Studios grapple with up-res issues as an HD future looms

Remember when Dorothy got her first peek at the brilliant Technicolor kingdom of Oz? Well get ready, because television is changing again, and this time it's snapping into focus in crystal-clear high-definition. A recent report by industry analyst Jupiter Research estimates that household penetration of HD TV sets nearly doubled in 2004 from eight million homes to 14.5 million, and that humber is pegged to skyrocket to 58.4 million by 2008. The number of households receiving HD feeds will also jump drastically from 3.6 million last year to 48.4 million by 2008.
January 1, 2005

Remember when Dorothy got her first peek at the brilliant Technicolor kingdom of Oz? Well get ready, because television is changing again, and this time it’s snapping into focus in crystal-clear high-definition. A recent report by industry analyst Jupiter Research estimates that household penetration of HD TV sets nearly doubled in 2004 from eight million homes to 14.5 million, and that humber is pegged to skyrocket to 58.4 million by 2008. The number of households receiving HD feeds will also jump drastically from 3.6 million last year to 48.4 million by 2008.

But producing in HD comes with its own set of technical and costing challenges that have stayed the hand of many producers and created a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Although the bulk of studios are waiting for the medium to go mainstream before they start producing for it, the content needs to be in place now to drive consumer interest. With that in mind, a small cross-section of producers and broadcasters are building HD-ready programming into their catalogues.

‘It’s absolutely the next-generation medium,’ says John Delmage, a partner at Toronto, Canada’s Decode Entertainment. ‘When people like Spielberg are starting to use it for their movies, you have to look at what the opportunities are.’

Consumers have certainly shown that they are willing to pay for a higher quality of entertainment – witness the rapid replacement of video libraries with DVDs, or CD collections with MP3s. And as might be expected, the initial push is coming from the usual early adopters of new tech (males 18 to 34), which means most top-tier prime-time series (incuding CSI and ER) are now being produced to air in HD, along with many sporting events, movies and concerts. And while traditional cathode-ray tube sets still account for 90% of the TVs being sold in the U.S., according to industry tracker the NPD Group’s point-of-sales data, HD model sales from November ’03 to October ’04 accounted for US$4.4 billion, compared to US$3.6 billion the previous year.

Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, says HDTV sets will really start to move when prices drop to a more mass-market level. ‘There are more sets in the market, but the price is still prohibitive,’ he says, adding that most households can’t afford the US$3,000 to US$5,000 plasma and LCD screens are commanding these days. However, hi-def CRT sets are starting to dip below US$1,000.

The kids market has been a bit slower to join the game for two reasons. First, revenue for most kids TV shows isn’t great enough to support the extra cost of producing new projects in HD. And second, the audience, although tech-savvy, doesn’t typically make a lot of noise about wanting the latest new on-screen format available.

But Sheldon Wiseman, president of Ottawa, Canada-based Amberwood Entertainment, says that hasn’t stopped him from producing his latest animated comedy Zeroman in HD. ‘The show’s broadcasters [which include Canada's Teletoon and Euro TV] aren’t using the HD version at the moment, but I expect they may wish to three or four years from now,’ he says. ‘It’s really an insurance policy that gives the series a longer shelf life.’

L.A.’s Mike Young Productions is also betting on HD to give its properties legs in the coming years. The studio is producing several of its current projects in HD, including CGI preschool series Jakers: The Adventures of Piggley Winks and tween comedy Pet Alien. ‘I think ultimately it’s a symbiotic relationship,’ says MYP president Bill Schultz. ‘You have to have the distribution. But at the same time, if you don’t have the content, it doesn’t matter how good your distribution is.’

That’s not to say nobody’s buying. Just over a year old, digital channel Animania has quickly established itself as the main destination for hi-def animation in the U.S. One of 39 HD channels on Voom, a subscription-based satellite service run by Rainbow Media, the net has been moving away from collecting up-res’d versions of existing series to pre-buying original hi-def projects.

Picking up a first window on Pet Alien (MYP) was a major coup for the channel, which will have been airing the toon in a prime 7 p.m. slot for several months by the time it hits Cartoon Network in Q2. Next up in February, Animania is planning to launch a two-hour preschool block for which it has acquired Vitaminix from Spain’s Icon Animation and Danny and Daddy from Neptuno Films. Animania’s head of programming and acquisitions, Keith O’Connell, says she’s scouting for as many as a dozen new series for the 2005/2006 broadcast season, and the mission gets easier with every passing year. ‘When we started, there was really very little HD programming on the market, if any,’ says O’Connell. ‘Even a year ago, I had to go to people and explain who we were, what we were doing. Now people are coming to us.’

In March, PBS jumped on the HD bandwagon when it launched a fully packaged 24/7 channel consisting entirely of hi-def and widescreen content simulcast with its analogue counterpart. The kids block includes Jakers!, Boohbah (Ragdoll) and Clifford’s Puppy Days (MYP/Scholastic Entertainment).

Other channels that may not be ready to take the plunge just yet are still keeping a sharp eye on how the HD market develops. Mark Norman, senior VP of business operations for Cartoon Network, says his company is in the midst of determining how much of a difference the format makes to animation, but it’s really just a matter of time before it enters the fray.

One advantage Cartoon will have is that much of its library was shot on film, which has a high enough resolution that the team can always go back to the original print and forge an HD version. Up-resing, which essentially means adding lines of resolution to a master that was originally shot on film, video or digi-beta, will only work well if there’s a lot of information on the original. If the source material is shot in standard-digital format, the picture will sometimes degrade and look soft. And changing the aspect ratio to widescreen means losing information at the top and bottom of the screen. ‘Some of the old, old classic cartoons like Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes were originally produced to screen in theaters, so they were animated at really high quality and look great in HD. Plus they’re already in widescreen,’ Norman says. ‘A lot of it will come down to the underlying quality of the animation. ‘

HDTV as it exists today has a line scan of either 720p or 1,080i, with digitally enhanced sound. It’s generally shot in a widescreen format, which has a 16:9 aspect ratio, rather than the traditional TV size of 4:3. The 720p format means the picture has 720 vertical lines – each with 1,280 horizontal pixels – and it uses progressive scanning to send a complete picture 60 times per second. The 1,080i has a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, and like traditional TV, alternates between odd lines and even lines to send a complete picture 30 times per second.

Put simply, viewers can see amazing detail in live-action programming, and animation – particularly CGI – looks more intense and vibrant, with an almost theatrical quality.

The difference is much more marked in live action, making it the toughest and most expensive style to produce in HD. ‘Historically, sets for TV shows didn’t look all that terrific if you were standing up close to them,’ says Amberwood’s Wiseman. ‘But when you’re shooting in HD, every blemish shows. Live-action sets have to be much more elaborate, so your cost is much greater.’

Although Nickelodeon’s HD programming can only be seen via satellite or on CBS’s Nick Jr. block, senior VP of production Allison Dexter has been filming all of the net’s live action in HD, including Jamie Lynn Spears vehicle Zoey 101 and tween sitcom Drake and Josh. Nick Jr. is also airing the net’s first HD acquisition, Magnus Scheving’s Icelandic fitness series LazyTown.

Dexter says the advent of HD has sped up drastically over the last year. ‘I didn’t think I would be at this point so soon – I’m literally shooting every Nickelodeon show in HD. Part of it is that stuff looks old-fashioned when it’s on tape now. We want to be competitive, and we want our stuff to look fresh and innovative.’

Decode also found its way to HD through live action. The company wanted to film the live-action scenes of mixed-media series Blobheads in a way that would complement the CGI sequences, and the high line scan in HD made the two styles mesh well.

The process of rendering CGI in hi-def is pretty labor-intensive, says Scott Dyer, executive VP of production and development at Nelvana. ‘There’s a lot of additional detail that has to be built into the show itself, like hi-res textures and more detail on objects. The frame sizes can be six times larger than what you’d encounter with a normal-res show, and suddenly you need six times the computer power and six times the amount of storage.’ Nelvana is only producing its direct-to-video titles in HD right now, but Dyer says four or five series in development are being considered for the HD treatment, and he expects to move to full HD production within two years.

Producing 2-D animation in HD doesn’t require anywhere close to the amount of extra input that CGI does. As MYP’s Schultz puts it, ‘Getting more clarity on a xeroxed line or a scanned-in pencil line isn’t necessarily going to make the picture much better.’ But backgrounds still require some touching up, and the images need to be scanned at a higher resolution.

The transition to widescreen has been much easier for most animators. La Garenne-Colombes, France’s SIP Animation made the switch from a 4:3 aspect ratio to 16:9 on its last two series, W.I.T.C.H. and A.T.O.M. ‘You still need to be able to deliver both to broadcasters,’ says Olivier Dumont, the studio’s deputy managing director, but he adds that widescreen means the series can be up-res’d in the future. ‘It’s important to be very stringent in the quality control at the end stages because HD can be very unforgiving.’

Nelvana has also switched to creating everything in 16:9 to have a headstart as the format becomes more popular. But since the letterbox format didn’t test well with kids, the prodco is also repackaging all of its series in 4:3. ‘When you switch to 16:9 framing, you can really use it as a story element,’ says Dyer. ‘You have the ability to isolate characters on either side, and to use the vast area of the screen to tell the story, giving it more of an epic feel. But you have to be careful because there will be that piece cut out of the middle.’

As with all new tech, switching over takes money. And at this point, most broadcasters are not willing to kick in extra dough to cover those costs. To get around this, many companies are shooting their masters in HD, but doing post-production in standard definition, which gives projects a look and budget that’s similar to film work. ‘Probably 75% of the broadcasters that we would sell to don’t have the facilities for HD,’ says Decode’s Delmage. ‘But they do want to have the show delivered in 16:9, keeping it on the HD masters. The only real cost difference might be 10% for the camera. In post, it’s negligible until we start finishing in HD.’

Nick’s Dexter estimates that shooting in HD can add US$10,000 to US$15,000 per half hour to a series budget, while the cost of building an HD truck can run upwards of US$12 million. Nick is also upgrading one of its post studios to HD, an expensive undertaking that will only pay off if it has enough proprietary production to keep it busy.

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