Low Marks For High Def

When David Fincher won his first Directors Guild of America award for outstanding directorial achievement in commercials last February, it was for three spots he made last year. Two of those—Wieden + Kennedy’s $3 million “Gamebreakers” production for Nike and Mother’s “Beauty for Sale” for Xelibri phones—were created with Thomson’s Viper digital cinematography system instead of film, then laboriously finished by special-effects houses.

For “Gamebreakers,” Wieden originally intended to use film to capture football players Michael Vick and Terrell Owens completing a pass play with superhuman agility, then enhance their performances digitally, says producer Jeff Selis. But Fincher argued that the exaggerated effect would be best achieved with the Viper, a tapeless digital recorder that’s of higher quality than most high-definition television camera systems. The players wore witness-point articulated clothing—which has marks for the camera to track, making translation of action into animation easier—with the Viper camera feeding the live capture to a hard drive.

The whole process was very different from a traditional shoot. “It’s nerve-racking when the client can’t see what’s happening—there are no traditional takes,” Selis explains. “You’re putting your trust in David, who when he doesn’t like what he sees keeps saying, ‘Delete … delete.’ ” The shoot was followed by more than two months of computer enhancement at Digital Domain in Venice, Calif.

“There are only a handful of directors who we would have done it with that way,” says Selis, who’s proud of “Gamebreakers” but prefers to shoot the old-fashioned way. “At the end, I told Fincher, ‘Next time, I’m going to get my estimate signed and come back for my dub.’ ”

Many in the commercial-production industry share Selis’ sentiments when it comes to shooting in HD. And it often takes someone of Fincher’s stature to bring the new technology into the picture.

“Commercials seem to be one of the last to switch over,” says Sam Najah, executive producer at the Marina del Rey, Calif., HD-only production company 900 Frames (a 30-second spot shot at 30 frames per second—an optional HD rate—is 900 frames).

HD has been promoted as the format of the future since its practical introduction in the mid-’80s. The original system—producing 1,125 lines of horizontal resolution at 60 cycles per second and introducing the 16:9 aspect ratio—first made a splash in music videos. The format was even then extolled for spot production as a replacement for film—after all, the pioneers argued, the images are far better than standard television’s 525 lines at 30 cycles per second with a 4:3 aspect ratio. But some 20 years later, commercials are rarely shot in high-def, nor are conventionally shot ads typically post-produced for airing on those few channels offering the premium service.

For the Super Bowl’s HD broadcast this year, only a handful of commercials were transferred to the format. According to longtime cinematographer and feature film director Allen Daviau, the spots that looked best on HD screens were the trailer for Daviau’s own Van Helsing, Chevrolet’s SSR “Soap” spot and Procter & Gamble’s Charmin ad. “The agencies say, ‘We can’t justify the expense for a few hundred thousand [TV] sets.’ But it really involves no great outlay—it’s just a simple transfer,” argues Daviau, who shot Van Helsing. “You’d think they’d be a little interested in an audience that can afford $5,000 television sets.”

Spots shot in wide-screen for a cinematic look on regular TVs barely register on HD screens. “[On the Super Bowl], they looked like postage stamps,” says Keith Neff, managing director of hdstudios, a division of Farmington Hills, Mich., production house Grace & Wild. For Chevy agency Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Mich., hdstudios post-produced the “Soap” spot, as well as the cinema ad “Car Carrier” and “Released to the Wild,” promoting the Colorado model.

One of HD’s biggest proponents in the agency business is Ken Yagoda, managing partner and director of broadcast production at WPP’s Young & Rubicam in New York. He runs the Sony-sponsored “Dreams” program, now in its third year, which familiarizes directors with the format by giving them the funds and equipment to make short subjects on a common theme in HD.

Few directors were using HD when the “Dreams” project launched. “There was a lot of talk about HD, and I didn’t know anything about it,” says Yagoda. “The proposition was to get a new technology into the hands of great directors rather than discuss lines of resolution, which I have no interest in whatsoever.”

Bob Greenberg, chairman, CEO and chief creative officer of i-shop R/GA in New York, is also an HD advocate, both for economic and creative reasons. He promotes its “digital asset management” capabilities—the leveraging of digital assets across multiple platforms, as exemplified in the Interpublic Group agency’s most recent HD spot, for Nestlé Purina. The ad, which aired during the National Dog Show on NBC last Thanksgiving, was created at the agency on iMacs on a tight deadline. Digital images of pets from the spot—which directed viewers to the Web—were used to create “landing pages” at My Yahoo!.

Greenberg sees HD as a part of changing the creative conversation from 30-second spots to “two minutes long by 120 wide”—his metaphor for longer projects that encompass multiple touch points. “Digital-image capture and HD will be the only way to make that 120-wide world work,” Greenberg says.

But when it comes to shooting plain old commercials, HD has few fans. Yagoda points out that some of the most celebrated commercial directors, including Bob Giraldi and Joe Pytka, have directed spots in HD. But Pytka for one has said he prefers to shoot film (last year he used the Sony/Panavision CineAlta HD camera to shoot spots for Sony’s Handicam and its WEGA 60-inch television). “Dreams” alumnus Bruce Dowad of Dowad & Associates in Los Angeles is also a dissenter. “It was an interesting and enjoyable experience,” he says. “But there was nothing about it that made me feel it would deliver anything more than film would.”

Dowad dislikes the viewing system, which he terms “very weak,” and the lens selection, and says the slow-motion capability was limiting. “It wasn’t making me better,” he says. “Maybe someday. But I could never recommend it for my projects.”

Film allows wider latitude in post, notes director Billy Jayne of Space Program in Los Angeles, who was commissioned by Yagoda to shoot a slew of Carrot Top-starring AT&T spots in HD. Jayne says he was happy to try it—”I wanted to be up on the technology, even to know if it wouldn’t work”—but concluded he’d rather use film.

HD suffered a blow two years ago when The Post Group in Los Angeles, in conjunction with cinematographers Bing Sokolsky, David Darby and Bill Bennett, held an event, “Apples to Apples,” to compare the best HD cameras then available with 35mm film in side-by-side viewings. Film won the day. Commercial producers and directors in the audience questioned why so many people had told them that HD looked as good as film.

Film has greater dynamic range than HD, which captures less detail in highlight areas and is more prone to “noise.” “HD didn’t come close,” says Randy Magalski, senior editor at The Post Group. The discrepancies may be of little matter for a quick-and-dirty movie of the week, notes Paul Westerbeck, a senior colorist at Post Group. But when trying to make a product such as a car look perfect, “that difference could be monumental.”

HD was judged to be lacking in depth-of-field control as well. “If you are designing a shot in advertising, you often want to direct the viewer to feel how you want them to feel,” explains Magalski. “In film, you can get the background to drop out so you focus on the product. HD doesn’t have that kind of control.”

Other drawbacks noted at the “Apples to Apples” comparison: The viewfinders were unreliable, variable-speed shooting was limiting and, most damning, the colors were off. In a commercial showing a jet-black Ford swerving on a runway in slow motion, “the black hood had a magenta cast and the side had a green cast,” recalls Bennett, a cinematographer for 25 years who considers the limitations of HD “significant.”

Cost comparisons between film and HD are difficult—much depends on the commercial’s content and the production package being used. The cost of HD tape has dropped to less than the cost of film and processing, but HD can bulge the budget in unexpected directions. Bennet says that with HD, directors need to spend more time on set, tweaking the lighting and other factors. In post, HD can cost $20,000 an hour to manipulate, versus $6,000 to adjust film, he says.

Director and cameraman Dana Christiaansen, who specializes in car commercials for Plum Productions in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees that HD is more expensive when post-production costs are considered. Last spring he road-tested Panasonic and Sony HD cameras, taking the same shots with an Arriflex film camera. Several automotive agencies had approached him about shooting running footage in HD, he says, figuring that using it for a 10-day shoot would save them $60,000-70,000 on film stock and processing. “We found they’d spend way more in post to get HD to look good,” Christiaansen says.

Robert Parker, an executive producer at Young & Rubicam in Irvine, Calif., notes that, “So far, no one has put a [HD] budget in front of me and said, ‘This is what you’ll save.’ ” Parker, who worked as a cinematographer before joining the agency, says he is open to using the format, “given the right circumstances.”

At last month’s National Association of Broadcasters expo in Las Vegas, says Christiaansen, the new HD equipment was “encouraging.” He was particularly impressed by the Arriflex D-20 prototype camera, which uses standard 35mm lenses, and the compact and high-quality Kinetta ProCamHD from AltaSens. New but costly viewfinders are also remarkably better, he says.

But as HD technology threatens to catch up, film is making advancements of its own. Two new types of Kodak Vision film stock “are so nice looking, they must have made the digital guys weep,” says Christiaansen. “As I see it, [they] set back HD five more years.” Bennett puts it this way: “Every time Kodak comes out with a new film stock, they’ve upgraded my camera for free.” He says HD keeps improving every two years, forcing rental houses to keep up.

And so high-definition remains stuck in the future. “I’m sure it will become more viable,” says Bennett. “I’ll be using it more and more, but agency people shouldn’t be too anxious.”

Magalski contends that although two years have passed since the “Apples to Apples” test, “today the results would be similar.

“The perception is that film is on the way out,” he adds. “As a megatrend, that’s true. But that will take some time.”