Commercials tend to be the last bastions of change, only moving with the tide of viewers. Yet high-definition commercials are already on the rise in the UK.
This is a growth area and the scene is changing. Many programmes, concerts and sporting events are being shot in the format and Sky will start to broadcast an HD service next year.
One sign of HD's coming of age is that it is now available in a number of formats, from video to cinema quality. Sony made a huge cut in shooting and recording costs when it introduced HDCam in 1997. Now its new HDCam SR can offer full resolution of each of the telecine's or digital camera's prime colours using very minimal compression. Such pictures not only look excellent - even on a large-screen cinema - but also have the very high technical quality that source material needs for keying to extract accurate mattes for layering and composition.
Absolute Post in London recently finished the first HDCam SR commercial for the Swedish fashion house H&M. The Flame artist Philip Oldham worked on the ad, called "love and soul" and starring Mary J Blige. He says: "We received the telecined material on SR tape, so we ran the Flame at ten-bit RGB for the highest quality. It was wonderful to work at that resolution without the compression you normally get at HD.
"The Burn (render farm) was very handy because it did the background image processing for one shot while we got on with the next on Flame. As we were really tight on the schedule, this was a great help."
Top HD quality was not only needed for the US market but also for outputting a 345-second version to film as a cinema release. Oldham says: "The print looked spectacular, the colours were really vibrant and the pictures crisp and clean." This version was a cross between an ad, a music video and a short film. The television version lasted 60 seconds. The HD master enabled the results across all the chosen media to be of the highest quality.
The Mill is no newcomer to HD commercials. Darren O'Kelly, a producer, says: "We've been using HD for a long time now and we are fully kitted up for it with all our Flames and 3D software. Obviously, HD comes at a premium and it's not appropriate for every job, but there are certainly enormous advantages for picture quality. That's particularly true if you are going out to film and for HD broadcasting. That's something we've experienced a lot at The Mill in New York."
The Mill has been finishing commercials - such as "clay" for Mercedes and Honda's "cog" - in HD for some years. O'Kelly continues: "There are always reasons for using HD; for example, to reflect the quality of the product or for cinema release. We are not saying that standard definition is dead but HD is increasingly requested, particularly as multiple media delivery requirements become more standard. We are monitoring the situation carefully because Sky is preparing to broadcast in HD next year."
The recent Sony Bravia "balls" commercial, which showed coloured balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco, is a case in point. Beyond the television requirements, the output went not only to 35mm print but 70mm Imax. The process focused on retaining picture quality. O'Kelly says: "The Imax cinema pictures look absolutely stunning. Everyone looking at the transfer couldn't get over the quality. A lot of that is down to the way we transfer to ensure the picture does not get degraded."
Are there any advantages in using HD for the shoot? Simon Leppington, the technical director at Red, points out that directors of photography have become more au fait with shooting and lighting techniques so directors are more comfortable going down that route. "HD really comes into its own when you shoot on it," he says. "We did a commercial for Tennent's Lager for which we had to fill Glasgow with 1.2 million people, but the budget would only support 100 extras. This meant shooting each scene 20 times at night - too expensive for film. It was posted in HD at Red, building up layers of crowd shots. That is a classic example of how HD can work."
Interestingly, film output is not the only reason for using HD to shoot and post. Leppington cites a recent Goldfish credit-card ad. "There were details on the tails that we wanted to keep," he says. "It looked great and the detail was still there in the down-converted version of the HD edited master."
He adds: "HD-shot material has a different look to film but it's beautiful if lit properly. Cost issues mean more ads will be shot at HD. Then the post houses will post at HD. The higher resolution means retouching, rotoscoping and compositing involve more work and the bar has to be raised because of that. However, you can then put it out to cinema and all television formats - it's there ready to go."
Facilities are emerging to make working in any format easier and better.
O'Kelly says: "When clients are in a suite, we make the process as creative as possible. This allows working with better pictures and viewing them in a more contextual way - and changes can be made at any stage."
HD post comes at a price - a premium of roughly 30 to 50 per cent. Some of that may be offset later by the ease of producing the expanding range of modern deliverables at top quality. What doesn't work well is trying to extend a message via up-converted standard definition on to a big format.
HD quality is proven all the way up to big-screen cinema with easy output to all other media. When the number of HD viewers in the UK increases next year, more ads are bound to follow.
- Patrick Jocelyn is a director of Autodesk, media and entertainment division, EMEA.