Fine Tuning

Adjusting to the move to high definition

By Ryan Lavender

After sitting down in that seat as close to dead center as possible you make sure you are prepared. Snack on one side, drink on the other. The lights dim, the sound builds, and the big screen begins to light up.  The rest of the world seems to fall away, and even the people surrounding you seem to slowly fade into the scenery.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January, those walking into Panasonic’s display could have been forgiven for thinking that they had walked into a movie theatre. Panasonic unveiled a television which dwarfs the average family unit in both size and quality. The 150-inch behemoth may be a preview of things to come.

“The trend in the industry is to build bigger sets for the reason that the real power of HD is only begun to be appreciated in the larger screens,” says Brian Young, marketing manager, acquisition systems, at Sony of Canada Ltd. The precise resolution is only really perceived in sets of the 40-inch range and above. “The total home experience is a combination of screen size, distance, and audio, to create that theatre style,” he says.

With high-definition signals taking over American airwaves in 2009, and Canadian signals two years later, viewers waiting for a wider selection of HD programming to make it worthwhile will be looking to make that big purchase. “With the drop date of February 17, 2009 standard definition television will cease to exist,” says Young. “The demand for change to high definition is at its peak because of this.”

While the focus of high definition has been mainly on television, independent filmmakers have had some adjustments to make as well. “As an actor there haven’t been many changes, except that you have to let your ego go a bit more. But as a filmmaker the technical element has definitely become much more important,” says actor/director Jonathan Robbins. He directed Your Ex-Lover is Dead, which screened at the International Digital Video and High Definition Film Festival in Hollywood.

Robbins says having a shot precisely in focus is important, but this is a challenge in independent filmmaking.  “Usually, we’re not working with big HD monitors, we’re still using the same little view finders that we’ve always used,” he says.

Despite these issues, directors have made great strides to incorporate their new tools. Robbins says it’s given independent filmmakers the ability to make more with the same amount of money. “I’ve submitted to quite a few film festivals this year and every single one of them has come back saying that the quality of work that they’ve received has been drastically up from years past.”

One of the reasons for this is that HD products are finally getting into their hands. “HD has finally penetrated the market and has become available to the average film maker,” says Robbins. “They’re able to work with more.”

A new invention takes time to generate a sense of familiarity and understanding. With the airwaves preparing to become saturated with high definition feeds within a year, the technology is beginning to engrain itself with the industry.

“When HD came out people kept talking about how the difference with HD is that it is very harsh and cold,” says Robbins. “It is an aesthetic that people are going to have to get used to. It’s all about learning its strengths.”

For those who view the move to high definition as a threat to the visual enjoyment and artistic touch of film and television, Robbins feels that the worry is based more upon preconceived notions rather than actual observations.

One show which stands out to Robbins as having a true understanding of the capabilities and strengths of HD is the updated version of a 1970’s television series.

Battlestar Galactica is a show that is shot entirely in HD and is a great example of something that has the aesthetics that we’re used to in film. It captures some of the strengths of HD in the types of camerawork that they’re able to do on a television budget that never could have been done before.”

It’s fitting that a science-fiction show would take the first step into the HD universe.  When television made the move from black and white to colour it was a relatively slow process. There were only a handful of networks, and studios simply could not afford to make the transfer all at once.

With today’s annual television revenues in the billions, the move to high definition is not the same great financial obstacle that colour was. Yet the changeover is still moving at a measured pace. Broad sweeping changes are easier to identify because they are forced into the face of those in the business. But with the move to high-definition, the subtle changes are the most demanding. 

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