Many of us grew up in the business dealing with a single video format. First two-inch, then one-inch, Beta-SP and finally Digital Betacam. As we look ahead to the quagmire that is High Definition, many pine for the days of one common format. Like the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, that concept is largely a fantasy. Truthfully such a world hasn’t existed for a long time and certainly will never exist again. In each of those periods, there were many offshoots and competing formats. For instance – Type B and Type C one-inch. Panasonic’s Recam (later M-format) challenged Betacam and all along there was Umatic. Even though Betacam-SP has been dominant for years, you’ve still got SX and IMX. Digital Betacam has been competing with JVC’s D-9 (Digital-S) and Panasonic’s D-5. The largest single agreed-upon video format has to be DV, with every major Japanese electronics manufacturer on board, yet even there you still have DVCPro (in at least four varieties) and DVCAM, as well as the up-and-coming HDV hi-def variation.
If you think this is strictly a video problem, just take a look at one of those posters showing all the film formats released since the beginning of motion picture film at the start of the last century. So, I have to laugh when I hear people say, “Well, HD’s not quite ironed out yet – there isn’t a single format – so we’ll wait.” Get real! What planet are these folks on?! High definition video has standardized, sanctioned production and broadcast specs and equipment is being manufactured that conforms to these specs. How much more ironed out does it need to be? Is it a single format? No. Does it need to be? No.
The truth of the matter is that editing and graphics workstations, electronic distribution methods and display systems can all deal with the mixture of formats, frame rates and resolutions thrown at them. Except for the physical items, like cameras and videotape recorders, it really doesn’t matter what the format is. Newer software and hardware is set up to deal with the necessary adjustments. This leaves you free to rent or purchase the system that is right for your business needs. For example, if most of your business is still standard definition with a penchant for the “film look”, but you occasionally need to do some high-def work, then the easy answer is to own a Panasonic DVX-100A or SDX-900, the appropriate deck and a high-def capable editing system. When needed, rent a VariCam and an HD deck for the occasional HD job. On the other hand, if you are ready to plunge into independent films with digital cinematography tools, then maybe your best bet is to go full out and get an entire arsenal of Sony CineAlta gear.
The people with the toughest time are the remaining facilities, who try to cater to any and all clients and their needs. It is usually the facilities who have made the investment into the more expensive items, like high-end VTRs and telecines. Often the choices you as a producer will make, may be based on the options available to you at the local facilities. If you live in a “Sony” town, then it might be best to got that route, unless you’ve made appropriate deals with out-of-town facilities. Remember that these are only tools. Your clients will most likely not care which format you used – only that the quality of the image is there, they can see that their project was handled in the right way and that the “money is on the screen”.
If you are largely a self-contained operation, then you can ignore the “format of the month” and go with whatever makes sense for you and your clients. Maybe this is Sony or Panasonic or JVC’s HDV – or maybe it’s to wait and stay in the standard definition world for a while. On the other hand, if you get a lot of different folks through the door and need to accommodate them all, then you will need to adopt a strategy for doing this and still make money. That may be to purchase everything – or – to keep the arsenal to a minimum and augment with rentals for those lesser-used items. Granted this might be a pass-through cost, but even if there is no immediate profit for you on that one job, you keep the client happy. That builds client loyalty.
One thing is for sure. The days of a single dominant format or even video standard are long gone and will never return.
© 2004 Oliver Peters