Local Spots Find Hd Alternatives

Local Spots Find Hd Alternatives

Byline: Michael Goldman

HIGH-DEFINITION acquisition’s infiltration into the world of commercial production has been notoriously uneven. On the high end of the spectrum, for national and major regional spots, clients, ad agencies, and production companies are slowly growing more comfortable with HD as an alternative to Betacam and 16mm film, and even for 35mm film.

In the middle-budget area, HD is making significant strides. Director/DP Leo Ticheli, of Leo Ticheli Productions, Birmingham, Ala., for instance, shoots “almost exclusively” HD for regional commercial work throughout the South these days. Of course, as he points out, Ticheli now produces mainly what he calls “medium-range budget commercials, in the $20,000 per project and up range.” In that world, in Ticheli’s opinion, there is rarely a good reason, financial or otherwise, not to shoot HD for commercials, even though most of those commercials continue to be broadcast standard def.

Why acquire on HD if you broadcast in standard def? “For the same reason we [shot film] for so many years is the reason to now shoot HD,” says Ticheli, who works primarily with Panasonic’s AJ-HDC27 VariCam and won’t submit a job bid without an HD quote.

“You get a better quality image overall than when you use standard-def cameras, no matter how it will be broadcast. You get increased dynamic range, increased resolution, better color reproduction, 24 frames per second, more of a filmic look generally. No matter how you view it, the image will always look better if it was acquired in a higher-level format. Remember, for advertising, viewers evaluate the product by the quality of the commercial. The higher the perceived quality or entertainment value or eye-candy value of the spot, the more enhanced the product is to the viewer. That’s why agencies I work with have been eager to embrace HD recently.”

And financially, at the mid-range budget level, Ticheli argues, HD has now arrived as a reasonable choice.

“The only real difference in overhead cost is the actual cost of the camera and playback deck. Everything else – crew, personnel, wardrobe, props, locations, lighting package – is pretty much identical.

“Now, suppose your options are MiniDV or HD. These days, the net difference in a camera rental between those two is probably $1,000 a day. That’s generally not significant, in my opinion, at this level. It’s barely more than what we used to pay for Betacam SP or Digital Betacam cameras, and it’s going down. So for a barely significant increase in price, my clients can get a 24p, filmic, HD acquisition look that previously they could have only gotten shooting film, which is usually far out of their budget.”

Of course, as Ticheli notes, this formula does not yet work at the so-called low end of the spectrum, for the thousands of commercials produced each day around the country for far less than $20,000, and often for less than $10,000. Producers for those ultra low-budget local cable spots for your local steak house, pizza parlor, or car dealership are hardly flocking to HD at this point.

Nor should they, according to people who make such commercials for a living.

“HD just wouldn’t pay for $1,000 or $5,000 projects locally,” says Chip Payne, a producer/director/DP for AutoFocus Productions in Palm Springs, Calif. “At this level, we just can’t justify the cost of an HD camera right now. However, what we can do is use technology that permits us to work at 24 frames per second, mimic HD and film to a high degree, and overall, give such commercials a higher-end look than we could in the past.”

That’s a point that three regional production company principals recently emphasized during interviews with Video Systems. Ticheli, Payne, and Chad Carlberg, DP/creative director for a Gloucester, Mass.-based production company called The Bait & Tackle Co., discussed strategies and technologies they now use to incorporate either true HD, or some sort of HD alternative into their local commercial work.

Mid-range HD

Ticheli emphasizes that commercial clients who previously shot film can save money using his HD formula, while typical Digital Betacam clients can essentially maintain their financial status quo on most productions by shooting HD.

“For longtime, established clients …, we often maintain their rate, as long as it is a relationship we value,” Ticheli says. “We invested in the VariCam, and it didn’t impact our financials any more than previous investments in Digital Betacam equipment. In fact, some HD decks these days cost less than Digital Betacam decks did when they came out. And the postproduction costs, using Final Cut Pro or any number of digitizing cards, are virtually the same for HD as they are for standard def.

“Plus, if you use the [Panasonic AJ-HD1200 VTR] deck and FireWire, you don’t even need an HD card anymore. That deck sends the Panasonic HD codec via FireWire directly into Final Cut Pro without the need of a digitizing card to begin with. I think that for commercials and most broadcast work this approach will kill off 16mm and most Betacam work at this level eventually.”

And for those dwelling in the lower-budget regions, an area Ticheli labored in for years, he believes HDV will soon prove to be a worthy alternative.

“For the $2,000 commercials, HDV will be a very good thing,” he says. “[At press time], Sony had announced its HDV camera with professional features [the HVR-Z1 HDV camcorder], and I think that will have lots of applications for the $2,000 or $3,000 commercial. The [Panasonic AG-DVX100A MiniDV camcorder] or the Canon XL-2 [MiniDV camcorder] are other ways to make pretty pictures for commercials. After all, 24p doesn’t have to be HD, and they are both DV cameras that are very affordable for the small, local company.

“[In] investigating these cameras, though,” he continues, “think about more than just the frame rate. Think about the exposure duration and the blanking period, among other things. If you have a 24fps camera, you get longer exposure duration, and that gives you a little more image/subject blur with camera motion than with a camera shooting at 60i.”

In general, Ticheli emphasizes there are alternatives – and the manufacturers have more on the way – that “make it possible to emulate the look of HD if your budget won’t permit you to use true HD.”

Ticheli also points out that a big reason why HD has infiltrated his market, and will eventually trickle down to the so-called low end, is the fact that editing HD is no longer “ruinously expensive.”

“Apple and the new digitizing cards have changed that equation,” he says. “Now you can afford to do the post yourself, even if you are a very small company. Eventually, you won’t need a deck either – once storage prices drop further, you’ll be able to FireWire the images into your system directly. So there is a way to enter this world right now for low-budget work, and eventually, true HD will be affordable for small production companies.”

The 24p alternative

Chip Payne’s AutoFocus Productions is such a company. Auto Focus mainly produces spots for local businesses that air on the Time-Warner cable system in the Palm Springs, Calif., area, as well as other regional cable spots for markets like Bakersfield and Fresno. Companies like Payne’s often write, shoot, edit, and finish local spots in-house.

In recent years, Payne has traditionally shot commercials on a variety of Betacam formats and, occasionally, on 16mm film. Earlier this year, however, he invested in the Panasonic AJ-SDX900 DVCPRO 50 camera. At press time he was planning to purchase another, and in fact, he has recently changed his company’s entire business plan to center on the use of that particular camera.

Payne says the idea was to move to a 24p format in an affordable way, “with maximum flexibility,” including the ability to seamlessly transfer footage to HD when required, while staying within his market’s normal budgetary constraints.

“The big thing was to have the flexibility to provide a high-end video look that rivals or surpasses any Beta SP or digital Betacam look, and can provide certain film-like options, as well, and still be able to provide standard service for local productions that do not need quite as high end of a look, all in the same camera,” Payne explains.

“The 24p progressive scan option, with various film-like settings and the progressive mode, means we can make footage that is HD transfer-ready. You just have to make sure your editing system can handle the progressive scan video properly. If you shoot DVCPRO 50, 24p progressive scan, make sure you find a film setting you like, and light the subject accordingly for exposure. You can then transfer the footage with no perceivable difference on the HD final product.

“HD pros for major Hollywood projects might not agree from their perspective on a purely technical basis, but for my purposes on a lower to medium budget, and for thousands of independents who don’t have a five-figure budget, this is a good way to go. We record and monitor audio ourselves right through the cameras – the SDX900 has nice audio capabilities – and we edit the commercials ourselves in one of three edit bays at our facility, including a Media 100 system and a couple of PC-based Adobe Premiere Pro systems.”

Payne adds that the nature of modern digital cameras like the SDX900 allows cinematographers like himself to find and add settings and data to their camera’s SD card, something that enhances the “flexibility factor” he insists is crucial to his business.

“I chose this camera for a lot of reasons, but among them, don’t forget, it’s a computer – it can store up to four scenes in its memory, and it can read eight different settings from a little SD card,” he says.

“That’s important at this level, because productions like ours can’t afford an engineer to sit there and fiddle with settings to paint every look you might be looking for on a client’s dime. With this technology, if some technophile somewhere has used this camera to mimic a look in a movie he saw and has saved that setting, he can upload it to various websites and make it available to people like me to load into our SD cards after downloading it. That’s an interesting development. Many of these sites don’t charge, or they charge a minimal fee, and they will provide you with a variety of settings and looks that you can incorporate into your work.”

A key industry website with information on downloadable settings for the SDX900 can be found at www.abel cine.com, provided by New York/Los Angeles-based rental house Abel CineTech. In addition, if you search for “SDX900” in the business section of Panasonic’s website, www.panasonic.com/business, you will find several links to sites with information on the camera and down-loadable settings from a variety of web sources.

Payne points out that local cable systems like the ones he deals with still typically require delivery of commercials for broadcast in Beta SP format. While it is simple enough for him to make SP dubs from his DV versions, Payne notes the irony of the fact that the slow pace of the transition to high-definition broadcasting has left small companies like his with the capabilities to acquire and edit material in higher resolution digital formats than broadcasters need or want.

Payne believes the superior quality of the imagery and the flexibility of the DV format make it worth acquiring on a camera like the SDX900 anyway. But he does point out that small production companies like his need to walk a fine line between keeping pace with industry technological advancements and financial considerations.

“No matter what I shoot on, I have to deliver to the cable company or TV station in Beta SP analog format, or sometimes, DVCAM or the MiniDV format,” Payne says. “Ironically, the cable companies have not caught up with acquisition technologies. So we are already doing some overkill, but there is no reason to go too far at this point. That is a strong challenge for businesses like ours: to try to convince the stations to have their insertion equipment keep up with our acquisition capabilities in order to get them to broadcast the best possible image.

“But I look at it like I’m building on the foundation by staying one leap ahead. The networks, of course, are way ahead of us, but the local broadcast technologies are expanding at a much slower rate. So I want to expand fast enough to be ready when they do go forward, but not so much that it is overkill and unnecessarily expensive.

“Therefore, for local production, I feel like we are as far ahead as we need to be using the DV approach. Between what we can do in-camera and what we can do in editing with these fairly low-cost tools, we are well above the acceptable spectrum for local video production already.”

Hybrid approach

With a background working on visual effects movies in Hollywood, Chad Carlberg was well acquainted with digital filmmaking when he returned to his native Massachusetts a few years ago and decided to teach himself to shoot video and produce local commercials.

He and his partner, Pablo Bressan, were looking for ways to fund an upcoming, large-budget HD documentary about the baseball culture of the Dominican Republic called Los Duros – shot with the Sony CineAlta – and believed local production could be a strong, self-sustaining business for them.

They formed The Bait & Tackle Co. as a local commercial production company, with the slogan “Big-time commercials for small-business owners.” They strategically formulated an approach to producing local cable commercials that mimic an HD look, and occasionally, are shot in true HD.

Carlberg claims his company makes commercials on formats ranging from MiniDV to HD at prices within reach of local business owners. “An HD spot can cost under $10,000 using a sort of guerrilla approach,” he explains.

“We approach people with small budgets locally. We appeal to them by completely overhauling the traditional system where you have an infrastructure that causes it to take a long time to make an ad for somebody who might be working with a major cable system like Adelphia or Comcast,” Carlberg says.

“We work directly with the client and deal with the cable system on their behalf, and we eliminate some costs for them on that end. Then we show them imagery in different formats, and if their commercial has regional possibilities, we can sometimes talk them into shooting HD. I have a relationship with a DP [Mike Caporale] who owns a Panasonic VariCam, and he gives us a cheaper rate than rental houses, so we use him a lot if the client wants HD.”

Like Ticheli, Carlberg argues that it sometimes makes sense for local clients to consider HD if there is a possibility their commercial will be broadcast regionally, or if the piece requires visual effects.

“All this stuff is being delivered over local cable, so obviously, those delivery methods are not as good as national TV,” he says. “There will be a lot more artifacts seen by the audience, just due to how they deliver it. The commercial will be darker and grainier. Therefore, to shoot HD for a local ad doesn’t help very much anyway. However, if they are trying to do something regionally and the methods of delivery might vary, then HD might make a lot of sense, and the cost is only marginally more.

“Also, if you are shooting green- or bluescreen, I’ll try to talk you into shooting HD just because it is so much easier to pull a matte. Without HD, there are lots of anomalies in the mattes with the contrast difference between the greenscreen and the color of skin or hair in standard definition. Lots of times, if the client really wants to sell their corporate identity as a leader in their field, they might want to consider HD. To offer an image to prospective customers that is a few thousand dollars cheaper, but looks like it was shot on cheap video, isn’t always in their best interest.”

The rest of the time, Carlberg serves low-budget local clients using the Panasonic AG-DVX100A MiniDV camera or the SDX900, either of which he refers to as good options for those seeking to emulate an HD look. “I also expect to get involved with the new Sony HDV camera, and I think that format might eventually become a standard for low-budget commercial projects like the ones we handle,” he adds.

Carlberg also says he has learned tricks to mimic an HD aesthetic using camera settings with various post tricks.

“It all depends on how well you know the camera,” Carlberg says. “You can mess with the settings on those cameras – they have quite a few features,” he explains. “You can boost chroma values if you know the camera well enough. Chroma is normally a drawback of MiniDV, but if you go into the [AG-DVX100A] settings and change things around, you can get a more vibrant image. Panasonic did a good job making that camera work well in controlled lighting situations, with deep reds and blacks, and extended light values, but you can’t get them just by turning on the camera and shooting. You have to really learn what is possible with the settings.

“Using that camera, I can also shoot a ton of material, giving me the pick of the litter in post – plenty of elements to meet the client’s needs. Then we can open up Final Cut Pro and mess around more with color settings and get a variety of interesting looks.”

Carlberg emphasizes that there are lots of tricks now available on a desktop using things like Apple’s Motion. (See page 15 of this issue for more on Apple Motion for previz, and page 49 for more on Motion for postproduction.)

“But the bottom line is, if you really know the camera well and work on your cinematography skills and lighting skills, and you learn to edit well, you can use these cameras to create images that are very close to HD quality.”

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