Michael Hurst Interview

Part 2 - Amazon High & Production Techniques

see also Part One

This is a transcript of a round-table conversation with Michael Hurst (Iolaus, Xena director, et al) organised by Cindy McBain of Hurst News - a UK-based newsletter on Michael's work and career. The full transcript of the conversations will be published in current and future issues of Hurst News; Cindy has kindly allowed me to share the Xena related parts of the conversation with you via the Web. Many thanks to Michael Hurst who so kindly made time out of his busy schedule to see us, and to Cindy for making it all possible. The contributors to this piece were myself (Bevis King), Jo Robins, Jo Rodgers and Cindy McBain - 'cos I can't remember who asked which questions I've marked our contributions in as "Q" for questioners.

Q: Everyone is keen to know what happened to 'Amazon High'

MH: Well, there's two answers to that, there's the short answer and the long answer. The short answer is I don't know, the long answer is more than that in that they pitched it at one studio or syndicated network or whatever, as a kind of a teenage sort of a show, because that's what it is. You won't have seen it because it's not been shown yet. It's basically - young girl goes back to Stone Age times, meets a bunch of women and turns them into Amazons by telling them they don't eat horses, they should ride them, and that gives them the edge over the evil male cannibal tribe. [The young girl was called Cyane - hence Cyane becomes the traditional name for amazon queens.]

Cast of the Amazon High Pilot

It's got a lot of holes in it. Some people felt uneasy about it and there was some confusion and there was even one suggestion that we turn it into a series called "Amazon PD", police department that is, and make the young teenage heroine a 40-year old ex-cop who goes back with a gun. I think it would be a very short series - it's like - here come the baddies BANG! [laughs]

The latest I heard was someone was interested and wanted to see two or three episodes made about an hour long, because this movie-length thing is two hours long, to see how it would go. But the company, understandably, doesn't want to make only two. What they want to say is give us twelve or thirteen and we'll make it. That's the last that I've heard.

I feel the longer these things take to come to fruition the more they get out of sync with what's happening, so at the moment I'm not hopeful really of it turning into anything. I think you'll probably see it in the video stores. And it was tough, we only really had 21 shooting days to shoot a movie-length thing with horses and battle-scenes and sabre-toothed tigers. You know it was really tough, and a lot of it was on location in freezing cold temperatures, far away from anywhere. I believe it is compromised because of that, as a show. Certainly cutting it together was hard work.

[From recent information on the Hercules replacement, Cleopatra 2525, it actually sounds as if this may be a slight reworking of the Amazon High concept. So maybe it isn't completely dead after all...]

Q: We appreciate how busy you are but just a couple of technical questions. When the shows are finally mastered do they do a Dolby surround mix or not?

MH: Oh yes, it's amazing.

Q: They never pay to put the logo on the end so I never quite know.

[Dolby Labs are believed to charge TV shows quite a high fee for including the Double-D Dolby Surround in either the opening or end credits. Neither Hercules or Xena carries this logo...]

MH: I don't know if it's Dolby or not but if you put it on the right speakers, and it's all on widescreen now too. They spent ages on the mix.

[This seems to confirm it's a full multi-channel mix, which means it probably is encoded with either Dolby Surround or Ultra Stereo. Both are compatible with Dolby Surround decoders, and so you should switch your AV amplifier to Dolby Surround mode for Xena and Hercules. But you probably already knew that...]

Q: It certainly sounds good.

MH: The best way to watch it is with the proper equipment. In fact I sat in [on] one mix once and it was all played on this giant screen and it was so big that they kept having to say hang on a second and they'd turn it all off and just watch it on the little screen just to make sure it would still work on the little screen for Joe Public. It's pretty impressive.

Q: They film it in 16:9 widescreen, don't they?

[16:9 or 1.85:1 is the worldwide standard aspect ratio for widescreen TV, regular TV is 4:3 or 1.33:1. Cinema Movies tend to vary between 5:3 (1.66:1) to 21:9 (2.35:1) for really wide widescreen movies.]

MH: Yes they do.

Q: But then what? They transfer it to video at 4:3 and then edit in video?

[Most US TV dramas are shot on film and then transfered to video for the editing process. Many series are actually filmed at 16:9 but the transfer to video is done cropped at 4:3 so that no final edited master exists in the widescreen form. To make widescreen video versions of the programmes, the film would have to be transfered to video again, this time at 16:9 and all of the editing/special effects redone on the new transfer. It is the need (and therefore expense) of doing this that has kept widescreen versions of other TV shows (such as Babylon-5) from happening as yet.]

MH: No we edit in digital form when we edit it. Once it's been transferred it stays digital until it goes back to the final three- quarter inch tape and if you have a television which will cope with widescreen format it will play in widescreen. The last two seasons.

[Basically what Michael is saying here is that for Herc and Xena, the film stock is transfered to the digital video editing system (an AVID non-linear edit suite - Bernie Joyce, E! Inside Hercules and Xena) at 16:9 rather than 4:3 and the video editing is performed in 16:9 rather than 4:3. This means that the editing and effects are all added to the widescreen version. Then the final tape master is made by "printing" from the AVID system onto a studio digital videotape format such as D-1. Since Michael says "three quarter inch" here, that means it's either D-1 or D-2. Robert Field told me DigiBeta but that isn't three quarter inch! I'm guessing since the source is an AVID system, that they'll be using the component D-1 format. Below is shown a picture of a D-1 Video Cassette Recorder (a Sony DVR-2100) - a machine like this costs around US$110,000! - the best VCR on the market!]

[Sony DVR2100]
The Sony DVR-2100 D-1 DVCR

Q: Certainly what's transmitted is cropped into 4:3.

MH: Yeah, it's cut into size.

[This is a feature of the AVID non-linear editor - you can tell it to crop the sides off a widescreen picture and make a 4:3 version when printing to tape.]

Q: But they're not transmitting the extra.

MH: They probably are transmitting the extra. But if you get it on video you'd definitely see it on widescreen if you have a widescreen tv.

[The title slate on recent syndication uplinks has "4x3 texted version" written on it. From what Michael is saying and the slates at the start of the uplink, I'm assuming that there are in fact two D-1 masters made, one cropped to 4:3, the other at the full 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. [Confirmed by Robert Field]. There are no analogue 16:9 uplinks anyone has been able to find in the continental US however. There may be a digital uplink of the 16:9 version for those stations broadcasting in the new digital formats, but somehow I doubt it. Outside the US, I guess it's up to the station to ask for whichever version they'd prefer to broadcast. As far as we can tell the 16:9 widescreen version of Herc and Xena is there for the asking. Maybe we should start lobbying stations to carry the widescreen version! Although standard VHS video can support anamorphic (compressed) widescreen pictures, I've never seen it actually used outside of demo reels for widescreen TVs. The best hope is DVD which can easily support both at once and where the player can actually turn an anamorphic widescreen picture into a letterboxed one. Hasten the DVD releases is all I can say!]

Syndication Slate
A Recent Xena Uplink Slate

Q: The syndication uplink is not widescreen yet.

MH: Probably not because what they're doing is future proofing it for when everybody will be showing it in on widescreen. You'll probably see the Hercules that no one else has seen because some things get framed for widescreen and we are deliberately doing that - putting people on the edge of frames and then when most people see it they won't be seeing what those people are doing. So there's little secrets that will be revealed. They're not majorly important secrets, just little things that enhance shots. That does happen because we have to frame for the widescreen format.

[OK, what do we have to do to get the Widescreen version?]

Q: And the fourth and fifth seasons are both shot like that?

MH: What we are shooting now and the season prior to what we are shooting now.

Q: Is it Hercules that's just shot like that?

MH: No, Xena's shot like that too.

Q: Is Xena still shot in 16mm [film]?

MH: No, no, they went to 35mm after their first season I think. Because they weren't quite sure how it was going to go and then it became so popular. It's much easier to shoot it all, in many ways although it's more expensive, it's easier to shoot it all in one format because everything gets processed in the same way.

[According to Bob Weisbrot's book they were still shooting Xena in 16mm during the second season. Certainly the screen shots shown on E! Inside Hercules and Xena were still of 4:3 productions. If you look closely at the ET segments filmed during the making of " The Bitter Suite" and "A Tale of Two Muses", you will see that the "confidence" video monitors are marked up with both 16:9 widescreen and 4:3 safe area boxes. These would seem to confirm that both season three and four of Xena were shot 16:9. Robert Field later told me that they only started editing in 16:9 at the start of the fourth season, so the third season does not currently exist in 16:9 although theoretically the third season film stock could be re-telecined (converted into video) at 16:9 and then re-edited. Robert's view was that this option was too expensive to be done "after the event" for a home video release.]

Q: Particularly with the ratings I'm sure they're not to worried about the cost.

MH: No, they're not worried about it.

Q: Do you know if the videos are going to come out?

MH: I know that the movies are out on video but I don't know if they are going to release them on video or not. At the moment they are still selling so well around the world, it's in a helluva lot of countries. Actually, it's quite interesting watching them on widescreen sometimes to get the framing for both formats the widescreen is compromised because you're just left with a bit of edge and unless you can fill that edge it's not brilliant. If you were just doing it for widescreen you'd actually put the people further apart and get really good shots.

[Well there you have it! Lets start a campaign for Widescreen Xena! It basically sounds like all the episodes from The Dirty Half Dozen onwards exist in widescreen. I for one would simply love to see episodes like The Debt, the India arc and Adventures In The Sin Trade in widescreen. The Great Wall of China scene from The Debt and the Amazon land of the dead from Adventures In The Sin Trade would just have so much more impact in widescreen. (Remember that The Furies and Been There, Done That were originally filmed as the 23rd and 24th episodes of the second season and not as part of the third season - those were probably still 16mm/4:3 shows.)]

Once again my most sincere thanks to Michael Hurst for talking with us and allowing me to ask him all these questions and to Cindy McBain for making this interview possible.

The author pictured with Michael Hurst

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Bevis King <B.King@ee.surrey.ac.uk>
20th August 1999 - Updated Commentary: 6th August 2001