By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2006
Low-priced high-definition video—is that for real? The door to affordable hi-def cracked open about three years ago when JVC introduced the first high-definition camcorder to record in the HDV format. HDV was developed jointly by several manufacturers to record high-definition on standard Mini-DV tapes. Prior to that, high-definition camcorders and editing gear came with price tags so high that they became tools used exclusively by broadcasters and Hollywood.
Three recent developments have converged to make hi-def more affordable: Sony introduced compact, consumer HDV camcorders, prices for widescreen HDTV sets dropped dramatically and low-cost HDV editing software finally hit the market. Also, just around the corner, are HD-DVD and Blu-ray hi-def DVD burners and players.
MPEG-2 Video and the HDV Format
DVD players and burners, common in today’s households and in most new computers, use MPEG-2 compression to pack two or more hours of data onto a single disc. The HDV format uses this same MPEG-2 compression to squeeze high-definition video onto a Mini-DV cassette. However, DVD players currently play only standard-definition (SD) DVDs. There are a few specialized DVD players that play hi-def DVD-ROM discs – more on that later.
You probably have heard of progressive scan in DVD players – nearly all new DVD players have it. Progressive scan is one of the recording options in HDV that increases picture clarity. Progressive scan is a feature of nearly all DVD players, and it is a way of displaying sharper video than standard-definition’s interlace scanning.
Interlace scan, the technique TV cameras and monitors have used for the past 50 years, displays the odd-numbered lines, then it fills in the even-numbered lines. That results in a slight flickering of some narrow patterns. Progressive scan operates like a computer monitor, drawing one line after the other. That’s one reason images on computer monitors look better than on standard television monitors. The HDV format offers 720p – 720 lines of resolution, progressively scanned.
In addition to 720p, the HDV format offers 1080i – interlaced scanning, but at a resolution more than double that of standard-definition video. JVC camcorders have chosen 720p, while Sony camcorders offer 1080i. HDTV sets can display both resolutions, and both look terrific. With either flavor of HDV you can recognize faces in a crowd, you can see individual blades of grass — everything looks more lifelike. The downside of hi-def is that exact focus is ever more critical, and blemishes and age lines on faces become more apparent.
But that’s all part of reality; hi-def looks more like the real thing. Widescreen is meant to mimic our eyes’ wide range of view. Standard-definition TV sets are shaped more like a square box, leaving out much of what we are capable of seeing. HDTV operates in the 16:9 widescreen ratio – similar to motion picture screens, and nearly every new TV set being sold these days is widescreen. Since SD camcorders record at the 4:3 ratio, it will take some time to learn how to compose your HDV shots for widescreen. However, videographers comment that once they went widescreen there was no going back!
One caveat about shooting with HDV camcorders is that some don’t have the low-light performance of their SD counterparts. High-definition requires more pixels to produce high resolution. To squeeze so many pixels onto a small chip, the pixel size has to be reduced. That means fewer photons reaching each pixel, resulting in less light gathering capability. However, the image is so clean and free of video noise (grain) that you can activate the gain-up control and record with less noise than with SD camcorders.
JVC was the first on the block nearly three years ago with the GR-HD1U single chip hi-def camcorder. It came with a list price near $4000, but street prices today are just under $2000. The camcorder is discontinued, but it is still available from many dealers. It has a 1.18 million pixel progressive scan CCD and records in HDV or standard DV on Mini-DV tapes. The JVC JY-HD10U adds professional audio connectors and manual audio but is a little harder to find these days. JVC new hi-def camcorder is the professional GY-HD100U 3 chip (MSRP $6295) — squarely aimed at broadcasters and filmmakers. It has an interchangeable, 16X Fujinon lens and has the option of recording 24 frames per second for easy transfer to film.
Sony recently released two versions of their single-chip HDV camcorders. The HDR-HC1 (MSRP $1999) is designed for consumers who want to get into hi-def. It has an advanced 3.0 mega-pixel CMOS chip that the company says handles bright and dark tones well and consumes less battery power than conventional CCD chips. Both cameras can simultaneously shoot still pictures and video, they both record at 1080i widescreen and have the option to record in standard-definition. The Sony HVR A1U (MSRP $2199) has XLR audio connectors and manual stereo level control.
If you want to move up to a three-chip pro-cam, Sony has two models: the consumer-friendly HDR-FX1 (MSRP $3699) and a model targeted to professionals – the HVR-Z1U (MSRP $5946). Both cams have a variety of manual controls in addition to automatic. Discerning videographers will appreciate such broadcast-level features as zebra patterning to manually set iris, color phase (tint control) and a way to enlarge the display in the viewfinder or LCD screen to better facilitate focus. These camcorders even have a CinemaTone mode where you can soften the contrast for a film-look. The HVR-Z1U (MSRP $5946) has professional XLR stereo mike jacks that may be adjusted individually, a hyper-gain mode to record in very low light and two levels of CinemaTone for finer adjustment of the film-look.
Panasonic’s AG-HVX200 should be available by the time you read this. It goes beyond HDV to record broadcast-grade HD on Panasonic P2 memory cards. It also records SD on Mini-DV tapes. The price for this baby was not available at press time, but is probably in the $9000 range. Canon’s new HDV High-definition XL H1 should also be available by the time you read this, also for about $9,000. The triple 1/3-inch CCD camera has an interchangeable 20x zoom lens, 24fps mode, 2.4-inch display, and their new DIGIC DV II processor.
While HDV camcorders are still pricey, several hi-def editing software programs are on the market. You may need to upgrade your computer and add hard drive space to use these. Some HDV camcorders come bundled with entry-level editing software such as JVC’s MPEG Edit Studio Pro LE editing software. Sony camcorders also have a basic software application, but if you want creative freedom, you can get other powerful programs at very reasonable prices.
For as little as $59 you can get started in high-definition editing with Magix Movie Edit Pro 10. The program supports MPEG 2 files—the compression system used by HDV camcorders. Magix says that Movie Edit Pro 10 also edits HDTV streams and Windows Media Video HD.
If you have a recent Macintosh computer, you can edit hi-def using the included iMovie HD — part of the iLife suite that also comes with audio and photo editing programs. If your Mac didn’t come with that suite, you can purchase iLife for $79. Mac users looking for professional editing features may want consider Final Cut Express HD (MSRP $299). It has many of the same functions as the full-featured Final Cut Pro (MSRP $999) for a fraction of the cost. Expect a longer learning curve with Final Cut Express HD than with iMovie.
PC users who want pro editing features in a $99 program should check out Pinnacle Studio Plus, version 10. The company says it “has the power of the Pinnacle Liquid Effects engine to edit with keyframeable real-time effects and transitions.” If you want hi-def editing without the high learning curve, try Ulead VideoStudio 9 (MSRP $99). One of this program’s features is Movie Wizard that lets you use one of 20 pre-designed templates for transitions, titles and music. You can also create a DVD menu using the wizard, and you may customize many of these settings.
Sony’s Vegas Movie Studio+DVD Platinum (MSRP $129) software lets you import and edit high-definition as easily as standard-definition, according to Sony. It has a variety of professional features such as color correction and photo management. After you finish editing, you may export your high-definition projects back to your HDV camera or to delivery formats including Windows Media 9 HD, Real Media and QuickTime. The software currently is bundled with the 126-page handbook “HDV: What You Need to Know.”
Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5.1 (MSRP $999) has an HDV plug-in, and CineForm’s Aspect HD V3.3 (MSRP $499) works with Premiere Pro HDV to offer real-time editing of multiple HDV streams. Aspect HD incorporates CineForm Intermediate technologies to allow you to add motion titles, color adjustments and transition effects in real time without rendering.
At Sony’s booth at WEVA EXPO (Wedding and Event Videographers Association) last August, I had a chance to see a prototype Blu-Ray standalone DVD recorder and a Blu-Ray burner. These weren’t working models, but Sony says Blu-ray players will make their debut this spring in Sony’s Playstation 3. Several movie studios have stated their intent to release movies in Blu-ray, or in the competing high-definition format, HD DVD promoted by Toshiba and other manufacturers.
For now you can display your hi-def video programs onto an HDTV monitor from an HDV camcorder, a laptop or desktop computer, or you can use one of the high-definition video DVD data players that have come onto the market.
On display at WEVA EXPO was the SR-DVD100 High-definition Data Player. This $400 unit lets you display high-definition video using a standard DVD disc. The trick is to record the video as a data file of an MPEG-2 transport stream. You can record and playback 30 minutes of high-definition video on a single-layer DVD or 60 minutes on a double-layer DVD.
The Home Cinema Hi-Def DVD player, made in Singapore and distributed in the US by Applied Magic, sells for $400 and plays high-definition Windows Media 9 files from its component output. The system handles 1080i and 720p. Applied Magic’s Craig Moffat said that to use this player to display Hi-Def, you simply finalize your HDV project in Windows Media 9.
DivX HD is another way to display your hi-def video productions. Roxio’s Toast 7 will convert the high-definition videos you edit on iMovie HD and Final Cut HD into HD video discs for use on DivX HD-enabled DVD players. To watch DivX HD on your PC, you will need a 2.4 GHz Intel processor or equivalent, 384 megabytes of RAM and a monitor that supports video resolutions of at least 1280 x 720.
Two other DivX HD DVD players are currently on the market: The AVeL LinkPlayer 2 (MSRP $249) with its network capability will let you play your HDV video productions directly from your computer. This player supports DivX HD at 1280×720 line resolution. The Buffalo LinkTheater PC-P3LWG DVD player (MSRP $299) adds high-definition wireless networking capability. Their AirStation One-Touch Secure System adds security to a home network.
As early as next spring Blu-ray and HD DVD will be available, offering an easy path to distribute your HDV productions on hi-def DVDs. Hollywood studios are lining up behind one format or the other. If you remember the Beta-VHS wars when VCRs first came out, get ready for another battle. With either format, it looks like 2006 will be the year for hi-def DVDs.
You don’t have to wait for hi-def DVD players to be available to show your HDV productions. After you edit them, you can record them onto Mini-DV tapes and play hi-def directly from your HDV camcorder to an HDTV set. If you want to distribute your productions, you can shoot and edit in HDV and down-convert your video to standard-definition DVDs for now. Because of the high signal-to-noise ratios of HDV camcorders, video shot on them will look better than if it was shot with as SD camcorder. And you can produce these high quality videos in the widescreen mode.
Nearly all television sets sold today are widescreen HDTVs. If you buy an HDV camcorder and HDV editing software, you are producing for these current HDTV sets, and your productions will be future-proof. Once you see your hi-def video productions in widescreen on an HDTV monitor, it will be hard to go back to narrow-screen, SD video.
Hi-def is so crisp and lifelike that it almost looks 3D. You will see details you never noticed before. Text and graphics will be sharper. You will be able to see fine lines and individual strands of hair. That’s where hi-def may have its downside. The resolution is so high that imperfect skin and tiny age lines on your subjects’ faces will be apparent. You may need to bring a makeup artist with you on your productions. Are we getting to the point where video can be too sharp?
Manufacturers mentioned in this article:
www.buffalotech.com (Buffalo LinkTheater)
www.iodata.com (AVeL LinkPlayer 2)