Technology: Old-fashioned film rescues TV of the future

2019-02-28 05:12:04

By BARRY FOX The TV industry is in a quandary. Since Europe has abandoned its plans for analogue high-definition TV, no one knows what digital HDTV standard will be adopted. So what is the best way to record programmes so that later they can be converted into digital HDTV once the standard is decided? The industry has opted for good old-fashioned film, but using a new system which gives widescreen images with a quality close to that of HDTV from cheap 16mm film stock. In the 1950s, the TV programme I Love Lucy pioneered the use of 35mm film in TV production but this cinema-quality film is very expensive and cannot be reused. After the invention of reusable videotape by Ampex in 1956, TV companies abandoned 35mm film for all but the highest budget Hollywood productions. In Europe, TV companies sometimes still use 16mm film, which is less than half the price of 35mm film. But standard 16mm film cannot record the widescreen, high-quality pictures, which TV stations will need in the future. The TV industry is now using Super 16, which was first proposed 20 years ago, by Rune Ericcson, a Swedish documentary film-maker. It did not catch on at the time because the picture quality is not good enough for feature films which are projected on large cinema screens. The negative film used in a standard 16mm camera has sprocket holes down each side of the film. This limits the shape of the frames to a width to height ratio of 4:3, the same as that used in TV. Film prints used for projection have sprocket holes down one side only, with a soundtrack down the other side. Films for TV do not use a soundtrack down the edge, the sound is recorded separately. So TV producers can use the space to enlarge the frame size. In Super 16, the image extends right to the edge of the film on one side, widening the picture by 20 per cent to an aspect ratio of 15:9. This is almost the same as that for widescreen TV, 16:9. Widening the image also increases the total picture area by 46 per cent, which gives clearer pictures when the image is blown up to the larger screen sizes planned for HDTV. Programmes shot on Super 16 can be transmitted now, with the edges of the image cropped off to match today’s 4:3 format. In the future they will be broadcast at full width for widescreen and HDTV. All the major manufacturers of film cameras, Aaton, Arriflex and Panavision, now make Super 16 cameras. Rank-Cintel, BTS and Kodak make telecine machines which will convert film images to video. Kodak also sells a range of Super 16 film, and in the past two years Super 16 has increased from 20 per cent to 40 per cent of its sales of 16mm film. Some programmes already being shown were filmed on Super 16. Doctor Finlay, Prime Suspect 2, A Year in Provence, Only Fools and Horses and Anglia Television’s nature series Survival, are in the new format. Because, like the 40-year-old I Love Lucy, these programmes are recorded in a format that is immune to changes in transmission standard,