“The HD Look” and other matters


[Vimeo http://vimeo.com/3686006%5D

One of the most interesting things about Media Studies, for me, is the link between new technologies and new media forms. Sales of consumer technology are driven by content, and the content is driven by new technologies, in an endlessly fascinating self-stoking cycle.

As recently as 2005, the BBC were not broadcasting HD pictures and were considering HD as a medium for filming with a view to overseas sales and/or international co-funding from markets that were further ahead with HD adoption. This is an amazing attitude when you consider how much they might wish they had more HD content in their archive now, but goes to show how broadcasting institutions still have an issue with long-term planning.

We’ve seen the price of HD TV sets crash through the floor in a couple of years. I haven’t got much sympathy with anyone who paid a fortune for an HD set 2 years ago, because I paid a fortune for my non-HD flat screen over six years ago, before anyone was even talking about HD! Not that I’m bitter.

New media like YouTube have encouraged new types of content, from the 2-minute video rant to sweded low-budget tributes to blockbuster films. YouTube has quality issues, though, and most of the home-made stuff is done on very low-grade equipment. Over on Vimeo, you’ll find a video sharing site that’s favoured by professionals and semi-professionals, who are keen on the higher-quality look you get on the site, so you’ll find over there loads of showreels by camera ops, cinematographers, and beginning directors. See above, and search under keywords like “showreel” and “cinematography”. But watch out for the ac-tors.

Today, we discussed the HD Look, which is especially prevalent in BBC dramas at the moment, but can also be seen in nature programmes, Mad Men, Heroes, and other US imports. The BBC has a particular house style, which includes super-saturated colours, with lots of focus-pulling from Big Close Ups to Mid-Shots or Long Shots in the same frame.

Part of this is to do with selling the technology. Consumers are easily fooled by brighter colour into thinking the quality is higher. By way of contrast, the Red Riding drama being broadcast on Channel 4 has used deliberately muted colours to make it look “old fashioned”. It’s also common to use an adaptor on a HD camera so that 35mm (cinema) camera lenses can be used – which is always going to encourage cinema-style focus-pulling.

But part of the HD Look also relates to the limitations of the technology. While our brains process moving pictures on film at 24 frames per second, to achieve a similar effect using video requires the adoption of 24fps “progressive” shooting – which means you have to commit ahead of time to shooting and post-production in progressive mode. This accounts, I think, for the somewhat s-l-o-w and lingering style of a lot of HD drama. Focus pulling is used for dramatic effect, and it also cuts down on the movement! Here’s what the BBC had to say on the subject:

When shooting progressive at normal frame rates, film rules will apply. Slow pans, or fast pans aren’t a problem, but motion within the range of about 3 seconds per picture width (i.e. the time it takes for an object to move from one side of the screen to the other) will produce the most visible picture judder. This is because the brain is unable to connect the motion from frame to frame; the eye separates the images and can’t bring them back together, which the brain translates as judder. If you’e shooting at a faster frame rate than 25fps then it’s okay to pan quickly, as the brain doesn’t have enough time to register them as individual images, it sees the blur.

HD also has implications for costume, make-up, and set design. Crappy stitching, spotty actors, sets held together with gaffer tape: all become extremely visible on HD. So you have to be careful to only show the details you want to show. This again makes for a certain style of filming, which involves care.

All of this increases production costs, as does the need for HD lenses, viewfinders, monitors, and editing systems. This expense plays into the hands of larger production houses like BBC Worldwide. You also need to have new personnel on set. There’s now a bod called a DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) whose job it is to know how to get the best out of the various camera/lens systems available – how many steps there are between light and dark, and so on. I imagine today’s DITs are going to end up being tomorrow’s cinematographers – it sounds like an entry into the industry – if you know your stuff.

You can read the BBC HD Guide, which is a downloadable PDF.