HD and Documentary Films

Providing stunningly lifelike images, HDTV has been a boon to documentary producers. Programmers like Discovery Networks, PBS and Voom HD Networks offer scores of high-definition documentaries on nature, wildlife or science topics.

But HDTV's advantages go beyond mere resolution. The ease of use of high-end HD video-production gear has won over many cinematographers who previously relied on film formats such as Super 16mm. And low-cost “prosumer”-grade cameras have made it affordable for stations and videographers to make the leap from standard-definition production to high-definition.

Among the best-known HDTV nature franchises is Discovery's Sunrise Earth franchise, which uses HDTV to give viewers a first-hand look at how dawn appears in foreign locales. Next year, Discovery HD's Planet Earth will depict animal life around the globe in 1080-line-interlace (1080i) HD. The latest installment of the Nature series on PBS gives a high-definition glimpse of Yellowstone National Park in winter. And eight of Voom's 14 channel offerings are nonfiction brands, ranging from art to fashion to extreme sports to music.

One of the major advantages of high-definition video for documentary producers working in harsh or remote locations is the ability to immediately see what they've shot; with Super 16mm film, they had to wait until it was processed in the lab.

“There's a quite bit more instant gratification with high-definition cameras than with film,” notes Josh Derby, director of production technology for Discovery Networks.

Although the documentary world had been dominated by Super 16 acquisition, many producers began switching over to HD cameras beginning in the late '90s. By 2002, there was a “sea change toward HD acquisition” from the Super 16 camp, says Derby.

“Obviously, you don't have to develop high-definition videotape,” he says, “so you're working in a medium where you have more-immediate knowledge and control.”

HD isn't perfect. It lacks the distinctive grain of film, but documentary producers are enthusiastic about the more-expensive HD cameras like the Panasonic VariCam and Sony CineAlta HDW-F900, which have the ability to shoot in the film-like 24-frame-per-second progressive (24p) format. They also have innovative features like image “overcranking” for slow-motion and “undercranking” for a fast-forward effect.

“24p is really what drew the film folks into the HD world,” says Derby. “It was a good compromise for people accustomed to film in using HD as a medium.”

WNET New York relied on Sony 24p cameras for the latest installment in its Nature series. “Christmas in Yellowstone,” which premiered on PBS Nov. 19, follows the winter sojourns of nature photographer Tom Murphy through Yellowstone National Park and required some 120 days of shooting in the field by producer/cinematographer Shane Moore and another 35 days by a second cameraman.

Before switching to HD camcorders five years ago, Moore relied on the industry-standard Aeroflex Super 16mm camera. He admits to being “pretty reluctant initially” because he wasn't sure the HD cameras could measure up to the rugged Aeroflex in the harsh environments he typically works in. But after using both Sony F900 and Panasonic VariCam units on several shoots for the BBC, he was won over.

“Natural-history [producers] adopted HD first because it has a real long shelf life, basically everything we shoot,” says Moore. “Things don't change much in nature, so people are trying to maximize their libraries, whether they are independent filmmakers or Discovery or National Geographic.”

He records 24p onto HDCAM tape and gets 50 minutes of video per tape. “When you compare it to film, where you had an 11-minute roll, that's a great asset,” he says. “And changing tape is a delight compared to going into a black bag and changing film.”

Between the Sony camera and the various Fujinon lenses he uses, Moore's HD field acquisition setup is worth around $200,000. He tries to be extra careful to keep dust out of the unit and often covers the camera with a light jacket for protection. For cold-weather shoots like “Yellowstone,” he has learned to keep camera batteries in his parka to keep them warm and will sometimes power the camera by running a cable from a battery inside his parka.

“It was really rugged backcountry work in extreme cold,” says Moore. “These cameras are only supposed to work down to 32 Fahrenheit, but one morning I shot at -45 Fahrenheit, and the cameras never did fail. They do quite well in the cold.”

He still likes the look of film but says that HD images compare favorably and are “lush and rich and incredibly sharp.” HD doesn't suffer from one of Super 16 drawbacks: movement in the image due to the film's weaving around the camera gate. And Moore has found HD to be better in low-light situations, such as capturing a wolf hunt at dusk for “Yellowstone.”

“A lot of the best behavior with animals is in low-light conditions with a long lens,” he says. “HD gives you at least another 20-30 minutes of good shooting conditions in the morning and in the evening.”

Voom will still accept content that is originated on 35mm film but is commissioning all new programs in HD video. Greg Moyer, general manager of Rainbow's Voom HD Networks, sees two big trends in HD technology—affordability and miniaturization—and says they are impacting both post-production and field acquisition.

Where it used to cost $250,000 minimum to build an HD edit suite, now the same functionality is available at a fifth of the cost, particularly since systems like Apple's Final Cut Pro allow broadcast-quality HD to be edited on a laptop. “That's just a staggering notion,” says Moyer. “Five years or 10 years ago, that would have been unthinkable in SD, much less HD.”

The trend of smaller and cheaper gear is making its way into the field, where $10,000 prosumer HDV-format cameras are occasionally replacing $100,000 professional units. While Moyer isn't suggesting that lower-quality HDV units are the equal of high-end 24p camcorders, he notes that they are now a viable option: “These are amazing tools.”

Moore has successfully used HDV cameras for underwater shoots, where he says the relative lack of detail from the compressed images isn't an issue. And Discovery's Derby is suitably impressed after evaluating HDV units from several manufacturers and recommends them to his producers for particular applications.

“Until HDV existed, you had the big $100,000 camera, and that was all you had,” he says. “But there are times in life when you have to wreck a couple cameras to make good TV, and there are tight spots you can't get into with a large HD camcorder. HDV lets the producer get all the shots they need.”

The affordability of the HDV and P2 formats has also made it feasible for some local broadcasters to upgrade their production of documentaries and other original programming from standard-definition video to HD.

KRON San Francisco is using a mix of Panasonic AJ-HVX200 P2 HD solid-state cameras and Sony HVR-Z1U HDV-format camcorders, both of which list in the $5,000-$6,000 price range, to produce all of its original programming as well as the occasional documentary in HD.

Its high-definition shows include Bay Area Backroads, a long-running travel show; Bay Café, which follows the gourmet scene; gardening show Henry's Garden; and Bay Area Living, a new series of infomercials on local home developments.

“All of these things lend themselves to shooting in high-definition,” notes Jim Swanson, executive producer of local programming for KRON. “None of them are studio-based; they're all shot out in the field. Whether it's the Golden Gate Bridge in a wide shot or a beautiful shot of a restaurant where they are cooking up scrumptious food, it all looks really good in HD.”

The two cameras have their own distinct advantages and drawbacks, says Swanson. The Panasonic P2 unit has more high-end features, including a setting that gives a film-like look, but it requires shooting on memory cards that hold only 16 minutes of video. The Sony cameras don't have as many settings but record on removable tapes that hold 60 minutes each and allow producers to replicate “an old-school workflow,” which many find convenient.

KRON tends to rely on the tape-based HDV camcorders when moving around at remote locations, while, in more-static environments, such as a new-home location in Bay Area Builders, Swanson will set up a laptop to ingest video from the P2 cards and store it on a cheap external hard drive (perhaps $99 for a 250-gigabyte unit).

One chance to get the shot

Since the P2 format stores video as files, the hard drive can be easily hooked up to KRON's Canopus Edius nonlinear editing software to begin post-production work, either on a laptop in the field or on a desktop unit back at the station.

Matt Feury, senior product marketing manager for editing giant Avid Technology, is also seeing cost-conscious documentary clients warm up to file-based formats like P2 HD, as well as to HDV tape. “They are getting an HD picture that is certainly good enough and better-than-expected image quality, with much greater portability.”

Documentaries have stricter acquisition requirements than scripted shows, he notes. Where a sitcom producer can always return to the set and shoot a scene again, a documentary producer might have one chance to get the shot. For that reason, file-based HD formats such as Panasonic P2 HD are a great benefit in the field.

“You can literally pop the card out of the camera and have instant access to it, so you know you've got that shot before you break location,” says Feury. “You don't have to wait until you get to an edit room.”