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Conflict forsakes film for HD tape

Tribune's syndicated show Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict is the first episodic television program to be produced using Sony's 1080p/24 high-definition tape format, CineAlta, in place of 35 mm film.

The science-fiction show first tested the Sony 24p format in March, and Toronto-based producer Alliance Atlantis began shooting Earth: Final Conflict's fourth season in May using four HDW-F900 camcorders supplied by rental house Simms Video (the $100,000 cameras were distributed by Sony of Canada). Three of the show's 22 episodes have already been completed.

"I've been along with Sony since they first introduced the concept," says Jim Toten, director of engineering and technology for Tribune Entertainment Co. "I decided to make the jump for a lot of reasons, and it's turning out to be working OK."

In March, Tribune and Alliance Atlantis conducted side-by-side tests of a prototype Sony 24p camera and a 35-mm film camera, shooting the same footage and then making standard-definition Digital Betacam masters from both sources. Toten's criterion was how the 24p material looked on the standard-def master and how a 16:9 standard-def master of the 24p footage appeared after being upconverted to 1080i. Tribune already provides 16:9 widescreen SDTV masters, on Beta SX tape, to Dispatch Broadcast Group for use by their DTV stations.

The footage generated by the CineAlta camera compared very favorably with the film-originated material, particularly after Alliance Atlantis adjusted the camera's settings to generate more of a film look, says Toten. That persuaded him to adopt the HDTV tape system.

The money saved by eliminating film-processing costs has been pumped back into the show, he says. "We took the money out of film stock, processing and telecine and reinvested it in visual effects, characters and sets."

More important, he says, is the time saved by eliminating film processing. By hooking up Sony's 24p tape deck to a Digital Betacam deck, Alliance can immediately generate standard-definition transfers for post-production work. "You put the HDW-F500 right next to a Digi Beta, with one co-ax cable running between the two decks, and it gives you downconverted 601 with a 3:2 pull-down," says Toten. "It's really cool."

Although 24p is also seen by many in Hollywood as the ultimate post-production format, the effects-intensive Earth: Final Conflict will continue to be posted on 16:9 Digital Betacam source tapes.

Toten says that, if 24p post equipment becomes more widespread and costs come down, he would consider handling post-production in the format.

Toten believes the instant turnaround of high-def tape should prove very attractive to sitcom producers. "Right now, you've got five film cameras rolling, and you have to wait for the next day to see if you got it or not."