Every two years, I get the chance to survey the world of high-definition formats from a very practical perspective. I’m the Technical Director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, and our festival receives entries for awards from all over the world. Most of the judging is done using DVD submittals, so those are limited to NTSC and PAL DVD video formats, but the original programs comprise a much wider range of formats, and the quality of the conversions to DVD varies widely.
Of the hundreds of programs submitted for judging in 2009, 53 different titles were chosen as finalists in 22 different categories. At the festival, copies of the finalists are shown over several days in high- and medium-quality screenings, and a few are analyzed in “anatomy” sessions, where attendees can query the producers, directors and/or cinematographers of each program. The screenings and anatomies are presented in the highest-quality formats available and as close to the original release format as possible.
While many festivals require special packaging, such as Sony HDCAM-SR tapes or the JPEG2000-encoded Digital Cinema Package, as specified by the Digital Cinema Initiatives, Jackson Hole tries to accommodate small, independent filmmakers by accepting screening copies in BetaCam, Digital BetaCam, HDCAM and HDCAM-SR formats and in 23.98, 24, 25 or 29.97 frames per second, interlaced or progressive, and in some digital file-based formats. The file-based delivery option is still new to us, so we handle each of those on a case-by-case basis, but based on our experience in 2009, I expect that by 2011, a majority of our entries will be in file-based formats.
Playback of the screening tapes was a bit tricky because we needed players, switching equipment and displays that could accept all the standard Beta and HDCAM tape formats in all standard 24, 25 and 30 fps image-format variations. But playback of tapes is only an equipment selection problem, and our vendor sponsors provided the equipment to us. Then, it was a training process for volunteer and staff operators to configure the machines for each playback format and aspect ratio. Playback of the digital files required powerful enough computers, plus video interface cards, and was limited to a few specially configured sessions.
For use in the festival award ceremony, finalists are also required to provide a signature video clip for entries selected in each award category. In an attempt to simplify production and to determine the readiness of the industry to deal with file-based formats, I asked the finalists to provide the 20-second clips to me electronically via an Internet-based file-delivery system. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I received almost all of the clips electronically. A few respondents sent DVD video discs, but most cut clips specifically for the awards show and sent short files.
The awards clips represented an even wider range of formats than did the screening copies, and the file-based clips came in Apple QuickTime, Microsoft AVI and MPEG transport stream packages, and encoded in MPEG2, Apple ProRes, AVID DNx, H.264, DV, DVCPRO HD, Photo-JPEG, HDV and uncompressed formats.
The file-conversion process was a bit more involved than playback of the screening tapes because each format needed to be converted to a common standard for playback during a live event through a production switcher with live cameras. Video flashes or glitches, or five-second delays while displays re-locked, wouldn’t be acceptable, so a reasonably high-quality format was chosen as the universal receptor. The image format of 1920×1080 seemed an obvious choice because it would preserve most of the resolution of the higher-quality formats, and the highest delivered frame rate was 30 frames per second, so that also seemed appropriate. Because we’re operating in North America, 30 frames become 29.97 for compatibility with common production hardware.