Riding the Digital Wave: A Report from the Jackson Hole Digital Synthesis Conference

From a piece that Mark Shelley produced for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Courtesy of Sea Studios Foundation

For many years now, we've waited for high-definition technology to pick up momentum, only to watch it spurt and sputter, moving forward in fits and starts. But if ever there was a year when it fulfilled its promise, then 2004 was the year, as the tsunami came barreling ashore. Not only have filmmakers and broadcasters embraced high-definition technology, but consumers are buying HD sets in record numbers, thanks to dropping prices. What's more, the price barrier to play in the HD and digital sandbox has significantly plummeted, allowing filmmakers to purchase high-definition miniDV cameras for under $4,000 and high-definition desktop editing systems for $30,000.

Way out in front of this wave for many years, the Jackson Hole Digital Synthesis conference attracts filmmakers who love to push the technology and technologists who love to be pushed in new directions. This three-day conference, offered in alternating years from its higher profile counterpart, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, has moved to Santa Barbara, California, to take advantage of the nearby Los Angeles film community and its major technology companies. Even though the conference is geared towards natural history filmmakers, the information presented by panelists on the latest advancements in digital acquisition, post-production and distribution cuts across all genres and is relevant to a wide spectrum of the filmmaking community.

At the conference, held at the end of September, it became evident that the latest technology offers better equipment at lower prices, along with the ability to create extraordinary looking video content. It also became clear that we're moving towards a data-centric environment that will be disc-based and tape-less. Here are some of the main technological advancements that will impact the way filmmakers shoot and edit their projects:

New Advancements in Acquisition

At the "Technology of Image Orientation" panel, what had everyone abuzz was the highly anticipated Sony prosumer HDV camcorder. The HDR-FX1 will be released on market at the beginning of 2005, with a retail price of around $3,700. Equipped with a three-chip system, the HDR-FX1 records high definition on standard miniDV tapes in resolutions up to 1080 interlaced (1080i) fields and features low-light performance and exceptional manual control.

Panasonic's improved DVX-100a, the popular miniDV camcorder that shoots 24p, 30p and 60i in standard definition, is still selling like hotcakes in the marketplace for under $4,000. However, Panasonic's big announcement at this year's digital symposium is the introduction of a low-cost 1080i/60 HD camera, the AJ-HDX400. This comes in response to the huge growth area for HD at the cable networks and their demand for deliverables in 1080i. This camera will also be on the market in January 2005, with a price tag of $42,500 and an additional $3,495 for the viewfinder. One of the built-in highlights of the camera is its ability to pre-record for 10 seconds into memory, a great benefit for natural history filmmakers in capturing spontaneous wildlife behavior.

Other major developments from Panasonic include the P2 technology, introduced at NAB 2004 with the SD-P2 standard definition camera. This technology allows you to shoot digitally in a camcorder with no moving parts, recording directly into memory. You can then remove the memory card, insert it into a PC and begin editing immediately. Thanks to its more mobile and faster news-gathering capabilities, the camera has been adopted by major news organizations across the country.

The Democratization of Post

During the "Taking Post to the Field" panel, moderator Fred Grossberg declared that the real democratization of HD has been the ability to transport HD over firewire from the deck to the desktop. Thanks to a partnership between Apple and Panasonic that dates back several years, the bar has been lowered for filmmakers to edit in high definition. When Apple approached Panasonic to see if they would put firewire on a HD VTR, Panasonic readily agreed. Bill Hudson, Apple's senior manager of market development, pointed out that by adding a native codec in Final Cut Pro HD (FCP/HD), filmmakers are now able to do real-time effects, real-time editing and color correction right on a Mac Powerbook. Stated Hudson, "This is profound, especially for natural history videographers to now have the ability to go out into the field and know, 'Do I have the shot?' and 'What does it look like?'"

For around $30,000, you can set up a high-definition desktop editing system using Panasonic's 1200A VTR deck, an Apple Macintosh G4 laptop or G5 desktop computer and Apple's Production Suite software. With a price tag of $1,299, this "post-facility-in-a-box" software includes Final Cut Pro HD, DVD Studio Pro 3 and Apple Motion. In addition to editing in DV, SD and HD formats, Production Suite offers the ability to create titles, music, motion graphics and DVD replication.

Panasonic's 1200A VTR deck can play any DV tape, and retails at $21,000. For an additional $4,000, you can get the firewire option, which allows you to transport native compressed HD directly out of the deck and into Final Cut Pro/HD, staying in the native compressed HD format while editing and exporting back out again. Or, for an additional $6,000, you can purchase the HD/SDI option, which works with a third-party card such as Cinewave, Kona or Pinnacle.

During NAB 2004, Apple and Panasonic made a major announcement that they had doubled the amount of HD that could be transported over firewire into Final Cut Pro HD to 100 megabits/second. Both companies are also making it easier to upgrade and utilize this system: If you already have FCP4, you can download FCP/HD for free from the Apple website (www.apple.com), plus you can download the frame rate conversion software that works with FCP/HD from the Panasonic website (www.panasonic.com). However, Jeff Merritt, Panasonic's HD marketing manager, was quick to point out that this workflow path is not "plug and play," and it's necessary to know how all these pieces work together.

Executive producer Mark Shelley of Sea Studios Foundation found the ability to edit HD on a Mac Powerbook quite extraordinary. Shelley had just completed a three-and-a-half-minute piece for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, shooting 24p with the Panasonic Varicam, then sending footage from the 1200A VTR firewire into Final Cut Pro, editing the footage, adding effects, music and titles, and finally outputting to HD MPEG 2. "This is the first time that I can say the pathway is actually working," he noted. Even though Shelley pointed out that the color corrector in FCP was phenomenal, he still felt that certain things are best left to the experts, such as hiring a real colorist with a trained eye. Shelley even envisioned the day when "traveling colorists" would work on a freelance basis, traveling around to production companies to perform color correction services.

Image Restoration and Enhancement

During the "Aliens of the Deep" panel, Mike Inchalik, president of Lowry Digital, presented some exciting demonstrations involving image restoration and enhancement of both film and video footage. Though Inchalik said Lowry works more on HD and film originated footage, it can also process DVCam and DigiBeta footage and make it look like HD.

The Lowry process consists of two steps, utilizing some combination of the company's 600 Macintosh dual-processor G5 computers. The first step is noise reduction or grain reduction, in the case of film. The second step is to enhance detail in frames by extracting data from the surrounding frames in the same sequence or from inter-frame information. That data is then duplicated and added back into the frames to give them more resolution. Depending on both the resolution of the images and the particular challenges of the material, the cost of the Lowry process can range from pennies per frame to several dollars per frame.

However, Inchalik is the first to admit that there are limitations, and that enhancement of the footage really depends on how well it is shot. He also pointed out that once you get into the prosumer level, you're compromising a lot with cameras and lenses. Furthermore, there is some "hidden" image processing that some cameras do to artificially "sharpen edges" that actually makes it harder to extract real detail in a process like Lowry's. For one project that Lowry worked on, it cost the filmmakers less money to shoot PAL DigiBeta and use the Lowry process to create an HD master than had they originated on HD directly, but Inchalik stressed that it's always better to shoot in the highest resolution you can afford.

Mark Chiolis, senior marketing manager for Thomson Broadcast & Media Solutions, pointed out that with lower costs to make digital intermediates and edit in HD with Final Cut Pro HD, independent filmmakers have more choices on how to spend their money. "If you don't have to go to a full post house for the initial work and can save your money for a final correction on color timing, a final conform and film-out, that leaves you as an independent filmmaker additional money to do other things," he explained. "Maybe you can go out to 35mm instead of 16mm, maybe you can afford to use a better quality film stock or maybe you can make additional release prints and multiple masters."

The Shoebox of the Future?

All these advancements in digital technology have been exciting, but they have also presented challenges in preserving our visual heritage. As moderator of the "Aesthetics of Technology" panel, Laser Pacific's Executive Vice President Leon Silverman asked the important question, "What is the shoebox of the future to hold our digital images?" Silverman points out that as we move into a data-centric environment and from a 2K to a 4K world, there will be the challenge of moving around millions of individual frames, so we need to ask, "What is the best archival medium? Where do we put that stuff? What becomes archival?" Some would answer that film is still the best archival medium around, outlasting video technology from 30 years ago that has already become obsolete.

Finally, if there was one lasting image from the conference that spoke volumes, capturing just how far the technology has evolved, it was a clever print ad from Apple that was projected on a screen during the "Taking Post to the Field" panel. The ad is a photograph of a night scene in the African savanna with elephants lolling around in the background. In the foreground sits a pup tent where filmmaker Mark Shelley works by the light of his lantern, viewing footage and editing on his Mac laptop computer. The title of the ad reads "Mark Shelley's HD Edit Bay."

More than just clever, this is becoming the new reality for filmmakers, thanks to the portability and affordability of digital technology. Panel moderator Fred Grossberg pointed out that the close collaboration between filmmakers and manufacturers has led to many technical and artistic achievements that have revolutionized and streamlined workflow paths. As Grossberg insightfully summed up, "What makes this conference special is the give and take between filmmakers who keep trying to push the technology to tell their stories and the manufacturers who work with these filmmakers trying to anticipate and accommodate their wishes."

However, Barry Clark, co-founder and former chairman of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, warned that "riding the digital wave may be fun but it can also be dangerous." C.R. Caillouet, moderator of the final "It's A Wrap" panel , echoed that observation, indicating that the goal of minimizing risk should inform a filmmaker's choice of which digital tools to use and what workflow path to follow for a particular project. For those filmmakers out there who are a bit adventurous, "Surf's up."

 

Dianna Costello is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer whon received an Academy Award nomination for her film Graffitti. She is currently developing a science-based film project.

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