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Porn in HD, or Why When Porn Sucks the Media Sucks on it Harder.

“Omagawd! Now we’re going to see that pornstars have pimples and razor burn!”

Apparently that’s news enough for the New York Times to run yet another late to the party, misinformed and disinforming story about porn. Again I’m left wondering just what sort of porn the article’s author has been watching that the fact that you can see razor burns, pimples and celulite is news. Again I’m left with the suspicion that this in more of the mainstream media freebasing porn with precious little interest in the real story, or even the basic facts.

Let’s back up.

That HD is a bitch is not news. With the strong backing of the Japanese electronic giants, HD came roaring in the film and television industry about a half dozen years ago promising “almost as much resolution as film” but without the cost associated with shooting photo-chemical emulsion. But along with the convenience of a magnetic cassette form-factor, HD came with a host of production gremlins that started vexing people from the start.

Skin
Yes, HD video is higher resolution than SD video, but it’s still video. And guess what? Video doesn’t render skin very well. That’s why professional programs that are produced on video come in three basic varieties: a) the heavily made up, low-contrast world of the telesion studio (think nightly news, soap opera, or Cher infomercial, or b) the world as it happens of ENG (that’s electronic news gathering,) and, c) sports.

The harshness of HD doesn’t really matter in ENG and sports (except when they show the sportscasters). Sports and ENG are the world as it happens. If HD renders Quarterback’s or insurgent’s furrowed, wrinkled, sweaty, bleeding brow in ultra detail it just looks like more, not worse. And while HD cameras are on the heavy and expensive side to bring into a war zone (not that it doesn’t happen) HD is great for sports, and that’s where HD has had the biggest successes so far.

HD in the televison studio is another matter. Right off the bat, everyone from set designers to make-up artists were distressesd by the way HD rendered their world. But where set designers could do easy things like start using real wood and real metal instead of plastic veneers and tin-foil, make-up artist were stuck with the same flesh and blood upon which to practice their craft, there in lies the problem.

The problem is that video, whether it’s SD or HD, hates flesh and blood. If you want to make someone look terrible, there’s no better way to do it then to level a video camera at them. Where film is warm and lustrous, and takes pleasure in rendering the details that make each of us individuals, video hates skin, video hates people.

In fact, when you shoot people on video, you don’t actually shoot them at all, you cover them up with powders and lotions and pastes. With video, you don’t shoot people, you shoot their make up.

(It takes my make-up artist about easy 5 minutes to get our subjects ready for the parts of our films that are actually shot-on-film (the sex), while it takes her 30 laborious, very detail-oriented minutes to get the ready for the shot-on-vidio interview portion of our film. And while she leaves the set while we shoot the rough and tumble, sweaty, make-up smearing sex, she sits right on my shoulder during the interviews, dashing in and touching things up throughout. That’s why, despite the fact that 35mm film has vastly more resolution that HD video, there’s was never a zit and wrinkle crisis on the set of Fraiser and other shot-on-film productions.)

This fact that video (both HD and SD) sees the make-up, not the person has given rise to entirely new techniques. Brushes and puffs are too course for the all seeing eye of HD, so where photographs used to be airbrushed, now it’s the make-up is applied with an airbrush. The cost, both in time and money, for the ultra-high-end make-up you need just to make things look credible is one of the reasons I tell ultra-low-budget filmmakers they’re better of shooting film.

But it’s not the only problem with shooting HD, and maybe not the worst.

Back Focus
Michael Mann is one of the Hollywood directors who has been experimenting with HD. COLLATERAL was a hybrid production, shot on a mix of HD and film, and MIAMI VICE was shot entirely on HD. But if you know how to read between the lines, you can see how much cinematographer Dion Beebe struggled with shooting in HD.

When you combine the intense heat generated by CCD in HD camera with the ultra-critical back-focus tolerances that are part and parcel of shooting with a camera with a small focal plane, and the low-resolution view-finder, it’s hard to actually know if your keeping your image in focus, and critical viewers will notice that about half of MIAMI VICE is slightly out of focus.

Depth of Field
But even if you get the make-up right, and even you get critical focus on all your footage, the same short focal length lenses that have such critical back-focus, have nearly unlimited depth of field. Why does this matter? Because cinematography is (among other things) an excercise in controlled depth of field. Any DP’s kit includes a complete set of neutral density filters so that even the longer lenses used in 35mm cinematography can be set to wider f-stops to get the (usually) more pleasing effect of shallow depth of field. But the HD lenses used on normal and especially wider angle of view shots are so very short that even wide open they have nearly infinite depth of field

What this means is that instead of the background being pleasingly soft behind the subject, everything is razor sharp (if you haven’t lost back focus!) What that means for Michael Mann’s production is that incongruous elements in the background that could be ignored now half to be art-directed and designed.

(“Deep Focus” was a fast lens/fast stock fad cinematography style in Hollywood in the film-noir era, and in interviews Beebe did a good job of playing up how much he enjoyed working with Deep Focus, but scuttlebutt from the set says otherwise. It’s more time, it’s more money, it’s more hassle, and it still doesn’t look as good as shooting on film.)

So if all these HD headaches aren’t new, why is it suddenly news in the world of porn? Why is the Times writing about it now? The answer comes in the form of a camera that you can buy at any electronics store for $3,500.

HDV isn’t HD
For the last several years some very few porn higher-end productions have been shot on HD, and they’ve struggled with the same HD gremlins as the rest of the film and television industry. But the $1000/day it costs to rent an HD camera package was out of reach of 99% of porn productions. 99% of porn is shot on a $2,500 DV camera, like a Sony PD150 or similar. With no bargain basement imaging tool to ply their trade, the vast majority of pornographers were stuck in SD land while the rest of the film and television world marched steadily toward HD.

But in 2006 something happened that saved their asses.

In early 2006 Sony released the Z1, the HDV successor to the Sony VX1000, the $3,500 DV camera that launched a thousand extra shabby, shot-on-video porn productions. Like the VX1000, the Z1 is a $3,500 hobbyist camera dressed up to look a little like its professional siblings that cost five or ten or 20 times more, and it’s marketed to people who want to have the latest and in consumer electronics, and a veneer of professional features, but aren’t really in the market for a professional camera. (In the bizz the category is known as “prosumer”.)

The porn industry couldn’t wait to get their hands on the Z1. Porn directors snapped up the Z1 and overnight “shot on HD” started appearing on boxcovers. (The ‘adult industry’ has never been shy about putting misleading or false information on their boxcovers.)

The problem is that the Z1 and other HDV handicams suffer from most of the same limitations at the VX1000 and it’s decendents (PD150, DV100, etc). They have the same tiny focal plane with the attendant back-focus and depth of field problems, because it’s video, it sees make-up not skin, etc. By and larger, footage produced on the Z1 is indistinguishable from footage produced on similar SD video cameras like the PD170 or DVX100. Because the cameras used are virtually the same, and the people using the cameras are the same, these HDV-shot porn films are practically indistinguishable from their DV-shot counterparts.

Except when they’re worse.

HDV is not HD. In fact, it’s no wherenear HD. Because the HDV codec only has as much bandwidth (25 mbps) as the DV codec to try and fill the HD pixel matrix, HDV is compressed six times as much as DV. Like the DV codec, the HDV codec has massive spacial compression, but in addition it also has massive (and not very effective) temporal MPEG compression, that has to be done in real time, in the camera. The only way to achieve cheap, real time MPEG compression in handicam is to sacrifice quality.

Compounding the HDV codec’s low-quality compression, the Z1 uses a “witch’s brew” of field doubling and interlacing to achieve 24fps footage. (The same frame rate as film and real HD cinematogphy.)

What this means is that high motion footage (like people having vigorous sex) will often have more (highly visible) compression artifacting than equivalent DV footage. It’s bad when HDV acquired footage is shown in SD, and even worse when HDV acquired footage is shown in HD-DVD or BlueRay, which you can expect to start happening soon.

No one outside of porn (except apparently the NYT) regards HDV as HD. No one outside the porn industry confuses HDV with HD. And just as cheap DV handicams have overwhelmingly been the tool of the porn trade, cheap HDV handicams will weapon of choice as the porn world moves from DVD to HD-DVD and/or Blueray.

But you won’t read that in the Times article. The prospect of titillating their readers with “serious reporting” on razor burn on pornstars’ pussies and pimples on pornstars asses is too much for even the Old Grey Lady to resist. Even my buddy Andrew Sullivan couldn’t resist.

Now, thanks to the Old Grey Lady’s porn habit, 99% of the public thinks that porn is on the very cutting edge of imaging technology, while the fact is that 99% of “HD” porn is shot on a hobbyest HDV camera – a camera that is more or less the same as the one your uncle pulls out and embarrasses you with at any and all family functions. (The exact same if your uncle is one those people who has to have the latest and greatest consumer electronics gadgets.)

Who wins? Well the Times wins. Their porn articles are well-read, and that’s more ad dollars. The “adult industry” wins; thanks to the Times it’s now on the record that porn is on the cutting edge yet again. And the consumer electronics companies win. Go Get Your HDTV Now!

Who loses? Well maybe nobody, or at least nobody who matters.

There’s no saying for sure how fast player prices are going to come down, but if I had to guess, I’d say our films will be available on Blueray and/or HD-DVD by next year. Next to shot on these HDV or even HD productions, our shot-on-film/mastered in (real) HD films are going to look better than ever!

Maybe the only person who loses is the viewer who goes out and gets a 42 inch plasma screen and HD-DVD player, loads up the latest HD(V) porn production, and then wonders why porn looks worse than ever.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted January 24, 2007 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand why we can’t shoot porn on 8mm, or double 8mm. I was given a camera by my university as, a kind of ‘gold-watch’ joke for having been there for 6yrs, and it was a Panasonic Super-VHS (one of the big ones with full VHS tapes in the loader), but I thought about a script that I wanted to shoot on VHS, “Penetration of the Giant Mutant Sperm Fish” and the feel and content of the film would really work using this 1980′s format because that is when all those ‘nudie college’ flicks were made.

    I still think there is alots of room for ‘concept porn’ (I’m using that word for ease of covering all Smokers. The one thing with HD is that once it is transferred it loses much of its colour range, that’s what we discovered anyway.

    Rups

  2. tony
    Posted January 25, 2007 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    To get HD video to really look any different from SD video, it requires as much care and attention to detail, in both production and post production, as film.

    If your only cost is stock through the camera, then yes, HD is cheaper than film. But stock through the camera is hardly the only expense in making a movie, is it?

    Where the techology stands today, it is often easier and less expensive to get a more beautiful result shooting by shooting film.

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  1. [...] of other media outlets waited with bated breath for the adult industry to throw its weight into the HD-DVD v Blueray format war. (BTW, Sony’s put a very high hurdle on Blueray that very few porn companies will ever be able [...]

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