HDTV flourishes at small facils

Low-cost, desktop editing systems are revolutionizing biz

HOLLYWOOD – In the post-production biz in L.A. — and the rest of the country for that matter — the big guys keep getting bigger and the small guys, well, let’s just say they keep getting more important. In an era when you can buy a digital video iMac computer for 1,500 bucks and output an edited digital master that doesn’t look half-bad on a high-definition TV, the old business models may soon be dead.

At least that’s what the heads of two L.A. area-based boutique post houses maintain.

“There’s a culture in L.A. that a lot of producers don’t want to give up or don’t know they can give up,” says Paul Bryant, co-founder and exec producer of Valencia-based Foundation Imaging. “They love to sit on leather couches and eat sushi and be creative in the edit bay because it makes no difference to them whether they’re spending $100,000 or $20,000.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Lower-cost solutions are so good that paying top dollar in high-end facilities only makes sense if cost is no object. “And what broadcaster is saying that these days?” Bryant asks.

His stand-alone company, like many of his feisty peers, has been part of the “NT revolution” for over five years. The NT operating system initially was developed by Microsoft as a muscular business version of its consumer Windows product. But in the often anarchic world of visual effects, geeks found that it also worked wonders as a very inexpensive way of creating and compositing 2-D and 3-D images for output to film and broadcast-quality video.

And because many of the systems are resolution-independent (meaning they can work at multiple resolution levels), the technology is easily adaptable for working in HDTV. Competing high-end systems — whether for f/x work, nonlinear editing or on-line finishing work are (and remain) at least 10 times more expensive to buy and use.

Within the world of digitized film or HD video, the land of nirvana is uncompressed video. Until recently, this was a very expensive place to reach. Because storing digital images takes up a lot of space and is therefore costly, all consumer DV cams, for example, compress the digital information they record. This’s why you can buy one for $2,000.

Many high-end professional cameras and edit systems don’t compress at all. This’s why they cost $100,000 and more. What’s the big deal? Even with video, you don’t get something for nothing. Compress video and then uncompress it and you get what are known as artifacts — little glitches that you can see onscreen that make an image less than pristine. If you work with uncompressed video from acquiring the image all the way through post, the image will remain crystal clear.

Increasingly, however, lower-cost NT systems are becoming available that operate in an uncompressed environment. This means that $100,000 worth of NT hardware and software can do essentially the same job as a high-end million-dollar suite. Result, Thornton says, is savings all around — if you want them.

In Universal City, meanwhile, Fausto Sanchez is in the midst of increasing his NT commitment. President and CEO of Performance Post, Sanchez has relied heavily on his SGI editing and compositing suite for some time now. But for his work in HDTV, Sanchez has installed a large NT server linked to a network of NT workstations. At a fourth the cost of a comparable SGI Unix-based system, Sanchez is able to work in real-time, uncompressed video.

NT systems are still a bit of a hodgepodge compared to turn-key SGI systems, but the differences between the two have been largely eliminated. “The beauty of NT is that it’s robust enough to link up with an SGI system,” Sanchez says.

When it comes to the future of large facilities — whether for film or HD work — the most candid big company execs will tell you it’s up for grabs.

“I don’t have the answer,” says Emory Cohen, prexy of Burbank-based Laser Pacific. “I do know that if you don’t have your eye on the question, you’re probably going to lose.”

Among many long-form projects, LP currently has nine TV series working in its HD suites, including “Touched by an Angel,” “Judging Amy,” “Work With Me” and “Diagnosis Murder.”

Cohen adds that while the desk-top revolution made, for example, off-line editing obsolete for the big guns, talent, quality and risk considerations will, at least in the medium term, ensure there is a market for his company’s premium-priced services.

“The skill it takes to finish a project is not an equipment issue, it’s a people issue,” he continues. “We still have the resources to be able to attract some of the best and brightest in the industry.”