The HD Race to Mars

Discovery Channel Canada is embarking on its most ambitious project to date with Race to Mars, which will present all the excitement of a manned voyage to the Red Planet in high-definition. The $12-million endeavor, with about one-third of the budget coming from Discovery, encompasses three parts: a four-hour docudrama, a six-hour reality series and a six-hour doc series.

Discovery held a competitive round of pitching with 27 international production teams to determine who would make Race to Mars, with Montreal’s Galafilm Productions coming out on top, along with partners Mentorn from the U.K. and Toronto’s Snap Media, which will spearhead a companion website with exclusive material.

The project helps satisfy the CTV specialty channel’s need for HD content. Discovery and CTV-owned TSN became the first Canadian specialties to broadcast in HD last August for Bell ExpressVu HD subscribers. Discovery’s programming lineup is identical in both HD and standard-definition formats.

‘We want to be not just broadcasting HD, but very much involved in leading the way on the production side,’ says Paul Lewis, president of Discovery Channel Canada and executive in charge of production on Race to Mars. ‘We obviously need the content, and coming up with fresh and interesting ideas – that’s going to get attention.’

According to Arnie Gelbart, president of Galafilm and executive producer on Race to Mars, shooting digitally in HD is beneficial for several reasons, including the ease with which footage can be manipulated for different looks.

‘There’ll be [shots that are supposed to be] transmissions from satellites,’ he says, referring to the docudrama. ‘We’ll degrade some of it like it’s coming direct from Mars or the spaceship.’

The Race to Mars docudrama, a fiction grounded in scientific fact, will track an international effort to land on our planetary neighbor, while reality series The Right Stuff will put a group of astronaut wannabes through their paces in a mock training camp for a Mars trip. Mission Control, the doc series, will look at the different scientific issues at play in such an expedition. (All titles are tentative.)

The project received a serendipitous boost by U.S. President George Bush’s recent announcement that a Mars walk will happen within 30 years, on the heels of the robotic Spirit probe. The various Race to Mars programs, which go into production in the middle of this year, are slated to air over a four-month period in 2005/06.

Much of the budget saved by not shooting on film will be put into FX. Gelbart says that the project’s many FX sequences, including numerous shots of outer space and men walking on Mars, also make it well suited to HD. Producing HD-resolution FX involves only a fraction of the rendering time of doing them at film res, but the quality is significantly better than doing them at SD.

The production has not committed to a particular HD camera, but Gelbart expresses interest in the Viper FilmStream Camera from French manufacturer Thomson Broadcast Solutions. The high-end camera is touted as offering film-like imagery that remains pristine through post-production, as no information is lost through video pre-processing and filtering. Thomson announced the Viper at the National Association of Broadcasters trade show in 2002, and NAB2004 may yield further innovations on the HD front.

According to Lewis, Race to Mars is generating interest from international broadcasters, in part due to its HD format. That list includes Discovery branches in the U.S. – which offers the all-HD Discovery HD Theater – and around the world.

‘Not so much in Europe, but certainly in the U.S. [the project's HD format] is an important factor,’ he says.

One reason HD is attractive to broadcasters is that digital origination allows for easy transfer to the various international broadcast standards. Plus, Lewis points out, new HD networks continue to pop up around the world, such as with a second HD net from NHK in Japan. And although Europe might not yet be up to speed, it does reportedly have a high demand for SD widescreen material, which HD accommodates with its 16:9 aspect ratio.

‘That’s why [Galafilm has] been doing widescreen for the last three years, and from now on in, we will be shooting all our documentaries in HD,’ Gelbart says. ‘It [isn't] going to go back to what it was – it’s only going in one direction.’

The North American Broadcasters Association, which represents the interests of several North American broadcasters on the global stage, recently told Playback that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s push for broadcasters to switch over to digital television – of which HD is the popular high end – will not be realized by the projected date of 2006. NABA now expects U.S. and Canadian ‘casters will be totally digital by 2010 to 2012. But shooting in HD will ensure future-proofing in the evolving broadcast landscape.

Lewis cautions that regardless of when the industry and consumers are totally on board with HD, we are beyond the point where the format alone is enough to impress viewers.

‘We need something that’s going to generate interest above and beyond the fact that it’s just beautiful picture and sound,’ he says.

Discovery is soon to announce the creative teams on the Race to Mars programs. (Discovery Channel Canada)

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