March 3, 2003

HD Power to the People: But Is It for Soderberghs or Soccer Moms?

Sony PD150

Veteran documentarian DA Pennebaker is fond of drawing analogies between film and video. In the 1930s, he recalls, filmmakers told their stories with amateur Kodak Cine Special film cameras, and today they do the same with consumer video cameras—cheap cameras designed more for shooting kids' birthday parties than making films. Filmmakers often transcend design in service of story: Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker's longtime collaborator, and her co-director Jehane Noujaim shot much of their acclaimed Startup.com (2001) on consumer video equipment.

This year JVC offers filmmakers another shot at this kind of transcendence. The Japanese manufacturer is releasing the first ever consumer High Definition (HD) camcorder. For a street price likely to be less than $2,500, the camcorder captures progressive video at resolutions of up to 1,280 by 720 pixels—roughly two-and-a-half times the frame size of Standard Definition (SD) video. At press time, JVC (which had yet to officially name the camcorder) was just about to release it in Japan, with plans to release it in the US within the next few months.

The imminent release of a consumer HD camcorder begs the question: Is this the year you can finally afford to shoot in HD? The answer depends on your willingness to transcend the JVC camcorder's significant design limits and—of perhaps even greater concern—face an uncertain workflow in post.

For all the talk of the digital video revolution and its democratization of filmmaking, shooting a documentary on consumer camcorders—or even their better-endowed "prosumer" peers—is not without peril. "They're incredibly badly designed," says Hegedus, before describing the myriad of problems she and Pennebaker have encountered-problems with audio (poor quality, lack of control over levels), ergonomics (too many buttons, buttons in the wrong places, difficulty in accessing exposure controls, front-heavy design), and so on. "It's like [manufacturers] fix one thing at the expense of another," she says.

But they're cheap. Consumer camcorders (a mix of Sony VX1000s, PD100s and Canon XL-1s) let the crew start shooting the 400 hours of raw footage that would become Startup.com for a mere $15 an hour (the price then of a Mini-DV tape). Consumer camcorders offer more than just cost saving, says Pennebaker. "It's not so much their price as their portability and lack of formidability which lures us to them." By contrast, he describes the bulky broadcast Sony HD camcorder, with which the crew experimented early on, as "a bit of an oversized bouquet for what we do."

Consumer camcorders' ease of use, and the fact that they capture both picture and sound, also allows for small crews. Given these benefits, Hegedus and Pennebaker have learned to adapt to the design flaws of consumer camcorders. They plug-up poorly placed buttons to avoid unwanted effects, like a fade to black at an inopportune time.

And they've found new ways to stabilize these jiggle-prone camcorders, without resorting to cumbersome tripods: "By putting the camera on a bag of beans or on a small lazy susan, the camera can be tamed, as it were, to behave as if it were on a tripod, without losing its virtuosity."  Pennebaker says these simple, unobtrusive solutions have a side benefit of easing the wariness of their subjects.

You can expect the JVC HD camcorder to demand these same kinds of tricks from filmmakers. JVC spokesperson Toshiya Ogata makes it clear that initially his company is aiming more for Soccer Moms than Soderberghs. The strategy, he says, is to start with the low end of the market, then move up with a more feature-rich, "prosumer" offering.

So what exactly do you get? On the plus side: a much larger canvas on which to paint. In its high resolution mode, the camcorder captures footage in the HD format known as 720p. That means a resolution of 1,280 by 720 pixels—again, two-and-a-half times the resolution of SD (but still less than half that of HD's highest resolution format). And that "p" means that you get to paint with progressive footage, whole and seamless frames without the field-filleted look of most SD video.

Currently, the only camcorders capable of capturing 720p footage are at the broadcast level and cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, so JVC is offering consumers (and potentially filmmakers) a significant advancement, one that some might argue is long overdue, considering that HD camcorders have been around in analogue form since the early 1980s.

You get portability, too. Though Ogata was tight-lipped about the actual dimensions of the camcorder, it's rumored to be about the size of a Canon GL-1 or Sony VX2000 (say, 5x5x11 inches).

And you get all of this at a low price. On this point Ogata was again reticent, but it's been said to be less than $2,500. Stock won't cost you much either, as the camcorder writes to Mini-DV tapes.

But the camcorder has just one chip. "So you have high quality in one area [resolution], and low quality in another [color accuracy]," Hegedus notes. "I don't really know what that equals."

The camcorder's compression schema may amount to another sacrifice in image quality. To squeeze all those fat frames onto a very thin strip of tape, the camcorder uses MPEG-2 compression, the same high-ratio schema used to squeeze feature films onto DVDs. JVC isn't ready to discuss just how much compression occurs, so you'll have to wait for the camcorder's release to check its footage for artifacts (compression-induced image flaws; look for them in fast-motion footage, especially since MPEG-2, unlike the codecs used by SD Mini-DV camcorders, is time-based, relying on similarities between frames.)

And don't expect high-end features like manual exposure controls, zebra bars, or frame-accurate time code. Remember, we're talking soccer moms here.

Asked why it's taken so long for an HD camcorder to trickle down to the masses, Sony spokesperson Rick Clancey replies, "Because you need a whole value chain of equipment to support it." That's corporate speak for the pipeline of decks, monitors, editing systems, effects tools, projectors, VCRs, DVD players and TVs necessary to convey footage from camcorder to audience.

Over the past few decades, manufacturers have built an SD pipeline that the masses can afford, making the digital video revolution possible. A camcorder like the $3,000 Sony PD150 (the consumer camcorder that Pennebaker and Hegedus now favor) makes a nice mate for the basic $3,000 Final Cut Pro (FCP) editing system.

 However, there isn't an HD pipeline for the masses. At press time, the only editing systems capable of processing the JVC camcorder's 720p footage begin at around $30,000. FCP can do it, but only with the addition of some very expensive hardware. A similar mismatch exists for virtually all phases of HD post and distribution.

This may not long be the case, at least for one manufacturer. Asked if Adobe Premiere, the low-cost PC rival to FCP, will be ready for the HD camcorder, product manager Richard Townhill couldn't comment; Adobe had recently signed a non-disclosure agreement with JVC, one presumably related to building post-production support for the HD camcorder.

For now, all filmmakers can really do is wait for the release of this camcorder and see how production-worthy it really is, what manufactures build in terms of an affordable HD pipeline, and what JVC's competitors have to offer. On this last point, Clancy hints that Sony might go down market from its high-end HD camcorder family. As to when he'll only say, "Stay tuned."

 

Jason Peterson is a freelance writer and visual effects artist. He can be reached at jasongarypeterson@earthlink.net.

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