An HD Video Revolution

Sam Williams
Staying one step ahead of the pornographic curve isn't for wimps. Just ask Justin Fawcett.

A cameraman whose credits include "Introducing Gigi" for Cherry Boxxx Pictures and "Hot and Nasty New Cummers" for Baby Doll Pictures, Fawcett is a recent convert to high-definition video and says he loves the "look" and tighter focus control that comes with the enhanced format. Still, the $5,000 price tag for his Canon XL2 and the soreness in his shoulder are both reminders not to expect a quick return on investment.

"Working with a [Canon] GL2, I could shoot all week," Fawcett said of his old, lightweight $2,000 camcorder. "With an XL2, I can only work two or three days in a row."

Shoulder pain aside, Fawcett is one of a growing number of industry participants choosing to endure a little financial and physical sacrifice now rather than lost business later. While the first hi-def players won't hit the market until Christmas and with Sony and Toshiba having recently broken off talks, production houses are all but guaranteed a marketplace with two rival DVD formats - the Toshiba-backed HD-DVD and the Sony-backed Blu-Ray - this time next year.

Then again, with industry companies like Wicked Pictures, Vivid Entertainment and Digital Playground already filming in hi-def and reaching the porn-buying public via the Internet and cable, the future is looking abundantly clear: Hi-def already has moved from the cutting edge to the mainstream.

"If you're going to shoot beautiful women, hi-def just works," said Rick Davis, a director for Cherry Boxx Pictures who made the move last year after noting the quality of rival companies' output. "We looked at the material and decided now was the time."

Like Fawcett, Davis admits the decision to lead rather than follow the marketplace has been a costly one. Hi-def's cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio - the ratio of picture width to picture height - means more lighting to fill in the edges of the set, and the format's defining high-pixel count means a little lighting goes a long way.

Davis said he now brings in kino-flow lights and employs additional lighting techs to keep productions on pace. Even then, the standard "vanilla porn" project - one couple, six scenes, limited storyline - takes twice as long as it once did.

"You're looking at a two-day production to shoot five scenes," he says. "A lot of companies shoot five scenes in a day."

In a business that prizes timely product over perfection, such delays translate directly to the bottom line. Still, at least companies on the production side have the opportunity to adapt.

Robert Brickman, vice president of Dimension DVD, a Chatsworth, Calif.-based authoring company, said his company likes to be on top of the latest technology as soon as it becomes available. With no consumer- grade HD-DVD player in the marketplace until the end of 2005, however, it's largely a wait-and-see issue.

"I'm not sure exactly what we're going to have to buy," Brickman said. "It'll probably just be software. If, on the other hand it turns out to be hardware, we're already poised to have a plug-and-play system for HD."

"Plug and play," in Brickman's case, means expanding the number of digital encoders used to help the company lay in the main menu, titles and chapters. Currently, the company employs six encoders. Each runs roughly 16 hours a day and processes roughly 33 titles a month with an average run of 4,000-6,000 pieces per title.

Cloning a current encoder with off-the-shelf memory and other components costs between $10,000-$20,000. Should the new format demand a totally new type of hardware, however, Brickman says new encoder costs could run as high as $50,000. It's price he is willing to pay if his existing equipment fails to meet the four-to-five-day turnaround time most adult customers have come to expect.

Waiting For A Standard
"Once we find out exactly what the standard is and the variables that are involved, we'll be on top of it," Brickman said. "I can't foresee myself allowing my customers' needs to go unanswered."

Such patience is less easy to pull off after you've already made the purchase decision and are struggling to make it work, noted Nic Andrews, a director who just wrapped "Dark Angels 2: The Bloodline," a hi-def sequel to his 2000 vampire-themed hit "Dark Angels."

Andrews said he rented his first hi-def video camera back when most adult companies still saw the format as a marketing gimmick. As a fitting prelude to the current HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray standards battle, Andrews quickly stumbled into a fog bank of rival technologies and conflicting agendas.

"When the HD format first started surfacing, no one, and I mean no one, had solid answers on what it was, how to make it, edit it, or anything," he said. "If you were to shoot with [1920 by] 1080i HD format, there were only a couple of editing systems that were available to edit the footage. If you shot [1280 by] 720P format, there were only a couple of editing or delivery systems for that. No editing system or final delivery format would support both."

Andrews ultimately opted for the latter format, even though it limited the number of editing and delivery options. Looking back, he sees a similarity to the early days of DVD, a period that saw a similar jockeying of rival standards that studios and manufacturers used to lock in a guaranteed audience.

Eventually, the rival standards merged, with the new standard offering backward compatibility for older disks. As the market quickly grew, manufacturers who had once charged "an arm and a leg" to cover their own transition costs had no choice but to drop their prices or get undercut in the race for market share.

Hustler video director Quinn Roberts said the adult industry would benefit most from a single standard. "It isn't cost effective for companies to release in both formats," he said. At the same time, Roberts sees a chance for sharp, focused companies to make money off a divided marketplace.

"With competing standards, most consumers will take a wait-and-see approach," he said. This, in turn, would give niche productions a chance to develop loyal audiences.

"Some studios may even profit from catering to the less popular format," Roberts said.

An example of a niche-based business owner interested in testing these uncertain waters is Sin Francisco, a Bay Area specialist in latex and bondage fetish and gay porn. For the moment, the company eschews digital video in favor of older formats such as digital beta and beta SP. Olivia S., Sin Francisco's media production specialist, said a number of factors keep her company from embracing hi-def video. For one thing, buyers will accept the standard definition format. Secondly, as the more mainstream production companies move to hi-def video, the cost of hiring a cameraman and Betacam package will decline considerably.

"Nine months ago, we were paying $375 per eight-hour day with a basic setup," she said, quoting digital beta rates. "Now we're paying $250."

Olivia expects her company to migrate to hi-def digital when the final delivery format uncertainties have diminished and the cost of entry has declined. Once there, she said, the company will continue to keep its technology usage in line with audience size.

"When you're working with niche material, you really have to go back to the lowest common denominator," she said. "It's kind of like seven years ago dealing with online porn. You had to pick a compression format and bandwidth rate that accommodated your slowest customers. For a long time, that meant a 150 Mhz Pentium 2 with a 56K modem."

For early adopters like Fawcett, on the other hand, embracing hi-def is a career investment, a way to distinguish oneself from the camcorder-toting novices in the crowded Los Angeles marketplace.

Cinematic Touches
Fawcett notes the return of cinematic touches such as fine focus and shallow depth of field. Where previous digital video cameras took advantage of internal software to keep everything in focus, now camera operators have the ability to separate foreground and background, enhancing composition in the process.

"The people who criticize porn will have less to complain about," Fawcett said. "With an up and under shot, for example, you won't have the distracting situation where the girl's face and the penetration both have the same focus."

Such touches seem trivial, but in a competitive entertainment market, they are a vital key to developing a unique style. Fawcett points to single lens reflection cameras, in which the lens points to a mirror that looks to the outside world, as another potential investment. By shooting down off a mirror, the camera adds a few extra inches to the resulting depth of field, opening the way for even better shots.

"You just have to bear down and eat the costs," Fawcett said, noting how the financial burden for such innovation is rarely distributed. "Everybody wants things to look like film, but nobody wants to pay for it."

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