded his goals. His short movie gave potential investors confidence in his abilities and in the JVC HDV camera and he raised over $100,000 for another HDV feature shot in August that is currently in postproduction. Maybe that will make those who thought he was a tiny bit crazy think again. And for all of us, it’s a good time to keep an eye on HDV.
Matthew David Wachsman is a filmmaker, cinematographer and writer.