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Thursday, 27th January 2011

Roger Burgess tries to look between the lines.

In an entertaining illustrated talk on September 29th by Andy Quested, the BBC’s man in charge of delivering their new High Definition service, we learnt something about the challenges he faces in a plethora of rapid technical change.

Interactive, digital, widescreen, subscription, mobile TV W all are completing for viewer loyalty in a world where it is easier than ever to keep informed and in touch.

It was not an easy process, said Andy, and was driven more by manufacturers than by either viewers or even programme-makers. For instance he had few clips to show from current programmes as so far few of them had been made in HD. We were shown some soccer, some wildlife and scenes from the recent QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT W itself a bizarre attempt to reproduce the original sci-fi script from the fifties and doing it puzzlingly ‘live’ in this age of small-camera, location-led drama, simply because the show originally (out of necessity) was.

High Definition is one more step in the technical progress of television which has grown from Baird’s 30-line scanner of 1926, through the 405 lines of 1936, 625 lines in 1967, 1,250 in 1987, up to today’s 1,080 line HD picture which started in 1996. The BBC now aims to have HDTV for all by 2010.

At present programmes are made as co-productions, said Andy, so the co-producers usually pay the bills. In principle the new technology makes everything better; it is faster, better quality and cheaper. But in practice programme producers are charged an extra 20% on their budget so not everybody is as excited as the boffins who work under Andy.

Another drawback for producers is that in HD drama more attention needs to be paid to set design, costume details, makeup and prosthetics, because as display devices get larger and larger, the resolution required becomes more and more critical and detail previously un-noticed stands out a mile.

The Japanese are already experimenting with Ultra High Definition television, using giant 7,680 x 4,320 image cameras like those used for IMAX filming, and recording with a plethora of surround-sound microphones.

When Andy showed on a split screen the same shot, one half in HD and one in standard TV format, the difference was certainly discernible. In HD shots of THE PROMS, for example, the spider’s web of Radio 3 microphones slung from the roof was very noticeable on the HD version, but not seen on the standard.

The best demo shots of the evening were those of lions in a wildlife series called PRIDE which were superb quality, yet were taken by a small HD ‘boulder-cam’ where the remote camera was encased in a plastic ‘boulder’ on a radio controlled trolley which was steered into the pride to take shots previously unobtainable by a cameraman. But the success of these shots was due to the originality of the technique rather than the technical resolution of the images.

By Roger Burgess

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