Post-Production: Are you ready for HD?

High-definition TV is arriving in the UK, offering advertisers films with far richer visual detail. But the medium might not be the way forward for everyone. James Hamilton investigates.

Anyone currently shopping around for a new TV can't have failed to miss the signs in the high-street retailers proclaiming the new sets' HD-readiness.

High-definition television will finally arrive in the UK on Sky later this spring, in preparation for the 2006 World Cup, while the BBC is trialling a similar service on Freeview in the area within the M25.

It's been a long wait - digital channels in Japan and across mainland Europe have been broadcasting higher-quality pictures for years. In the US, where there are 15 million HD-ready screens, 25 commercials were made in the format for the most recent Super Bowl, a 30 per cent rise on last year.

The difference between the HD format and the standard-definition Pal TV we currently watch in the UK is stark. The HD picture contains up to five times as much information and detail as Pal. A Sky spokesman says: "HD will capture every detail, facial expression and movement, offering images that are much more lifelike, with four times the picture detail of standard definition."

So far, so good: better-quality films, sport coverage, mini-series and documentaries. But the launch poses a number of questions for advertisers, not least that of how to avoid their commercials looking distinctly pale in comparison with the rich visual detail of the programmes in which they are appearing.

First, a distinction needs to be made between shooting in HD and producing a finished commercial in the format. Despite the facts that HD cameras have been around for five years, that their quality has increased and that tape stock is far cheaper than film, very few ads are made using the technology. Paul O'Shea, a visual effects supervisor at The Moving Picture Company who recently worked on Lowe's "ice-skating priests" commercial for Stella Artois, says the industry is still reliant on 35mm film.

"There are some great HD cameras, but they tend to get used in quite specific circumstances," he says. "Given the choice and trying to make cinematic or filmic commercials, where telecine is able to get so much more out of film, 35mm is preferred and what you aspire to work with."

There are good reasons why film remains the medium of choice for the ad industry: the quality is very high, directors of photography know the medium inside out and, in many cases, film is more flexible than video.

Increasingly, though, commercials producers are opting to post-produce their ads in the HD format. Darren O'Kelly, a producer at The Mill who worked on Fallon's "balls" spot for Sony Bravia, says that a year ago, just 10 per cent of the ads going through the facility were posted in HD. Now, that figure is more like 35 per cent.

But this rise in popularity of the format is not simply because of the imminent launch of HDTV in the UK. Until now, there has been no market for HD ads. So why are agencies spending more time and money making them?

"'Ice-skating priests' was done in HD because it was going to have a cinema release and because we wanted to give Jonathan Glazer something that was a step up," O'Shea says. "For us, it's an opportunity to make better pictures. I spent a not inconsiderable time putting a snot bubble and tears on a priest's face. At standard definition, you miss it, but at HD, it's there."

That said, the level of detail that HD allows the image to retain isn't necessarily a positive: it means that the art department, costume and make-up have to be extra careful when it comes to minor blemishes and the like. While SD is forgiving enough to let them pass, at high definition, the viewer will be able to spot them.

Audio is another area that changes once a commercial is posted at HD.

The format allows for eight audio channels, more than enough to create a Dolby 5.1 mix for home cinema systems. "We currently do 99.9 per cent of cinema commercials in Dolby 5.1," the Wave joint creative director Warren Hamilton says, "but surround sound has never really happened for TV. I think it will, but it's going to depend on budget."

This level of detail comes at a premium in terms of both cost and time.

As such, post-producing work at HD is not necessarily the right choice for all commercials.

"It tends to be used for premium products, where the key is preserving the quality all the way through," O'Kelly says. "It also allows for international deliverables, such as the current Nike campaign."

Recent ads posted at HD by The Mill include the BTAA Award-winning "impossible dream" and "choir" for Honda; ads that have a long shelf-life, and are likely to get a cinema release.


- Make sure HD is right for your commercial. Don't just take the production company's or director's word for it; speak to the visual effects supervisor and the director of photography and find out what they think. If your ad has a short shelf-life, HD probably isn't for you.

- Consider posting at HD if your commercial is likely to have a cinema or international release. Foreign deliverables are easily created from an HD master, and cinema prints will look far better.

- Don't get bogged down with all the different formats. HD simply stands for all definitions higher than Pal.

- Allow more time. Increased detail means post-production takes longer, although the fact that HD frames contain five times as much information as their SD counterparts doesn't necessarily equate to a five-fold increase in length of the process. The Mill's Darren O'Kelly says to allow half as much time again, on average.

- Think about sound. If you want a 5.1 Dolby mix for your ad, you'll need to supply audio tracks from the shoot. Talk to your audio post-production company and find out exactly what you need to deliver them.