Farming Favourite Goes Hi-Def

Frank Torley (right) on the road with Barrington West (left) and Hammond Peek

TVNZ’s ratings warhorse, Country Calendar, tonight celebrates 45 years on air with its first HD transmission (TV One, 7.00).

The 46th season aptly opens with new credits, a new sponsor (Hyundai), and a profile of its veteran producer, Frank Torley, who’s been behind the scenes for 35 years.

He and fellow producer Julian O’Brien have been itching to shoot Country Calendar in HD for the last three years but have had to wait for TVNZ’s transmission facilities to catch up.

Part of Country Calendar’s legacy has been its enthusiasm for technology other than #8 wire.

“We were one of the first programmes to go colour, one of the first programmes to go stereo, and one of the first programmes to go widescreen,” Torley says.

Indeed, O’Brien won a Qantas Award for directing the first widescreen episode, which exploited the vistas of Central Otago – even if it screened in a peculiar 15:9 ratio that would persist until TV One went widescreen seven years later.

“It was a big deal persuading TVNZ to let us go HD,” O’Brien says. “It took three years.”

As frustrating as the wait for HD’s been, he doesn’t believe it will be as big a leap forward for the show as the transition to colour.

But he felt it was crucial the ratings perennial looked as sharp on-screen as the foreign content that airs in HD.

“We didn’t want to fall behind the standards of top-rating US shows.”

But it wasn’t only TVNZ’s protracted digital infrastructural overhaul that delayed Country Calendar’s HD bow – funding was just as big an issue.

It costs more to shoot in HD but O’Brien knew he’d have to do it on an SD budget.

He says the biggest issue was upgrading cameras and lenses, a cost largely borne by the five cameramen whose work on Country Calendar, as contractors, has been as outstanding as it’s been longstanding: Peter Young (Christchurch), Steve Fisher (Hamilton), Richard Williams (Hawke’s Bay), Jeff Aldridge (Queenstown) and Barrington West (Wellington).

Julian O'Brien

“I would have preferred to have stayed SD, with the existing cameramen, than go HD and say goodbye to them and have new cameramen,” O’Brien says.

In the end he was able to pay them “slightly more”, to help compensate their investing in HD gear, without increasing the budget.

How? By changing the programme’s research methods without laying off researchers or compromising content.

“The research is probably higher as a result of the change,” he argues.

O’Brien says the five programmes filmed so far look “fantastic” in HD but maintains content is paramount over tech.

“Although the visual component to a story is critical, even more important are the people and the stories they have to tell. HD has not changed how we approach stories.”

He’s also delighted going HD coincided with landing a new sponsor.

“Hyundai coming on board meant we could make new credits in HD rather than up-res the existing credits.

“They’re the first new credits since 2006.”

But there wasn’t enough in the kitty to record in 5.1 audio; rather than delay the switch to HD, he opted to continue recording the series in stereo.

Another consideration was whether to use make-up in the field for reporters, to disguise the imperfections HD would reveal.

As O’Brien delicately puts it, “Our reporters were not chosen on looks alone.”

He decided to follow the advice of international documentary makers and eschew make-up in favour of authenticity, given Country Calendar is synonymous with “real New Zealand life”.

But his old boss, Torley, wonders if that policy may change after he sees himself in HD for the first time.

“Every blemish and freckle will stand out like dog’s balls.”

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