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Appendix 6: Technical standards

Television and video production and distribution remain  fast-changing fields with many competing (and sometimes confusing) technical systems in use. And there's a lot more change to come in the very near future.

The electronics industry remains keen to develop new production technologies, with more widespread solid-state recording near the top of the agenda.

Advances continue in collaborative computer-based video editing and high-volume data storage. The emergence of  solid-state recording media signals a challenge to traditional reliance on recording to moving videotape formats.

In North America and Japan high definition video production has taken off, and it is now a mainstream format for premium productions in the UK.

BluRay is with us, though take-up to date remains slow, and without Apple support in the media production community this may remain a minority premium-content channel, soon to be superseded by HD on solid state media or via download. 

Debates over the merits of HD production, editing and archiving formats continue.  DVCPRO HD, HDCAM, HDCAM SRXDCAM HD all have merits, and NXCAM can now be added to that list: higher-end Sony and Panasonic AVCHD camcorders now offer good (if highly compressed) HD on cheap consumer SDHC cards, opening up all-solid-state workflows with their obvious advantages to the mid-range of the professional production market.  

DSLR video is a strong contender, with big image sensors in relatively small, light cameras from Canon, Panasonic and Nikon offering outstanding image quality at lower cost, if at the price of bringing some issues in compression formats, sound handling, managing focus and zoom. Manufacturers seem to be working fast to ease these issues and turn this format into both a mass-market and a realistic high end option.

For Britain and Europe, Ofcom and the European Broadcast Union set standards for technical quality which terrestrial broadcasters are required to meet (except for news or special circumstances). (link to BBC guidelines on broadcast standards) Production to these standards allows for good quality DVD duplication, and for technical quality similar to a good off-air recording - the standards we have come to expect from home viewing.

Multichannel satellite broadcasting (in MPEG 2 format in the UK) has seen some dilution of the strict "broadcast technical quality" requirement for standard definition.

Although current satellite channels do not carry full broadcast quality, their signal is much less subject to degradation in transmission and (it's hoped) decoding. So the viewer experiences a similar - sometimes even an improved - result, compared to viewing a full broadcast signal transmitted in the traditional analogue way. This may, over time, be reflected in changes in programme delivery requirements - and consequently in acceptable production routes. This may soften resistance to the (lower cost) near-broadcast quality technical systems capable of producing a Sky-quality result - mainly DVC Pro and DV CAM. For non-broadcast use, these formats already offer excellent results for DVD  show copies.  There are reports that both ITV and the BBC have commissioned significant documentary series in DVCAM format.

Film and video production continue to converge, with many UK cinema productions finishing entirely through a digital intermediate (alt) production route, followed by digital to film transfer for distribution. Fully digital cinema production (including filming) continues to promise much, with excellent cameras on the market from Arriflex, Silicon Imaging, Red and BlackMagic as well as high end lens support from Panavision.

As post production workflows become more practical and accessible and the cameras continue to improve in quality of output, ruggedness and reliability in the field, these technologies challenge film origination for many kinds of cinema projects.

It's worth remembering, of course, that the various technical  formats available each set the upper limits to what their users can achieve, but are susceptible to considerable variation; a dirty lens or low-end camera will produce poor results, even if those results are recorded perfectly on a high-end, uncompressed digital format. The skills of the director, performers, camera crew, editor and other technicians remain a determining factor in final quality; and of course the subject, script and programme approach are crucially important if a programme is to succeed. 

Formats : high definition

High definition video equipment  has been around a long time, and there are a number of competing formats. All offer substantial advantages over conventional (standard definition) broadcast video. HD broadcasts are now established in some countries, including the USA, Japan and the UK, though the numbers of viewers with HD receivers and screens remains as yet relatively small.

HD's excellent picture quality offers great potential, provided the means are in place to show the finished programme in its full glory - on a suitable large screen, or using a  high definition video projection system, or by transfer to film for projection.

The appeal for low-budget film makers planning an eventual transfer to film for distribution will be considerable. It would be no surprise were  a number of businesses and organisations to want to use the new formats to make a splash at events, exhibitions or elsewhere, and traditional broadcasters will no doubt be examining both the cost and the quality developments closely.

There are a number of different technical routes under the HD umbrella. The two with early market dominance are:

Sony's HDCam (usually "1080i" - that is at a nominal 1920x 1080 resolution with interlaced frames, and 24 or 25 fps - but a number of variants are possible) ,

and Panasonic's DVCProHD (usually "720p" - that is, a nominal 1290x 720 resolution with progressive scan frames, and again typically 24 or 25 fps).

Both these formats downsample the nominal picture dimensions to manage data rates, and both use quite a lot of compression - nevertheless, the results can be excellent.

Sony’s  HDCAM SR goes a step further - full colour sampling (4:4:4 instead of a nominal 3:1:1; full screen resolution; apparently no compression - but as a result, more data to handle.)

Sony's (promotional) guide to choosing an HD camera may be of interest.

XDCAM HD format offers decent quality at reduced data rates (more economical editing, if at the cost of some quality loss), and NXCAM using  AVCHD compression offer a hint or echo of the DV revolution that blew away much fusty, traditional production technique and approach in the standard definition era.

The better equipment using these formats delivers decent quality at lower cost (than HDCAM). The camera equipment is lightweight and relatively easy to use, capable of accepting high-end lenses (some camera models only!), and of recording to solid state (XDCAM, NXCAM) or to tape in camera (HDV) or of feeding a location hard disc recorder to capture direct to a  less compressed, better for editing format such as one of Cineform’s. 

Broadcast quality - film formats:

Film still has a significant share of the production market, both for TV and for promotional and training productions where projection to a large audience is necessary. Film gives the best results for large-screen projection, and offers very high quality as a source for video.

35mm: The standard format for cinema films and much TV advertising. Sometimes used for major public relations events, and presentations such as new car launches.

16mm / super 16 mm: Used for some TV drama and big-budget documentary. In the business world, a high-quality option when projection to a large audience is desired. Film is also often as the original recording medium with the results then transferred to computer disc or videotape for editing.

format archive

Some key suppliers

Sony

Arri

Panavision UK

Panavision US

Aaton

Panalux

Nagra

Sennheiser

Avid

Adobe

Kodak

Fuji

Red

Cineform

Light Illusion

Grass Valley

Ikegami

Deluxe film labs

142 Film Lab

Technicolor

Video Europe

Moving Picture Co

Rushes

Grand Central Sound Studios

De Lane Lee

Pinewood

Elstree

Fountain

Studiospares

Stanley Productions