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Hi-Def production pic crystallizes

Considered a production luxury item just a few short years ago, HD production may now be on the verge of becoming an absolute necessity in the kids space. Nets shopping for high-def content, like US-based Animania, used to be alone at the market. But mainstream broadcasters the world over are now embracing the format with arms wide open. The mighty BBC, for example, is prepping for HD conversion over the next few months, and German kidnet KiKa is making the switch next June.
October 1, 2007

Considered a production luxury item just a few short years ago, HD production may now be on the verge of becoming an absolute necessity in the kids space. Nets shopping for high-def content, like US-based Animania, used to be alone at the market. But mainstream broadcasters the world over are now embracing the format with arms wide open. The mighty BBC, for example, is prepping for HD conversion over the next few months, and German kidnet KiKa is making the switch next June.

Consumers are also adopting the tech in ever-increasing numbers. According to London, England-based researcher Informa Telecoms and Media, the price of HD-compatible TV sets is dropping at a rate of 20% a year, with price-points for the smaller sets coming in at under US$1,000 now. Informa projects that the number of HD households will more than triple to 151 million by 2011.

So if you’ve been holding back on HD conversion, it may be time to just do it. The high costs and complicated production design associated with the format may still seem insurmountable, but when we checked in with early-adopting prodcos that made the switch four years ago, we found that some of these fears may be unfounded. And all market signs seem to be pointing to a full-on HD migration coming soon.

It’s all in the details

‘I thought it was going to be a clunky transition, but it’s been smooth,’ says Beth Stevenson, a partner at Toronto, Canada’s Decode Entertainment. Her company switched out its production facilities, including editing suites and digital software, to HD five years ago; since then, Decode has produced all of its live-action and animated programming in the format.

Stevenson says that from a production design standpoint, the adoption of HD was seamless. Although there have been many mainstream reports about the perils of shooting TV in HD – from the crystal-clear picture revealing acne-scarred stars, to the need to invest a lot more time and money in creating detailed backgrounds on live-action sets – Decode’s production design team was already accustomed to paying rapt attention to the little things.

‘It added nothing,’ says Stevenson, explaining that deep background elements on the set of The Latest Buzz, for example, including notes on billboards and class schedules, were already real enough to stand the HD test. ‘You would have to do everything if you were shooting for film anyway; we were used to overdoing it.’

Mike Young, co-CEO of L.A.’s Taffy Entertainment, brought HD tech into his shop for 2004′s Jakers!, and says that most of the ‘extra’ work is taken care of in the design process. And after four years using the format, it’s now second nature for anyone working on character designs to create HD-friendly details and scale. ‘On CGI shows, you have to build and texture the characters for HD,’ he says. ‘If you don’t, they end up looking like the ladies of Desperate Housewives…before they put their makeup on!’

Essentially, producers agree that creative teams have to be cognizant that the size of frame they’ll be working on for a high-def project is significantly larger, due to the change in aspect from the traditional 4×3 to HD’s 16×9. ‘It’s basically more details; you have a bigger screen to animate, so you have to be careful to make a balanced image,’ says Christophe Goldberger, president of Barcelona, Spain-based Icon Animation, whose first HD series Vitaminix was produced three years ago. The company currently has Lola and Virginia, a Flash-animated HD series, in production.

Scott Dyer, EVP and GM of Toronto, Canada-based Corus Kids, is an old hand with the new technology, and says that by now his creative team is used to filling the 16×9 landscape, although this wasn’t always the case. A few years ago, the company switched over to HD in midstream on the series Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends. The show’s production team had to re-edit episodes in post-production in order to make them work for the new technology. ‘There was quite a bit of texture repainting and adjustments that had to be made so that it was watchable in HD.’

As for particulars, Taffy’s Young says his creative team spends more time designing lighting, and they’ve learned a few tricks to get the most out of the HD format and hide design flaws. ‘Its best to hold the camera back and not keep it close,’ he says. ‘You have to be extra careful or it’s going to look like gobbledygook.’

Not as expensive as you think

Most producers report that the cost increase involved in producing a show in HD, compared to traditional resolution, is minimal. The biggest outlay is all about upfront expenditures for new equipment and retrofitting post-production suites. But once those bullets are bitten, it’s difficult to truly break down the additional cost of the new technology.

‘It’s minimal,’ says Goldberger. ‘At this point, it’s really just a tiny fraction of what it costs to produce animation anyway.’ However, it is worth noting that the bottom line goes up by between 5% and 10% on HD projects. Stevenson says that for animated programming, Decode used to have to kick in an extra US$50,000 per episode, but cost efficiencies like pooling HD editing suites and much improved animation software have brought that figure down considerably.

Most of the extra budget is eaten up by additional rendering time. ‘The amount of rendering required is incredible,’ says Young. ‘When we started, a lot of overseas studios just didn’t have the equipment to deal with it, and a scene could literally take days to render out.’ However, the cost has dropped substantially since those early days.

‘It’s become easier and more cost-effective over time,’ says Dyer. ‘It requires an extra few days in post-production, but that’s about it.’ For his part, Goldberger says, ‘What it comes down to is adding one render and a set of masters. A lot of the extra work comes in the original planning process, so that is just part of the production as a whole.’

Other than rendering, producers can expect to spend more time and a negligible amount of extra cash on quality control. ‘The QC is more intense because there’s more screen real estate to look for drop-outs and rendering flaws,’ says Dyer.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is that most broadcasters are still quite hesitant to pay more money for high-def series. ‘Unless they are producing it themselves, broadcasters are totally oblivious to the fact that an HD show might cost more to put out,’ says Young. ‘In fact, license fees for HD series have gone down.’

That said, there seems to be agreement among producers that if you haven’t drunk the HD Kool-Aid yet, you should be ordering a cup. ‘I just don’t know why you would be producing in low resolution anymore,’ says Dyer. ‘Working in HD guarantees us a future revenue stream as more broadcasters move that way. We feel like we are future-proofing with it.’

Goldberg notes that it takes 15 to 24 months to produce animation anyway, so shows in development right now are slated for delivery in 2009, when many more broadcasters will have switched over. ‘So it would be foolish not to have that element in your production,’ he says.

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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