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From HDV to DVD
Posted Nov 19, 2004 Print Version     Page 1of 4 next »

In October 2002, I made my one and only trip to Japan, courtesy of Panasonic, to check out the latest and greatest in consumer electronics technology at CEATEC 2002. Of course, what I was really seeing was technology that was a year or so ahead of the curve for the Japanese, which meant North Americans might not get their hands on it for several years, if it ever made it to these shores at all. The overarching theme of the show was the "ubiquitous network." As far as I could tell, that nebulous term bespoke a notion of convergence going far beyond the union of the office and the television, centered around the PC; this convergence meant the integration of every electric device throughout the household, with the cell phone/PDA/portable video player at the center of it all. This of course meant some robots too, which have always been more popular over there than over here (except in movies)—all of which made me wonder how much of this stuff would ever play in Peoria.

The defining announcement of the show, however, was a new consumer camcorder from JVC that captured 720p, high-definition video to a standard MiniDV tape, in a 19 or 25Mbps MPEG-2-based format called HDV. Exciting stuff, to be sure, and the best news of all was that the camera and the format would debut in the States only six months later at NAB 2003, with Canon, Sony, and Sharp joining JVC in backing the format.

Did that mean the world was ready for HDV? Not exactly. The concept was nothing short of genius: not only was HDV retrofitted to the ubiquitous MiniDV tape format and available in sub-$4,000 camcorders, but it was also compressed enough to fit into the familiar post-production workflow of mainstream PCs. In terms of processing, any PC that could handle DV editing could theoretically handle HDV. Of course, it would take a little tweaking for popular NLEs like Premiere and Final Cut Pro to get into the HDV swing; for one thing, they'd need plug-ins to capture the video and convert it into a format suitable for editing. The format also had its naysayers, who insisted that 720p-only HDV wasn't true HD. The fact was, HDV brought hi-def video tantalizingly close to videographers and other prosumer-level editors attuned to the magic of MiniDV and the brave new world of software-only video editing—that is, preview and processing without special hardware.

At present, HDV represents HD for an SD world. In recent months, as Sony Electronics has become the second manufacturer to throw its hat into the HDV ring, and a slew of software NLE makers—Adobe, Ulead, Pinnacle, Canopus—have announced "native editing" support for the format, the SD world's leading vendors have rushed to embrace it. (Apple, at this writing, remains a holdout.) But what place does HDV input have in a desktop post-production world that's predominantly wed to SD output?

Wed to SD
The event videography world has emphatically gone digital for both editing and output—and for output, the digital format of choice is DVD. Adobe Group Product Manager Richard Townhill is most emphatic about the HDV-DVD connection for those implementing HDV now: "When I saw the FX1 demo in Tokyo, Sony said the best distribution format for HDV content was Blu-ray. But that's not realistic at this point. The realistic workflow is HDV to widescreen DVD." 

By definition, DVD means 720x480 video. That amounts to considerably fewer pixels than the JVC HD-1 and HD-10's 1280x720 and the Sony HDR-FX1's 1280x720 or 1440x1080. That's a significant reduction in the number of pixels available to deliver an image—and that pixel differential is arguably what defines high-definition video as a thing apart from its standard-definition counterpart. 

So what, if any, reason does that leave videographers who deliver their content on DVD to invest in the JVC or Sony camcorders (remarkably cheap for HD, but far more expensive than SD cameras with similar features), and cast their lot with HDV? 

The Capture Game
September 7 was a heady day for HDV. Sony announced its HDR-FX1 HDV camcorder, which, if anything, generated even more hype than the JVC announcements at NAB 2003. And not without reason. For one thing, the JVC models were 1-CCD units, and the Sony is a three-chip camera, which has become the standard for prosumer-level shooting. More than a few pundits would argue that with the effectiveness of today's CCDs the number of chips doesn't matter as much as it used to, but be that as it may, many commercial videographers wouldn't even consider a single-chip SD camcorder, so why would they bite on a 1-CCD HDV model? The other highlight of the Sony announcement was the FX1's vaunted 1080i support. This isn't quite 1080i as we've come to know it; 1080i means 1920x1080 in high-end HD cameras, and the Sony does only 1440x1080. That said, 1080 lines of horizontal resolution is still a remarkably high number for a $3,700 camcorder using MiniDV tapes. 

What really took the buzz to deafening levels on September 7 was the spate of announcements that followed the news from Sony, beginning with Adobe's unveiling of a new plug-in that would allow Premiere Pro editors to capture HDV streams and edit them "natively" in the timeline. [See Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen's "HDV Goes Mainstream," October, pp. 60-65.] What "native" means in this context is naturally a bit complex—if it weren't, promising "native" support wouldn't be such a big deal. 

Because it is MPEG-2-based, HDV is an IBP Long GOP format, which means that each frame in the transport stream actually consists of a group of pictures (GOP): an Index (I) Frame, a Bi-directional (B) Frame, and a Prediction (P) Frame. This makes HDV difficult to edit. If your scene change or cut happens to fall on an I-Frame, you're in luck; if it doesn't, you're stuck trying to pin an edit point on a frame that doesn't exist functionally outside that group of pictures. The fact that there's only one editable frame out of three means the decoder is constantly processing multiple frames for one from which it can generate an image for preview and editing. This means a drain on processor resources and slowed performance.  

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