Also: Going Green, 3D, and High-Frame-Rate TV

Nearly 400 post and studio executives, technology officers and chief engineers gathered at the Westin Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage for the Hollywood Post Alliance’s 15th annual Tech Retreat. In an ironic twist, the Tech Retreat convened on Tuesday, Feb. 17, the original date for flipping off analog TV. “This is the 23rd annual ‘This is the year that HD took over’,” deadpanned engineering guru Mark Schubin (pictured above with HPA Executive Director Eileen Kramer), who is the Tech Retreat program chair.
The nation’s economic woes took center stage as the participants looked at the dynamics of this year’s DTV transition. From MovieLabs, a non-profit 501 R&D venture started by the six major motion picture studios, president/CEO Steve Weinstein listed some recent technologies that hit previously healthy industries like a tsunami.

“Through Skype, thousands of people lost their jobs at telecom companies,” he said. “Craigslist took classified ads away from newspapers, and P2P broke the back of the music industry, as Amazon destroyed bookstores. And Hulu, YouTube and other over-the-top TV solutions are breaking cable and satellite. Land lines are over, and, with a good clock on your cell phone, so are watches.”

Fewer TV shows and movies, combined with more devices, outsourcing of production, loss of audiences and fragmentation of distribution create a dismal snapshot of the production and post industry, said Weinstein, who advised post executives to take a “start-up mentality,” expand offerings, leverage content creation and promote efficiencies to stay alive in today’s economy.

Industry vets Leon Silverman, who recently left his long-time perch at LaserPacific Media to become general manager at Disney’s digital studio, and media technology consultant Jerry Pierce lifted the group’s spirits with an exercise based on the book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. According to this book, said Silverman, a crowd of informed people comes to better conclusions than the experts. Silverman and Pierce asked the HPA audience a series of tough questions, and audience members responded by waving one of four index cards: red for no, green for yes, white for “I’m clueless,” or yellow for “you’re asking the wrong question.”

The wisdom of the HPA Tech Retreat crowd is that digital acquisition will reach 60 percent within five to 10 years; HDCAM  SR tape will die within five years; and Blu-ray is too late to replace DVD (we’ll skip it and go straight to media from the Internet). Other conclusions were mixed, as the crowd disagreed as to whether 3D stereoscopic filmmaking would continue as an important creative driver or die away as a fad. Everyone also believed that post will be dominated by large consolidated players, but that boutiques would continue to thrive.

HPA Tech Round-Up:

AboveNET described its JabNET high-seed fiber optic private network for motion picture, TV and media content creators.

Adobe demoed RED 4K R3D RAW files imported natively and manipulated in Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro, as well as an end-to-end tapeless workflow for editorial and VFX in CS4.

Apple demonstrated the prototype of a plug-in that enables 3D stereoscopic editing; an Apple spokesperson said the unnamed 3rd party plug-in manufacturer did not reveal a date for the launch of the new tool.

Bright Systems Advanced Media Recording System is based on its patent pending BrightClip Recording Technology, which intelligently places media files in a manner that supports performance stability. The result is stable, reliable, higher performance recording and playback for media-centric files.

Digital Film Technology introduced an OptiPin optical pin registration system for the Spirit 2K/4K/HD family.

JVC‘s GYHM 100 compact handheld and GYHM700 compact shoulder camcorders natively record the file format used by Apple QuickTIme for Final Cut Pro. Video clips can be dragged directly from the storage media onto the nonlinear editor’s timeline. JVC also showed two prototype 3D HDTV monitors, both using circular polarized passive glasses.

MTI Film showed Control Dailies DA (for digital acquisition), which ingests Red, Panasonic P2, Panavision Genesis and ARRI D21 material, and is able to place this footage on the same timeline. The tool includes a new nonlinear color corrector tool, without rendering, for dailies. Control Dailies DA can be an add-on to a concurrent workflow or a stand-alone in a sequential workflow.

Panasonic showed a wireless metadata entry system for the P2 cameras, and the Varicam 3700 4:4:4 full 1080P resolution camera with master quality AVC-1 recording and external uncompressed recording.

Sarnoff introduced a replacement for bars & color, the new Visualizer Digital Video Test Pattern that tests for compression, lipsync, color matrix mismatch, field dominance and chroma motion among 20 other tests.

For Digital Cinema, SmartJog showed global electronic delivery of DCPs (Digital Cinema Packets) between distributors, DCP mastering and servicing facilities.

Snell & Wilcox introduced its new “Film Tools” conversion technology for the Alchemist HD Standard Converter, which provides support for 23, 24 and 25 fps formats for HD production.

Sony Electronics showed the HKSR-5804 option for the SRW-5800 videotape recorder, which turns the videotape recorder into an uncompressed data recorder for 2K/4K DPX files.

A highlight of the HPA Tech Retreat is the “Technology Year in Review,” delivered by Schubin, who reported some statistics on HD adoption: 23.2 percent of U.S. households had HDTVs as of November 30, up from 12.8 percent (Nielsen Research) the previous year.  However,   fully one-third of those households don’t watch HD programming, Schubin said, citing independent studies from Frank  N. Magid Associates and Leichtman Research Group. There is more HD programming than before, but he noted that press feeds are still analog, NTSC, mono and 4:3.

Despite widely reported fears that Internet use has stolen TV viewers, statistics showed the opposite: Nielsen reports the average U.S. household is watching eight hours and 18 minutes a day, a new record – and heavy Internet users watch more TV than others. In a typical U.S. household, people watch TV 127 hours a month, use the Internet 26 hours a month and watch TV via the Internet 2.3 hours per month. “So TV is not dead,” noted Schubin. Most viewers watching HD are tuned to sports, with political content in second place, followed by awards shows and sitcoms. HD dramas did not make the list.

Trends in acquisition were heartening. “We now can go 23 stops in electronic acquisition,” reported Schubin, who also observed the growth of large-format cameras, higher-resolution cameras, and under-$200 HD camcorders. Schubin also described a wireless Spanish mobile production truck that doesn’t have to run fiber or triax cable, the move to solid state storage, and the advent of mobile device (“pico”) projectors from multiple companies.

The Great Analog Turn-Off

The Great Analog Turn-Off was the topic of a panel moderated by Matthew Goldman, VP of technology at Tandberg Television, part of the Ericsson Group. Graham Jones, Director of Communications Engineering with the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC, and chair of the ATSC Planning Committee, spoke about ATSC 2.0. “ATSC is launching a second wave of major standards to further exploit the capabilities of digital broadcasting, leverage wireless capability and leverage local content,” he said. “ATSC 2.0 is targeted at fixed receivers with antennas but potentially with more processing power and on-board storage.” Interestingly enough, ATSC members were polled on the features they considered most desirable. An ATSC standardized advanced video codec and non-real-time services were top of the list; stereoscopic 3D was ranked 18th out of 26 features.

Jerry Butler, PBS senior director of the interconnection projects, gave a DTV update for public TV, which comprises 363 stations and 178 licensees controlling them. Before Feb. 17, 7 percent of the stations had shut off analog; after Feb. 17 the percentage went to 61 percent, with 26 percent planning the digital leap in June. The rest-25 percent-have not scheduled the transition.

Jim DeFilippis, senior VP of DTV technologies and standards at Fox, made an eloquent plea to broadcasters in attendance on behalf of AFD (Active Format Description), a strategy for managing aspect ratios throughout the delivery path to the home. “AFD solves the aspect-ratio problem,” he said. “Aspect-ratio codes are embedded in video signals, and it provides dynamic instructions to downconvert to letterbox or center-cut. AFD technology is ready … but we need your support!”

CBS VP of engineering and advanced technology Bob Seidel gave a bullish report on his network’s move to DTV. The switch to HD for primetime in 1999 is now paying off, he said, with ready-made masters. All the sports are in HD, and Survivor is one of the first reality TV shows to go HD. Also now HD are 60 Minutes, CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, and The Price is Right. Numerous owned-and-operated stations are producing local news in HD, said Seidel, although he didn’t provide a number.

Washington Report

The annual “Washington Report” was delivered, as usual, by Jim Burger, attorney at the law firm of Dow Lohnes, which specializes in representation of technology companies. Somewhere between 15 and 20 million homes rely on over-the-air TV, he said, and Nielsen has reported that, even now, 6.5 million of them aren’t ready for DTV. Over 600 stations nationwide have already turned off analog, leaving a “night light” ‘ a message to analog hold-outs that they need to go digital. “Will millions wait until the last moment?” he wondered. “Cities aren’t getting many calls after they shut down analog. Maybe this is another Y2K.”

Going green was an issue discussed by Matt Peterson from Vertatique (, who spoke about the need for sustainability in the film/TV industry-and not simply for altruistic reasons. “There are lots of external factors bearing down including regulatory and competitive advantages,” he said. Servers now consume more electricity than TVs, he reported. “Data centers/media cores consume 20 to 30 times more energy per square foot than typical office space,” he said. “The faster we spin disks and run processors, [the more] we’re generating a boatload of heat.” Peterson spoke about green practices for productions as well as post houses, and touched upon some of the more egregious sources of a large carbon footprint. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” he advised. “The HPA community is only at 15 percent in working with external partners for program monitoring and management. And keep it real: it can be green-wash if it isn’t done with a results-oriented approach.”

Simple Stereo

Though many attendees doubt the staying power of stereoscopic production, Wendy Aylsworth, Senior Vice President of Technology for Warner Bros. Technical Operations, headed a panel on the topic for theatrical and home-theater release. Peter Wilson, principal of the UK company HDDC (High Definition & Digital Cinema), promoted the use of simple rigs with digital processing as a more cost-effective way of acquiring stereoscopic imagery. “Mechanical rigs are works of art but very expensive,” he said. “Digital processing can adjust vertical disparity, adjust parallax and toe, correct for lens squirreling, facilitate line-up and be automated.” Wilson also showed sports scenes in which the 3D had been synthetically generated, reporting that the UK and EEC are engaged in 18 collaborative projects.

Converting legacy 2D content into 3D was the focus of In-Three President David Seigle, who spoke about his company’s “dimensionalization” approach to the challenge. TDVision Director of Product Marketing Evan Schur was bullish on 3D coming to the home. “At the most pessimistic forecast, there will be 18 million 3D-ready TV sets in homes by 2012,” he said. He also noted the long list of challenges for bringing stereoscopic content to TV sets. “The TV’s chip or external box interpolates the side-by-side image, but in this way, only 25 percent of the original pixels remain,” he said. “Not only is there a qualitative loss but, in 3D, you’re inventing pixels. And 2D compatibility is essential since the majority of the TV sets out there are 2D.”

Sony also threw its hat into the 3D arena with its 4K projector. Steve Banaszek described how Sony has “repurposed” its 4K digital cinema projector for 3D stereoscopic projection. “We have room for two 2K eyes,” he noted. “We had to align the two images. From the drawing board, the engineering team in Japan showed successful demos at CineExpo and at the 4K lab in Los Angeles.” The 3D projector can handle up to a 55-foot wide screen with 4.5 ftL of brightness. It’s currently in use at the Landmark Theatre in West Los Angeles and will be available elsewhere next month.

Also in the 3D stereoscopic space, Alioscopy showed its auto-stereoscopic monitors for use with 3D pre-visualization/layout and 3D trailers. “Alioscopy works on a sub-pixel level, with a special interleafing routine,” explained director of operations Pia Maffei. “The pros are that it’s a high-quality lenticular display without glasses, true 3D content, and a wide viewing angle covering 90 degrees, 8 degrees of parallax and interactive real-time 3D rendering capability.” The cons? “The effective resolution is one-third of the 1920 x 1080p resolution,” she said. “And there are specific sweet spots.”

Aylsworth summed up the discussion of 3D as being reminiscent of the long discussion of HD over the last decade or more. “This isn’t any different than the roll-out of HDTV,” she said. “This will take a number of years.” Pierce added that there’s a need for standards for home delivery of 3D for it to become a reality. “Where will this standard come from?” he asked. “Someone has to lead the way. SMPTE needs urgently to develop a standard for a master to support multi-view. Otherwise it has to come from the consumer electronics organizations.”

Faster Frame Rates

Dr. Stephen Jolly, a research engineer working for BBC R&D, gave a provocative talk on high-frame-rate television. “The 50/60 Hz rate was developed 70 years ago for a variety of reasons that made sense at that time,” he said. “But increasing the static resolution without improving the frame rate makes the TV system less suitable for moving pictures.” Noting that 100/120 Hz LCD TVs are becoming common and 180/200/240 Hz models are being exhibited, he proposed a switch to 300 Hz for acquiring, distributing and displaying HD. “300 Hz is easy to convert to 50/60 Hz and is compatible with mains frequencies,” he said. “It would finally unify our different TV standards, and no one would complain about that.” Still, some attendees doubted the ease of that conversion, and some were dubious about one of the side effects of a high-frame rate that Jolly acknowledged. “It impacts the artistic side and loses the film look,” he said. “But you can change the temporal characteristics of the video in post, adding a film look or developing a new range of motion characteristics.”

Altogether, more questions were raised than answered at the event – a reflection not just of the times but also of the rigorous and opinionated minds debating the issues. A year from now, the DTV transition will be farther along, we’ll know more about the staying power of 3D filmmaking, and we’ll have a sense of whether any of the other interesting technologies proposed has caught fire. Until then, the HPA Tech Retreat has presented in strong relief some of the more pressing issues that remain.