Monday, October 6, 2008

Up Close and a Bit Too Personal

“The scenery needs ironing”, I said as I watched the playback in our edit suite in Newcastle. “Look, there are creases all over the curtain – and you can see footmarks on the floor at the back”.

This week for the first time I saw the world in high definition. We’ve just shot the pilot episode of Loveland, our new Cilla Black dating show, and because Sky One broadcasts in “Hi-Def”, we’ve had to film the whole thing in this shiny new format. The problem is, it’s a brand new system, and it’s not easy to get right. It’s a bit like putting on a new pair of glasses – somehow the world doesn’t look quite the same.

I don’t want to burden you with my problems, or blind you with science (largely because I haven’t got beyond the beginner’s class myself), but in conventional television, all black is, well, black. So when you build scenery for an entertainment show you pull a black cloth, called a cyclorama, round the back of the studio, paint the floor black, and when the lights are on, all the paraphernalia of the production process is instantly hidden.

We’ve relied on this trick for years. Put some lights on in front of a black background, and through the camera lens even the smallest studio looks enormous; like smoke and mirrors, the scenery sort of floats in space, a technique that’s part of the magic of television entertainment. Watch the X-Factor and you’ll see what I mean. Film the same studio in high definition, and you’ll see every cable and flaw – even the stitching in the black cloth. Thankfully Cilla still looks radiant, whatever format we film her in.

Yesterday three separate brochures were stuffed through my front door offering bargains on “Hi-Def Ready” television sets. This is, of course, the real reason why high definition has been developed: to make us buy more televisions (and also, presumably, to contribute to the credit crunch by adding to the burden on our credit cards). Now we’ve all gone widescreen and digital, do we really need this extra accessory?

Allow me to offer a word of professional caution to anyone thinking of buying one of these. Don’t imagine that it’ll give you a “better” picture. New technology may produce a sharper, more revealing image, but it isn’t necessarily the right picture, and it may well not be what the director intended you to see. Take feature films: some new televisions offer something called “100MHz”, which means they produce images twice as fast as a normal television. That’s not always a good thing, because it’s twice as fast as the television station is broadcasting the pictures, so the television set has to “invent” every other frame you see. As a result, it can turn a beautifully crafted, Oscar-winning multi million dollar feature film, shot at 24 frames per second, into something which looks like cheap video*.

However Hi-Def is great for some subjects. Sport, for example. I’m writing this with half an eye on glamour model Nell McAndrew running as Wonderwoman in the Great North Run; later this afternoon I’ll be trying to read Joe Kinnear’s lips as he rants at the players during Newcastle’s match against Everton. Both experiences would be transformed by Hi-Def technology. Reality programmes look freakily real, and wildlife programmes come alive: you can see every drop of blood as the lion gets its gazelle.

And speaking of bloodletting, I can’t wait for the Newsnight studio to start using high definition. If there’s one subject that deserves closer scrutiny, it’s politics. There’ll be no hiding place for Peter Mandelson when Paxo starts attacking. However thick they pile on his studio makeup, the Hi-Def cameras will expose every piece of spin, every back-track, every nasty little innuendo, right up close in the whites of his eyes.

[* Here's a more detailed explanation for those who don't believe me:

TVs run at 50MHz, but television is "filmed" at 25 frames per second. So there are two "fields" per frame. Each field is half a picture - odd lines in one field, even lines in the next. Because of the speed of the process, the human brain combines the two fields into one picture, which changes 25 times per second. However, sometimes you can notice a slight flickering out of the corner of your eye (when you see a tv screen from the side, for example). Having a TV at 100MHz gets rid of that because it combines the two fields (i.e. odd and even lines) into one picture, or scan. The downside of this is that with a moving picture, you can get jagged lines on the screen. You notice it a lot when there are closing credits running from right to left across the bottom of the screen. The odd and even images don't line up because the scrolling credits are moving too fast. Some TVs get over this with a kind of "Advanced" mode, which gets the TV to predict what the picture is going to do. This sorts out the credits problem, and makes pans more smooth - though sometimes the tv predicts the movement incorrectly and it can make it all look very weird.

But in a feature film, which was originally shot at 24 frames per second (I know, it should be 25, but it's always been 24 - movies on telly are speeded up ever so slightly to allow for the extra frame), when the TV predicts the frames, or when it smooths out the pans, this isn't the image the director and cinematographer intended. It effectively makes film look like video. Yuk.

My solution: disable the 100MHz facility!]


Troy said...

That was a very educational few minutes. Thank you!

Expat mum said...

Hi there. Came by via Hadriana's blog. My head's now spinning with all your information - it's only 9.30am over here. But I did learn something new - and at my age, that's a good thing.