Using Avid Xpress Pro HD on a laptop -- plus an off-the-shelf USB 2.0 storage drive -- a veteran field producer readies HDV footage for prime time.

Art Donahue, a veteran field producer and photographer at WCVB-TV, the
ABC affiliate in Boston, is well known throughout the New England
production community for his 18 years of documentary-style TV reporting
and his use of new technology to tell unique stories. He began
producing segments for WCVB’s highly rated Chronicle
series in 1987 with an Ikegami 79D camera and 3/4-inch VTRs. Since
1999, Donahue has produced more than 22 shows in HD for WCVB, the first
in the Boston market to broadcast a digital HDTV signal. Two were shot
with a full-sized Panasonic DVCPRO HD camera, two with Sony 1080i HDCAM
camcorders and more than 20 shows with an Ikegami V90 with a DVCPRO HD
So When The Sony HDR-FX1 Came Out In November Of 2004 And WCVB’s owner
Hearst-Argyle bought a few of the first ones, Donahue jumped at the
chance to put the new compressed format to the broadcast test. "I was
one of the first to get one," he says. "When something new comes along,
I usually get a hold of it and see if I can produce a whole half hour
with it," says Donahue. A veritable one-man-band, he’s one of the few
producers at WCVB who writes, produces and edits his own segments. He’s
been doing it that way for 17 years.
He has since upgraded to the Sony HVR-Z1U for its XLR audio
connections, gamma setup and underscan Allscan mode in the viewfinder
and now exclusively uses the Z1U on all of his high-definition shoots.
But beyond taking the new camera with him in the field, he also wanted
to take the paradigm one step further and edit an entire program on his
laptop with off-the-shelf storage drives, without using the station’s
more expensive online equipment. Last fall, to capture the beautiful
foliage season of the Northeast, Donahue produced a segment with HDV
equipment for Chronicle called "New England’s
National Forests," which aired Monday, November 28, 2005. Thanks to its
stunning and colorful vistas- which got a huge boost from
color-correction, native HDV editing and clean, crisp effects in Avid
Xpress Pro HD- received rave reviews from area viewers. Although
several high-profile shows have used the 25 Mbps format for cut-ins and
POV segments, Donahue is one of the first in broadcast TV to use it for
an entire show. "It became a challenge to see if I could do it," he
says, "especially since it had never been done before."
1080i, With a USB 2.0 Twist
All of the HDV footage Donahue shot over nine days for the program was
cut on a Dell M70 laptop running Avid Technology’s Xpress Pro HD. The
entire process for a typical Chronicle show, which
includes three taped segments and live-to-tape studio bumpers, usually
takes five weeks from start to finish.
After the footage was captured in the 1080i HDV format, the show was
transcoded at the station to air in 720p, the ABC network’s HD format
of choice. The 25-year-old Chronicle series still
typically airs in SD, but once every five weeks the show is simulcast
in "letterboxed" SD (4:3 aspect ratio) for NTSC viewers and full 16:9
720p for those with HDTV sets. This frees Donahue considerably in the
field, since he can shoot for widescreen without having to protect his
framing for NTSC viewers. "Not having to protect for 4:3 viewers is
huge because that’s a big compromise to make when shooting outdoor
scenes," he says. "I’ve shot some things where we had to frame for 4:3
and it’s always frustrating because you can’t use those edges [of the
Chronicle is supported by 12 other producers, three
photographers and three editors. But because Donahue works alone, the
final master audio mix is mono. Sometimes he uses a lavaliere or
shotgun mic for on-screen subjects, but including digital stereo to the
mix would necessitate a separate audio engineer in the field and add
another week to the production process, he says.
WCVB’s 1080i HD workflow was developed well before the availability of
720p production equipment. Donahue said the HD format conversion
process, using Panasonic conversion equipment, does not degrade the
image quality and, in some cases, can actually produce better 720p
images than those acquired with a native 720p camera.
For most of its other HD Chronicle shows, the
station uses three Ikegami V90 cameras with DVCPRO HD dockable
recorders. Since 2002, all WCVB HD shows have been shot in 1080i,
downconverted to an SD FireWire stream, then offlined on a laptop with
Avid’s Xpress Pro system. The completed show is then formatted as an
AAF file and conformed in HD on an Avid DS Nitris system.
Converting the hours of HD field images to SD for editing, Donahue
says, was his only option under deadline. "Because we shot ten hours or
more of field material, it was basically the only way we could do it,"
he says. "Compressing all of that footage would take forever. We only
have about 40 minutes of uncompressed HD storage with our Avid DS, and
that’s not nearly enough to cut a whole show."
To gain more storage space, Donahue used an external Maxtor 300 GB USB
2.0 drive, giving him over 24 hours of HDV storage. He digitized the
footage using a FireWire cable out of the camera, into the laptop, then
sent the images out of the laptop to the USB 2.0 drive. Would it work?
He wasn’t sure; no one that he knew had ever tried it before.
The system never dropped a frame and Donahue was able to render effects
and even the entire HDV stream to the Maxtor drive-and play it off the
drive back into the camera. To his surprise, file transfer times with
USB 2.0 were performed just as fast as with a FireWire connection. Even
engineers at Avid, who hadn’t seen this done either, were impressed
with the final results.
Into the Forest
For five weeks in October and November, Donahue went to the Green
Mountains in Vermont and the White Mountains in New Hampshire to shoot
more than 10 hours of tapes for the 30-minute "New England’s National
Forests," which highlights New England’s National Parks in all of their
fall grandeur. The HDV-only segment also coincided with the 100th
anniversary of the National Forest System.
He edited the entire project on his laptop at home. Though he
originally intended to use the Ikegami V90 for most of the show- and
only insert small HDV segments for POV shots he fell hard for the Sony
FX1 and was eager to shoot an entire show with it. Since then, Donahue
figures he’s put more than 300 consumer-grade tapes through the camera
and says he saw only three dropouts. The camera itself has performed
While all the footage shot with the FX1 was kept in the HD domain for
the entire post process, some archival SD footage was upconverted to
HDV within the Avid Xpress Pro HD software. In total, Donahue says the
piece included more than 400 effects, color corrections, matte keys,
titles and credit rolls. The extensive amount of color correction,
completed in Xpress Pro HD, was necessary, he says, because last year’s
particular weather conditions prevented the fall foliage from being as
brilliant as it was in years past.
" Chronicle is the ideal magazine-style show to
experiment with new technology in order to tell better stories," he
says. WCVB, he adds, is also committed to the high-definition format
and is actively trying to promote HD programming to its viewers with
colorful outdoor scenes and sporting events. Since 2001, during fall
foliage season, Donahue has shot three HD programs a year. He rolls
tape from the time when the first leaf turns color to when the last
leaf falls to the ground, he jokes.
Native HDV Editing
Donahue says he was ready to start editing in HDV about six months
before Avid actually came out with native HDV support on its Xpress Pro
HD system. This native support, available since October 2005 in version
5.2.1, lets editors using Xpress Pro avoid cross-converting a clip to
make it readable by the nonlinear edit system before work can begin.
Donahue was an early beta tester (one of the first, in fact) of the new
software, which he says worked great from the start.
Many people have argued that clean effects are impossible to create
with HDV footage. Donahue agrees that any time you’re working with a
dissolve in HDV, it starts to "block up" and break apart. But he says
that improvements to the new version of Xpress Pro HD have helped
change that misconception. When bumping up HDV images to Avid’s DNxHD
codec- included with the new Xpress Pro HD software, it uses less
compression than the HDV format itself- there are no such nasty
artifacts, since the codec enables images to be rendered at 145 Mbps
instead of HDV’s native 25 Mbps.
Donahue found another advantage to using the codec: He was able to
output the show as an HDV MPEG-2 stream to a standard DVD for review by
others at the station. Bear in mind, however, that the image files must
be downloaded to a laptop’s hard drive for viewing in the latest
version of Windows Media 9 or Nero’s Showtime 2. A typical DVD player
doesn’t spin a disc fast enough to play back 25 Mbps material.
But on his laptop and on station monitors, the pristine quality of the
images held their own. "When you see HDV images compressed with the
DNxHD codec, you’re just blown away by he quality," Donahue says. If
you look closely, he adds, there are some very subtle motion artifacts
still visible. "Virtually nothing is lost from the original tape.
Anytime you’re adding with video effects, the DNx codec renders it with
less compression, so it looks great. This really surprised me."
Xpress Pro HD color-correction tools also helped him temper an unwanted
haze in the skyline or a less-than-colorful fall leaf. "My job is to
tell interesting stories, but also to experiment with the gear and see
if I can actually pull off an entire show," he says. "I was able to
complete everything, from first frame to final frame, in Xpress Pro HD,
without compromise. Every aspect of what I used to do with the Avid DS
Nitris system I can now do in Xpress Pro HD. It’s really quite amazing
how far desktop editing technology has come. I’m now producing
broadcast-quality programming on a laptop with a $3,500 camera, a
$2,000 laptop and $1,500 software."
Bumpers and All
Production and post for a complete show takes Donahue about five weeks.
After two weeks for a full shoot, he says, writing the script and
digitizing the ten hours of videotape and associated audio tracks
usually takes him about a week. He then will offline the show (the same
as he does with an SD show). The fifth week is used to rebuild the show
in HD and add effects. Donahue says he will occasionally digitize
footage in the field, but typically does all his editing at home on his
laptop. He does final dubs, however, to DVCPRO HD on WCVB’s Avid DS
The finished show is output as an MPEG-2 HDV stream from the laptop as
an.m2t file, which is recorded onto a master HDV tape, copied to a
DVCPRO HD tape, then fed into an Avid DS Nitris system for finishing.
The show is converted to 720p with a Panasonic DVCPRO HD deck and
played to air from two Panasonic D-5 VTRs, rolled simultaneously for
redundancy. The SD version is downconverted from the D-5 tape and sent
to air live from the dual decks.
Because the station does not have HD cameras in the studio, Donahue has
to tape his program bumpers in the field. This requires more shooting
than a typical SD program and, unfortunately, more time. But he says he
actually prefers to shoot these segments in the field because of the
more optimal lighting conditions.
"HD cameras, in general, are not as sensitive to low light as SD
cameras are," he says, "so if I go inside with my HDV camera, I’m
putting lights up all over the place. You really can’t kick up the gain
in HD without causing other image problems. Shooting HD is sometimes a
slower process."
Anywhere Editing
Donahue has now completed eight Chronicle shows with
the Sony HDV camcorders (six dubbed to DVCPRO HD for editing on a DS
Nitris system and two edited with native HDV in Xpress Pro HD).
He also recently completed work on another HDV segment for
Chronicle that focuses on the explosion of digital
photography among consumers. [More than 50 percent of Americans now
take pictures with a digital camera instead of a film-based camera.]
"This HDV workflow has saved me a considerable amount of conform time
and color correction," Donahue says. "For a person who works alone, as
I often do, this way of working is fabulous. You could be in a hotel
room anywhere in the world and edit an entire HD program for broadcast.
That’s compelling to everyone in this business."
Nitpickers might argue about the image resolution of an HDV program,
but Donahue challenges them to create a program of the quality of the
Chronicle series in less time and with less hassle.
To him, under today’s fast turnaround production cycles and often
challenging work conditions, there’s no comparison.