La Rochelle. First impressions first. It’s day 1, and I’ve already had enough of La Rochelle, ignoring the fact that I haven’t even arrived there. I’m stuck at this train station somewhere in the west of France. My flight to Paris was delayed, I queued for hours to get a train ticket, I missed my connections, and now I’m stranded in Poitiers. In other words, La Rochelle is just so much harder to get to than Marseille, the previous location of this international documentary market. Day 1 is nearly over when a local train finally brings us into La Rochelle and a miracle happens. Instantly, the Atlantic wind blows away all the clouds – and my grumpy mood. I used to like Marseille for its cultural mix, its craziness, its chaos. Now I find myself loving La Rochelle: peaceful, relaxed, not so hot. The seafood is just fantastic, and I email Ulla Jacobsen, the DOX editor, to propose an article on the best restaurants. She convinces me that this article should be about Sunny Side’s overall theme, “High Definition”. Oh well, Ulla, here you go. But what exactly should I write? High Definition – that reminds me of our enthusiasm five years ago when we were proud to be the first cameramen in Germany to do a comprehensive comparison between Sony’s then brand-new HDCAM format and all those traditional film and video formats. The results were exciting, but in the following five years of camera jobs, I only shot on HDCAM once: a fiction short. All the documentary work – be it independent or commissioned – continued to be on “SD” (Standard Definition).
Picture Quality Back to TV. It wasn’t until the arrival of HDV and small DVCProHD cameras that the doc world really started to get excited about the need for High Definition beyond wildlife or docu-drama programmes. Numerous special events here at Sunny Side are dedicated to those shiny, incredibly detailed pictures. Or as Gregory Moyer of the US-based VOOM Network describes it at Sunny Side, “HD puts visual storytelling back into television. You can hold an audience closer and more passionately. We should celebrate this tool, increasing the immediacy and intimacy of the documentary.” Well, maybe. As filmmakers, we know so many other factors that make our work immediate or intimate, so I start to wonder how important a factor pixel resolution really is. Still, I really agree with all these enthused panellists telling us that “HD is a way to get back the quality we lost a long time ago.”
HDV: a Pipe Dream. Broadcasters are starting to define requirements for HD delivery. However, the common assumption that an “affordable” format like HDV would give indie filmmakers equal access to HDTV broadcasters turns out to be a pipe dream. Shana Vickers-Jacobus says that Discovery HD Theater would not accept HDV footage contributing more than 15 percent to the running time of any HD programme. According to the BBC’s John Willis, they simply don’t accept any HDV for their HD trial service. He reminds us how compression gets worse “when you stuff it into an MPEG and squeeze it into a transmission slot together with 10 other channels.”
These restrictions on HDV are similar to the ones on the use of “up-converted” SD footage. When delivered to Discovery HD Theater, SD should not account for more than 25 percent of the programme, never to be used for more than one minute at a time. I learn this at the panel called “Wildlife: 100% HD” on the second day, where everyone agrees how amazing HD is in no-light situations, or in the macro world, or when filming predation scenes from the air. The Varicam’s film look mixes very well with existing film footage, and Shana Vickers-Jacobus strongly recommends producers to “talk to the post house from day one, keeping in mind the conversion costs when dealing with different frame rates.” Especially for wildlife productions, lenses are now more expensive than the actual camera. As Neil Nightingale of the BBC’s Natural History Unit has observed, “An 800mm zoom lens reaches the limits of what a documentary cameraman can do or keep in focus.” Plus, the reliability of the cameras is a big problem. In the middle of the Mongolian desert, both HD cameras of a ZDF production gave up, and Ralf Blasius was relieved that his crew had brought 35mm backup equipment.