Ready for Their Close-Up?

Sheila McKenna of Kett Cosmetics airbrushes makeup onto a model at the VH1 Vogue Fashion Awards. Kett's makeup is designed for HDTV.
Sheila McKenna of Kett Cosmetics airbrushes makeup onto a model at the VH1 Vogue Fashion Awards. Kett's makeup is designed for HDTV. (Kett Cosmetics)

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By Steven Levingston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

Meteorologist Howard Bernstein was pointing out the range in temperatures around D.C. recently during the midday weather report on WUSA (Channel 9), the only area station that broadcasts local news in high definition.

"Look at these readings," he said, standing in front of a map, during a recent show. "It's 43 in town, 54 in Fredericksburg, and over toward the Shenandoah area 73 degrees right now."

High-definition viewers watching on their wide-screen TVs had no trouble seeing Shenandoah off to the west. But those watching on an old-format television, still the majority, saw only part of the locale on the map. For them, the temperature was 73 degrees in "doah."

Since making the HD switch last year, the WUSA news team has mostly worked out the kinks. The broadcast is shot for the rectangular screen, but producers take care to frame the picture for the narrower dimensions of the standard television. Still, surprises sometimes creep in.

"We're living in both worlds right now," said Randal Stanley, news director of WUSA 9 News.

With its disarmingly clear picture, high-definition television is showing up in a growing number of U.S. homes. Falling prices and wider consumer awareness made 2005 a banner year for HDTV sales. Now, as programming expands to meet demand, networks, stars and production companies are encountering an array of challenges from the new technology. The transition to HDTV -- considered by some as momentous as the move from black and white to color -- is requiring new attention to sets, lighting, makeup, camera angles and the syncing of sound and pictures.

From the earliest days of HD, broadcasters have worried that the sharpness of the picture would magnify acne, wrinkles and subtle production defects. Sets could no longer be made of cheap materials and tape slathered with paint. So, too, celebrities would have to take extra care over their appearance.

Phillip Swann of Arlington was watching the Academy Awards in high definition this year when nominee Keira Knightley, the 20-year-old star of "Pride & Prejudice," appeared on the red carpet. The camera moved in tight. Swann, an expert in HDTV, could see her exposed shoulder in a gown by Vera Wang and her necklace by Bulgari. He could see something else, too.

"She was covered in pimples on her forehead," Swann said.

He then studied the scene on a standard-definition television, and Knightley's pimples were gone. "Only in high definition can you see it," said Swann, president and publisher of TVPredictions.com, which tracks TV technology. "HDTV is the ultimate reality television."

He believes high definition has lifted the veil on the glamour industry. Among the handsome leading men who suffer in HD, Swann said, is Brad Pitt.

"He's a really good example of somebody the Hollywood glamour machine decided would be a sex symbol," Swann said. "But when you see him in high definition, you see all these pockmarks in his cheeks and he looks like an entirely different person -- and you go, 'Wow, is that Brad Pitt?' "


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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