The Birth Of High Definition
Posted on May 18, 2010 by Alex Fice
LARRY THORPE was the right man at the right time when HD needed a heavy push. He explains his involvement in the standardisation of HD for broadcast, his relationship with George Lucas and the team at LucasFilm and his opinion of where HD is heading
Larry Thorpe, through his work with Sony, has often been quoted as a significant driver for the high definition format as much for episodic television as for feature films. (When George Lucas made the famous statement ‘I will never make a film with film again’, Larry was the one sharing the stage). Larry was vice president, Acquisition Systems for Sony Electronics, until he accepted a similar position with Canon Broadcast. We asked him to look back at the history of high definition within the production and broadcast world.
“Back in 1986 the only focus for high definition was the search for a worldwide standard for HD production. Broadcasting HD was just beginning to be discussed amongst the broadcasters in the US and in fact it wasn’t until 1987 that the broadcasters rallied and the NAB and other associations officially petitioned the FCC to begin an investigation. HD had tremendous implications on spectrum so a public enquiry was asked for, to travel the full FCC process. It then took some years for the broadcasting side of it to ramp up.
All of us back then who were deeply involved with it and passionately committed to it had much shorter time frames in our minds. We didn’t know the complexity of the processes.
“There were really two things that took place that made us a little unique, the first was the standardisation process for production which had started in 1983 with the formation of the ATSC to look into all aspects of advanced television. Then a year later in 1984 the SMPTE formed a working group to look into a production standard. At that time the CCIR had picked up on it so there was an international movement and Europe was engaged in that as was Asia and America.
“In the US as we moved through the eighties, in the late eighties the computer industry and the telecommunications industries stepped in and boldly! Their whole argument was ‘if there’s something coming that is going to involve very high resolution systems and displays, this is going to have a huge impact on our world – we’ve got to be involved’. So they climbed aboard en masse into the standardisation committees and that was something we never had in our television history before, we usually did our own standards.
“Also in the late eighties Hollywood stepped in and there were more and more folks from that world coming in as well. So now you had a free for all and it took some years for the entities to understand each other, the whole interlace vs progressive was a huge debate; the square pixels was a huge debate. These were painful debates and rancorous at times and dragged the whole process.
“It wasn’t until 1994 that we finally beat out what we were going to do in North America in terms of a production standard and guess what it was – two production standards! It was two because we couldn’t agree on one. There were those who gave the highest priority to high frame rate progressive, 60P, and said that was the number one priority for a new television system. There were also those who said high definition resolution, the best we can squeeze into 30mHz which was what we were talking about and lets start with interlace and migrate to progressive as technology allows.
“So to reconcile something that was irreconcilable was to agree to two standards and that is what we have today.
“The debate in Europe is similar but seems to very focussed on the transmission aspects, efficiency of transmission and whether 720/50p would be better in terms of compression and utilisation of spectrum. It’s a similar debate to one the broadcasters had here.
“Of course production-wise a great deal over here is originated in 1080 and converted to 720p although there are major broadcasters like FOX and ABC who originate in 720p.
“While you may say it is a pity we ended up with two standards, there are applications for both and across many industries. In the broadcast realm both are co-existing because the DTV sets are nimble enough to deal with them. The standards committee that did all the work on broadcast did insist on televisions sets that would accept both. “
“24p came late, it was born in 1998. It had been talked about a lot but the manufacturers were sceptical, I was at Sony at the time. We weren’t sure about that marketplace, if we built would they come. We heard people exalting it and there was the cultural thing that we’ve always been a 60 pictures a second progressive or interlace, aren’t we taking a step back by sampling temporarily. Once we built that high definition centre in Los Angeles and immersed ourselves in the Hollywood film community that dialogue picked up. Then of course we found our champion who said ‘If you build it I will use it’, that being George Lucas. That was the trigger and we said ‘lets go for broke’. In fact there were really two triggers on that, one was the shooting side, which was Lucas, he was the one who put the stake in the ground. But a very important second one was at the back end of the system, Laser Pacific Post Production house in LA.
“Almost simultaneously around 1998/9 they were talking to us and saying, ‘Look, most prime time programming is produced on film, thats the way the US has been. The whole post industry for commercials, television and movies is starting to use digital intermediates – because we have this problem of distributing 1080/60i 720/60p and derivatives for standards conversion, we need a master in post. The best master to get to everything is a 24 frame-based master. The input can still be film or it could be a 24 frame digital but we’ll do all the post in 24p and end up with a 1080/24p master, from which anything can be derived. That was the scenario that came to address what looked like a potential nightmare in post.
“The take-up of the 24p concept was astonishing, as soon as it appeared at NAB 1999. I remember revealing we were working on the camera side of things with Lucas and Panavision and quite of few of the post houses jumped on it because they saw the wisdom of it. They were all very worried about the multi-format world out there.
“24p is still earning its way today and of course the big debate today especially at the high end is now considerations of even higher resolutions and larger formats. In other words is the 2/3 inch image format appropriate for really high-end movie making? George Lucas says absolutely but sceptics say they want their 35mm. Of course that’s where Genesis, Arri, Dalsa and all these folks are hoping to play.
“There’s no question that companies like Panavision has a colossal amount of 35mm lenses so there is some need for protection of that stock. Equally important though is the huge body of DPs out there who have been shooting 35mm film, who love the format, love all that goes with the format like short depth of field etc…The question of quality is the one that is still being investigated and of course we have to see these large format cameras do their stuff and see how much better quality they produce.
“My own feeling is that the 2/3 inch format is now so hugely entrenched and so universally supported by all the major manufacturers, that investment, that inventory is colossal in terms of cameras, camcorders, and lenses. I think the economics, the entrenched technology and the demand to keep HD small and compact will maintain the 2/3 inch’s mainstream position. In television certainly, commercials certainly and a great body of movies. That said I think the major studios who have not yet really adopted 24p, they will only move I think with the emergence of the really high-end 35mm replacement systems.
“So you will have the really big budget movies shot on these high-end cameras, you’ll have the mainstream modest budget movies, the $10, $20 and below, done on 2/3 inch and then there will be a tier below that all the way down to HDV.
“I see digital production stratifying not unlike what happened with film. 65mm, Super 35mm, 35mm, Super 16mm, 16mm – the equation was quality versus cost and major movies were shot on all format film.
“So the likes of Sony and Panavision will continue the R&D of the 2/3 inch cameras. Sony has already announced that this NAB they will show a tape-less high definition camcorder at a very modest price. I’m going to guess it is going to be priced between the HDV and the HDW-730 cameras. Panasonic will also be showing their tape-less HD system there, Ikegami are already there with their tape-less system”.
Sony Advanced Systems
“We formed a little unit inside Sony called Sony Advanced Systems, which we did in 1988. I transferred over to that. We did practical studies of HDTV and film and transferring back and forth. We bought the Electron Beam Recorder over that Sony had developed so that we could do transfers to film and there was a tremendous amount of investigatory work that went on, John Galt was the chief driver of that. We were looking at all types of film stocks, working with the labs in Hollywood, bringing in as many people from the film world as we could. We did some special effects in HD on some movies wholly shot in film.
“We gained a great amount of knowledge and experience which has shaped Sony’ technology direction in telecine and things like that. One of the briefs of the centre was to steer our developments groups in Japan, everything from developing the sensors where we would try and convey to them the parameters when you’re trying to match motion picture film. Recording formats, cameras, all of that went back to Japan. The telecine was borne actually in the high definition centre.
“Equally important was our open door policy, we shared a great deal of our finding and gave a great many technical papers. I myself wrote a lot of papers, as did John Galt. We always said to the community ‘Come here and play’. It was open to all studios.
“I think that was one thing that helped the situation along from a position of deep scepticism from the motion picture world of high definition. Then when 24p came along sometime later people said that it did look like Sony were really listening to them. ‘We like our 24 frames and at last these video guys and getting it!’”
Early Digital Films
“With films like Collateral, I understand why some people might see the use as HD being not particularly flattering to the format. I understand what they mean because there are scenes in the film that leap out at you as not film because of the noise. But Mann is an extremely bold director and he said, ‘I’m making a movie that would tax motion picture film and severely tax it. I’m going to shoot it entirely at night.’ It’s full of very dark scenes that frankly probably could not have been in film without a big toll in grain. What happened was he got noise because he had the gain turned up, you see that noise.
“It was a very important experiment and it gave us a yardstick. Sony saw it and realised even though they were very proud of the sensitivity levels that they had in the camera, they need to go a little further. I know Michael Mann is hugely happy with the way the film looks and has stated that he doubts whether some of the scenes could have been done in film. HD does have an advantage in the low-end, in the shadows, highlights are something else. Then you have the substitution of noise for grain, of course traditional DPs and certainly sceptics would quickly comment and say ‘See, I told you so’! They need to stand back and think about what Mann has achieved in this movie, lets look at the imagery – some of its quite extraordinary.”
Larry was also involved in the early development of the Genesis camera system, “I was part of the brainstorming group, there was a working group between the Sony design team in Japan and Panavision and myself and one other person based in the US. That started some years ago and there was a lot of waiting while they developed that very special CCD. That is a story in itself I’m hoping Sony will tell, there are things in that device which are quite astonishing.
“Of course the SRW recording format is a powerhouse of technology, the fact that they can record from 1 to 60 fps, 50 initially and then 60 ultimately and the recorder can handle it and play it back without having to do any special processing – that’s terrific stuff.
“Once it had got going and I had moved back to the East Coast and was embroiled in the whole 24p movement, I became disengaged from the working group.”