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HD, HDV and Image Quality

Porn director Tony Comstock comments on whether HD is really affecting the porn industry. Yes, this link is safe for work; it is a reposting on Clive Thompson’s tech blog; read the longish comment for the complete article. He writes:

HD in the televison studio is another matter. Right off the bat, everyone from set designers to make-up artists were distressed by the way HD rendered their world. But where set designers could do easy things like start using real wood and real metal instead of plastic veneers and tin-foil, make-up artist were stuck with the same flesh and blood upon which to practice their craft, there in lies the problem.

The problem is that video, whether it’s SD or HD, hates flesh and blood. If you want to make someone look terrible, there’s no better way to do it then to level a video camera at them. Where film is warm and lustrous, and takes pleasure in rendering the details that make each of us individuals, video hates skin, video hates people.

In fact, when you shoot people on video, you don’t actually shoot them at all, you cover them up with powders and lotions and pastes. With video, you don’t shoot people, you shoot their make up.

(It takes my make-up artist about easy 5 minutes to get our subjects ready for the parts of our films that are actually shot-on-film (the sex), while it takes her 30 laborious, very detail-oriented minutes to get the ready for the shot-on-vidio interview portion of our film. And while she leaves the set while we shoot the rough and tumble, sweaty, make-up smearing sex, she sits right on my shoulder during the interviews, dashing in and touching things up throughout. That’s why, despite the fact that 35mm film has vastly more resolution that HD video, there’s was never a zit and wrinkle crisis on the set of Fraiser and other shot-on-film productions.)

His take on depth of field:

But even if you get the make-up right, and even you get critical focus on all your footage, the same short focal length lenses that have such critical back-focus, have nearly unlimited depth of field. Why does this matter? Because cinematography is (among other things) an excercise in controlled depth of field. Any DP’s kit includes a complete set of neutral density filters so that even the longer lenses used in 35mm cinematography can be set to wider f-stops to get the (usually) more pleasing effect of shallow depth of field. But the HD lenses used on normal and especially wider angle of view shots are so very short that even wide open they have nearly infinite depth of field

What this means is that instead of the background being pleasingly soft behind the subject, everything is razor sharp (if you haven’t lost back focus!) What that means for Michael Mann’s production is that incongruous elements in the background that could be ignored now half to be art-directed and designed.

Unsurprisingly, he disses HDV:

HDV is not HD. In fact, it’s no wherenear HD. Because the HDV codec only has as much bandwidth (25 mbps) as the DV codec to try and fill the HD pixel matrix, HDV is compressed six times as much as DV. Like the DV codec, the HDV codec has massive spacial compression, but in addition it also has massive (and not very effective) temporal MPEG compression, that has to be done in real time, in the camera. The only way to achieve cheap, real time MPEG compression in handicam is to sacrifice quality.

Compounding the HDV codec’s low-quality compression, the Z1 uses a “witch’s brew” of field doubling and interlacing to achieve 24fps footage. (The same frame rate as film and real HD cinematogphy.)

What this means is that high motion footage (like people having vigorous sex) will often have more (highly visible) compression artifacting than equivalent DV footage. It’s bad when HDV acquired footage is shown in SD, and even worse when HDV acquired footage is shown in HD-DVD or BlueRay, which you can expect to start happening soon.

I am not a video professional (not yet at least!) so I don’t have the amount of experience to disagree. Depth of field is a real issue, and so is focus. But technology is always a value/cost proposition. Surely with unlimited funds you can buy hardware with the maximum capability. But that’s not how people play the game. Creative projects by nature start out with very limited budgets. A competent producer could work around these limitations by choosing the right shots and lighting to minimize imperfections. We assume here that the viewing public will be intolerant of imperfections. But the more we watch HD programming, the more tolerant we become of blemishes. Makeup: yes, well, shows like Jay Leno make the makeup look awful; Maybe the solution is not more makeup but no makeup at all.

What we are seeing is a democratization of creativity; we have small budgets and gargantuan budgets…and little in between. Small budget projects don’t really care about this technical accomplishment; they just want to tell a story; big budget projects can hire people. But what if the cost of producing a one hour drama is beginning to seem expensive compared to reality shows? What if Netflix is driving down the cost of DVDs (and even TV shows)? Professionals have to adapt with smaller better (or at least comparable) tools.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Jim 2/7/2007, 6:57 am

    I’m not sure what to make of Comstock’s ranting. When he says HDV is not HD because of its bandwith, I know he’s spouting pure BS because HD is defined by resolution, interlace, and frame rate, not bandwidth. On the other hand if he means HDV looks like crap I’ll take his word for it. It *is* highly compressed, and what he says about DV vs MPEG2 compression sounds right on the money.

    This is of interest to me because I’ve recently discovered in my Orion work that the crew will be using HDV cameras. There’s even bandwidth alloted for it. I’m now wondering just how bad HDV really looks and whether I should be calling this article to the attention of someone at NASA.

    Thanks for the info!

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