Making The Stretch From 4:3 to 16:9
by Matt Albinson
In the forward-looking world of audio-visual technology,where what is state-of-the-art today is often outdated next year, the successful independent filmmaker must keep one eyelooking through the camera and the other keeping track ofemerging technologies. The same is true for post-production houses, where there is growing pressure to provide services that will prolong the shelf life of a production through theimpending standards shift from NTSC to HDTV.
This shift from analog to digital broadcasting has thepotential to leave many producers and post-production housesout of the loop. In addition to the added resolution, digital television will boast a new 16:9 widescreen aspectratio. In order for today's 4:3 productions to be shown inthe new format, they will have to undergo an upconversion process, which will literally stretch their images until they fit the prescribed format. This will tend to have a degrading effect on the images, which even HDTV's added lines of resolution can't fully counteract.
I recently sat down with independent documentary maker Luc Cuyvers and Colorlab's president, Russ Suniewick. Luc's latest project, "Into the Rising Sun," was produced in cooperation with MPT (Maryland Public Television).The documentary commemorates the 500th anniversary of Vasco daGama's arrival in India. The series focuses on the search for a sea route to the East and its impact on the shaping of the modern world. Russ and Luc worked together closely in the show's post-production to ensure that the final product would remaintechnologically viable. To some extent, both of theircareers depend on remaining current in the evolving mediumof video broadcast. So, these film mavens are currentlydevising both short-term and long-term solutions for thedigital age in broadcast. Origination on Super 16 is therecurringtheme here!
The groundwork for HDTV has already been laid, and whilequestions of how quickly the public will catch on remain, itis a safe bet that regular NTSC will not be adequate forHDTV. The FCC has already ratified its replacement--the ATSCDigital Television Standard--thereby opening the door forvendors to create and sell high resolution video equipment.The new standard contains eighteen possible digital formats,some high definition, some with 16 x 9 aspect ratios.Individual broadcast houses will choose among the manydigital formats. The four currently planned broadcastformats are 1080i, 720p, 480p, and 480i. The two highdefinition formats are 1080i and 720p. All consumerreceiving equipment displaying the DTV logo will be capableof receiving all 18 formats.
Twenty-six television stations are volunteering to begindigital broadcasting November 1st of this year. WashingtonDC area stations are Channels 4,7,9, and 26. The affiliatesof the top four networks in the top ten markets must beginby May 1, 1999, and the affiliates in the top 30 marketswill be on the bandwagon by November 1, 1999. NTSC could bephased out by 2006. The first HDTV products will be rollinginto the showrooms around September or October of this yearleaving precious little time for insiders like Cuyvers andSuniewick to react.
Many in the production and post-production industries arealready feeling pressure to purchase equipment toaccommodate high def productions despite not having yet evenseen what the high def images look like. The dilemma is evengreater for independent producers who need to sell theirwork in order to survive. They are being forced to decidewhether to originate on current mediums that could becomeoutdated and unsellable by the millennium, or on high defequipment, which currently boasts sky high prices forequipment and post services.
Luc Cuyvers has found a solution. Luc, a writer,photographer and filmmaker rolled into one, has worked onseveral high-visibility international co-productions, ofwhich "Into The Rising Sun" is the latest. Future projectsinclude "The Seafarers," a multicultural look at maritimehistory, and "The Ultradeep," a film on the race for thedeep sea that took place in the shadow of the space raceduring the 1950s and 1960s.
His solution to the issue of longevity in the approachingage of digital broadcast is simple. He originates onSuper-16 film, which has a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, almostidentical to that of the widescreen high def image. He getsa film image whose resolution is naturally as detailed asits high definition video counterpart. The identical aspectratio ensures that none of his image is stretched or loppedoff in the process of upconverting to high def. Nostretching is necessary. The image is merely enhanced byadding lines of resolution. While Luc agrees that film isthe most technologically viable medium to originate on intoday's climate, his main point is that it just looks a hellof a lot better.
Luc turned to Colorlab for facilities input and RussSuniewick responded by customizing his Rank Cintel telecineto serve the need of clients like Luc who need to preservethe full Super-16 image. Colorlab has taken the 21% extraimage area of Super-16 and made anamorphic Digital Betacampicture masters by manually altering the size of the rasterin the Rank scanner. Thus, when it comes time for theupconversion from Digital Betacam to high def broadcast, itwill only be necessary to add lines of resolution ratherthan artificially stretching what would have been a 4:3image to 16:9. This process of stretching to a widescreenformat by enlarging the pixels is much less appealing thansimply originating in a widescreen Super 16, especially whenthis service at Colorlab is not charged as a premium. AsRuss notes, "It is a free service that immunizes our clientsagainst the potential pitfalls of new technologies and addsa value added aspect to their program masters."
Colorlab also responded to Luc's requirements by placing JimErickson, one of Colorlab's senior colorists and recentMonitor Award Nominee, at Luc's disposal. It was these twowho collaborated on the color correction and the technicalissues in the telecine stage of "Into The Rising Sun."
Colorlab has been adapting to the evolution of videotechnology for most its existence. While Russ's approach topost-production has always been from that of a puristfilmmaker's perspective, over the years he hasexpanded into the realm of film-to-tape transfers as well.His six colorists run two telecine suites around the clock.But Colorlab does all of this on top of its bedrock, whichis film post production--processing, answer prints, opticalprinting. In this light, it is hardly a surprise thatColorlab came up with a way for film to jump into the age ofdigital broadcast without being fiscally devastating for thefilmmaker.
Luc's production also worked closely with Maryland PublicTelevision, using their Digital Betacam on-line suite, whichhas 16 x 9 capability. MPT has invested heavily in creatinga premier post-production facility in which producers cantest the high def waters. It was a unique opportunity forboth Luc and MPT, both of whom were eager to see what ahigh-quality film that originated in 16:9 looked likefinished in widescreen Digital Betacam.
"It looked gorgeous," according to Luc. "For me, it was likea god-send, having worked with MPT and knowing that theyhave excellent personnel and outstanding facilities. It wasperfect for us. I couldn't have done the series 'Into TheRising Sun' without that kind of facilities input."
So what will the production scene look like from here onout? Neither Russ nor Luc claims to know for sure, but bothare convinced that HDTV will succeed as a medium. Luc feelsthat the 16:9 aspect ratio is the more appealing format formost types of film and television. "To really convey themagnificence of what you're shooting," he says, "you want itwider rather than taller...Once people get widescreenmonitors, I don't think they'll ever go back. Indeed, inWestern Europe widescreen monitors are now outsellingordinary 4:3 monitors."
Russ has seen a HDTV demo of a NTSC widescreenDigital-Betacam master transferred in this (16:9) manner,and will vouch for its merits. "It's the perfectcompromise," he says, "absolutely beautiful. The added linesof resolution really put it a class above regular broadcastquality, and there was no degradation of image from havingto stretch from 4:3 to 16:9 because the entire super 16image was already on the 16:9 master."
Ironically, in the breakneck environment of video technologytoday, the most viable medium to originate in according toRuss and Luc is film. Film patrons like Russ and Luc, alongwith Kodak's vested interest in maintaining its share of theproduction market, make it unlikely that film could bebullied off the scene by the advent of digital TV. Perhapsthis will come full circle again, but for the time being,film offers something that no video medium can: the power toupconvert to digital without degrading the original image.The super 16 film image with added lines of resolution mightbe the most appealing high definition image on the market.
Russ, Luc, and much of the production world are preparingfor the wave of digital technology to wash over theindustry. They are doing it in their own ways. Luc, byoriginating on film and Russ by offering services that willremain viable in the coming cross-over period between theupconversion of existing 4:3 masters and full highdefinition edit masters being available. Others, like MPT,are outfitting their facility with NTSC digital widescreenequipment and waiting and seeing. The common ground forfacilities, as well as for filmmakers, as stated by Luc, "isdiscovering how to maximize shelf life given all of thetechnological uncertainties. Everyone is hungry forinformation."
Several independent stations intending to broadcast high defalready have said that they'll be in the market placelooking for programming from independent producers to airsome times of the day when their networks won't have highdef product to feed. Widescreen Digital Betacam masters ofSuper 16 originated programs are certainly smart options forupconverting to high definition in the near term.
AIRDATES: PARTS I through IV
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 26TH 10PM; SEPTEMBER 2ND; SEPTEMBER 9TH;SEPTEMBER 16TH, 1998
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