The interpreters

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The road to high-definition broadcast is rarely smooth, and one of the biggest potholes post experts encounter is what to do about international masters. "You've got different frame rates, raster size, uncompressed and compressed digital workflows, many more audio formats and channels," says Joe Beirne, executive vp technology at PostWorks, New York. "It does make it extremely challenging."

Adds Lightning Media Hollywood facility manager Bruce Friedman: "HD has added a lot of new technology and details that everyone has to learn in terms of handling and processing material. Because there are so many people shooting on so many HD formats and mini-HD formats, depending on how it's edited and the quality of the product, it can cause hiccups in the converters just because of the nature of the footage."

In simpler, standard-def times, Snell & Wilcox's Alchemist was the benchmark for rock-solid conversions from U.S. video standard NTSC (National Television System Committee) to Europe's PAL (Phase Alternating Line). "If you got a deliverable spec, it would specify that you must use an Alchemist," Beirne says.

Snell & Wilcox has shown a preproduction version of an HD Alchemist, which reportedly has been used on some live sports broadcasts. At NAB2007, Snell & Wilcox introducted the Alchemist Ph.C-IP file-based standards conversion software, a dramatically improved approach to international program exchange between PAL and NTSC, but TV post houses are still waiting to be able to plunk down the money for their ideal HD version.

In the meantime, they have to negotiate different resolutions and frame rates, as well as a dizzying array of widescreen formats -- the familiar 16:9 along with Europe's 14:9 and the old-school 4:3. "You need to protect for 16:9, think about 14:9 and also about the center extract for 4:3," Beirne says. "And you have title safety issues that correspond to all three of those aspect ratios. It makes it very complicated in specifying what the delivery is."

International broadcasters also insist on impeccable quality, so they can make the most of HD broadcasting. "The territories are becoming more stringent," Friedman says. "Australia, Germany and France are really scrutinizing the material. It's crucial that it's done to the highest spec, and the technicians running the converters have to really be on their toes."

Level 3 Post managing director Darrell Anderson says his company tries to anticipate questions by doing a rigorous quality control. "We do it with an eye toward what the international customers look for, so that when we get to the end of the road, we have nothing that would be questionable," he says. "We will be able to tell them that the motion blur is a creative intent rather than a technical mistake."

But HD standards are still evolving, and, for the foreseeable future, TV post houses will continue the laborious trek to the top of the learning curve for international deliveries. "We're hearing that the BBC and several other European broadcasters are considering a strong push to 50p (frame rate) HD," Beirne says. "We've finally gotten ourselves ready for doing end-to-end 24p workflows, and here comes a future demand for 50p."
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