Monday, September 14, 2009

Until They Say You Need Super Duper HD

Here's the thing about documentary production and camcorders: like some sort of circus performer spinning plates and juggling chainsaws, the idea of "enough" has been unstable for a long time.

That is, we went through a period pre-DV where one was either a professional -- shooting on film was the ideal -- or one struggled with video products that ranged from broadcast quality down to toys. When DV arrived, there were a flurry of articles showing why it wasn't good enough, then this was silenced when people did in fact make films using DV camcorders, and DV became acceptable for television production.

There was a brief period when DV camcorders were "enough" -- usable by professionals and amateurs alike, and somewhat standardized. You could buy a cheap one-CCD for $300, or a three-CCD for $2500, but they both plugged in via firewire cable and they produced DV files that you could edit in any standard editing software.

HD showed up, first only at a professional level and then in a messy variety of possiblities. Articles showed up detailing how independent filmmakers worked on systems that limited recording time to 11 minutes, followed by dumping a file to computer in a three-step process. Complicated, and not great for documentary style shooting.

Then came HD products aimed at prosumers -- able to technically record in HD, but in compressed and problematic formats like AVCHD. These things could work fine for taping your friend's birthday party, but had limitations when it came to producing easily-edited files. Editors began transcoding -- reprocessing the files into more standard formats, eating up hours of production time.

Then came additional pressure on the HD format: was 720p enough? 1080i? Full HD at 1920 by 1080p?

And the RED camera appeared -- complete with editors-turned-bloggers detailing the 20 secret steps they've discovered to make the workflow, um, work. Followed by discussion of why HD wasn't enough -- 3K, 4K, whatever was actually the future of digital production. Anything less was unacceptable.

And now: DSLRs that shoot HD. Multiple formats. "Jelly" caused by rolling shutter. 12 minute clips. AVCHD and AVCHD lite. 720p, 1080i, 1080p. 24, 25, 30, 50 or 60 frames-per-second. Confusion, new workflows, and extremely long import / transcoding times.

Still, when it all works out, it's going to get very interesting.

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