September 17


For the past five months, I've been on a roller-coaster of equipment acquisition, software installation and troubleshooting and learning about the quirks of "bleeding edge" technology. Welcome to the world of high definition video. What a long, strange trip it's been.

Here I am, sitting in September, and I finally believe I got a handle on it. Not all of it--but enough to get productive. I've pretty much standardized on all-Adobe software for the editing and special effects. The CS3 programs are almost magical in their capabilities. PhotoShop alone is pretty amazing in it's present form, but I also was impressed with the latest Illustrator version and various paint-like capabilities that it offers.

However, the bread and butter applications are Premiere Pro and AfterEffects. And both of these do amazing things. Granted, they are system hogs. The Adobe forums are full of complaints about memory and slowdowns, trouble playing back from the timeline, etc. Having read of these problems early one, I decided to hold out for a quad-core system. That turned out to be a good decision. A project, properly-managed resources and up to date drivers for all hardware results in a very productive editing experience.

The summer has been an intense "shakedown" period for the new editing workstation and applications. And during that period, I encountered some very strange problems. Problems that had me working 70-hour weekends. There was the infamous "media pending" problem, where all the video clips for a rather complex project suddenly became un-loadable, displaying a generic "media pending" screen instead of the actual video. I traced that problem to somewhere in the deletion of the media cache files. Curiously, Premiere did not rebuild them, but instead spent long period "indexing" files, with no result. I ended up rebuilding an entire project because of this, and only after that, found a workaround that would have restored my original project to editable condition.

Problems and quirks aside, the new editing workstation is a dream machine. It just zaps through Maya rendering with shocking speed. Some scenes involving fluid dynamics and particles that used to bring our old Athlon XP2600+ to its knees for the better part of a day for one frame of rendered output, render in about 56 seconds on the new machine. When I see things like this, it leaves me with my jaw open and uttering "what the..." the thought being that the result I'm seeing can't be right, but then upon close inspection it is right--the machine just rendered it about 180 times faster than what I'm used to.

Back to HD editing. None of our clients have yet asked for HD format media, however that doesn't mean that they aren't seeing the benefits of HD shooting and editing. Back in the old days, we shot everything in DV, which has a color sub-sampling of 4:1:1. It looked pretty good, until there was intense reds or blues in the scene (I'm talking seriously-saturated reds, like a traffic light, or a fire engine in the sunlight). Intensely-saturated color would spill and result in a smudgy image, similar to watercolor painting. By contrast, the HDV footage looks more like a digital photograph.

With HDV, the sub-sampling is 4:2:0, which happens to be the same as MPEG2 for DVD video. The color is sampled twice as often, and colors don't spill noticeably. And there are four times as many pixels to begin with, making the picture even sharper. HDV looks almost like a moving digital photo. It really doesn't look like video, with it's sharply-defined color. In fact, I've taken still frames from HDV footage and used them for print applications. The quality is about as good as those from my 2 mega-pixel digital camera of seven years ago.

The wife and I shot an outdoor wedding last month on a hot, sunny afternoon, and the footage was among the best I've seen from HDV. It was amazingly-clean and free of most compression artifacts. And it was a good thing we shot in HDV, and not DV, because it turns out the family's hired still photographer's photos turned out poorly. We were able to give the client decent 2.2 mega-pixel stills from our video timeline. Even though the end video product will be on plain old DVD, the fact that we shot HD at that wedding enabled us to provide decent still images.

But we're not done yet. With the new XDCam EX on the horizon, I see an amazing array of professional HD video features normally found only on Sony's $103,000 CineAlta line of HD cameras. It will be the first compact HD camera that offers three 1/2" CMOS imagers of full 1920x1080 HD resolution, the ability to record at full resolution (which is something that Sony's high end HD cameras cannot do--as they are limited to 1440x1080 recording) in HQ mode, is said to offer 20-20KHz audio at +/-3dB response with 90dB s/n onto a pure PCM digital track, and offers a broadcast-quality Fujinon lens with a real iris control, focus and zoom rings that are fully-manual, all for under $8,000. Of particular interest to those pressed for production time is the fact that XDCam EX records to SxS express cards instead of tape. So ingesting video from the camera is just like ingesting photos from a digital camera's flash card--a simple file copy operation, which takes place many times faster than real-time. I'm pumped about this camera. It's what the V1U should have been.

Meanwhile, we're getting ready to record a major symphony orchestra in less than a month. It's a union orchestra, and the stage manager is known to be very picky about microphone placement. No microphones on stage. That means they all have to be flown. In light of that, I realized that we would need to build a grid which would enable the array of surround sound mics to have a stable phase relationship, so the following grid was built last week:

3/4" aluminum tubing was used and 3/8" bolts that fit the European thread on the adapters that came with the microphone shock mounts (at last, a use for those Euro adapters). The grid enables me to position mics with consistency and accuracy. The whole thing will be flown with nylon 200lb test fishing line and cabling will run up through the center of the grid. We expect to fly this about 16' above stage, just behind the teaser curtain. Three mics in the front face the orchestra and two face the hall for surround acoustics pickup. With the wider spacing than our previous ORTF configurations, we're expecting a wider soundstage. At any rate, the symphony orchestra, led by a world-renowned conductor, was nice enough to be our "guinea pig" and lets us experiment with HD video and avant-garde miking techniques. Well, that is if the stage manager will go along with it.

The concert will feature piano and a full symphony orchestra, giving a great plethora of instruments to record. We'll be shooting with three HD cameras. A "conductor-cam" will be peering through a trap door in the stage background, a second camera will view from the wings, looking over the string section, and a third will be shooting the front of stage from the balcony. This will be a world-class production and I'm personally looking forward to this gig.