Forget Pirates of the Caribbean - the hottest thing on high-definition is real life. So far people have needed little more than crystal-clear vistas of Mayan temples, the Great Barrier Reef or the earth itself spinning from space to keep them glued to their couches.
No wonder Discovery HD has been a hit. By the end of 2006, high-definition television had entered 800,000 Canadian households, and industry experts say that number will triple by 2009.
Randall Dark, one of the pioneers of high-definition production, started experimenting with its earliest versions in 1986. He thinks high-def isn't just a change in picture quality, but a revolution in storytelling itself.
"The amount of picture information in high-definition gives the viewer a personal experience with the subject, whether it's wildlife or an interview," said Dark at a recent conference on the future of HDTV organized by industry rag Playback. "The most powerful moments you have [in real life] are one-on-one with someone you care about."
Dark compares the emotional connection made by HD to the best of live theatre - minus the need for the actors to shout their performance to the back row.
"The viewer is more engaged, and therefore has a much more cathartic response to the story you are telling. So when I look at high-def as a storytelling tool, it's not just about more scanning or depth of colour. It's all those elements adding up to a very intimate relationship with the person you're telling the story to."
Filmmakers are just catching up to this potential.
"When you tell stories in documentaries in what I call the low-definition world, you edit a little quicker, you don't stay on shots long or the viewer gets bored," said Dark. "But because HD is so engaging, filmmakers don't need to do that. The whole process has changed dramatically. You shoot differently, you stay on shots longer, because you don't need to keep it MTV-like."
Other documentary makers want to tap HD's potential to create worlds of their own. Stuart Samuels is a Toronto-based filmmaker whose last work, Midnight Movies, explored the influence of directors like George Romero and John Waters on today's pop culture.
"HD is not about shooting reality. Reality is all around - that's wallpaper." says Samuels. "What's really significant is that for the first time we have imaging tied to the most powerful imagining tool in the world - the computer - to create something we can't shoot in the world. That's the power of HD."
But increased graphic power in a documentary doesn't necessarily mean greater impact. In fact, it can have just the opposite effect. Anita Lee is a producer for the National Film Board, another organization learning to navigate the HD landscape.
According to Lee, the cost of high-definition production keeps the medium out of the hands of many would-be filmmakers. And for a Canadian cultural organization with a mandate to tell all kinds of Canadian stories, this is definitely a problem.
"Documentaries have been a strong vehicle for cultural critique and social conscience. A lot of voices from the margins use documentaries as a tool," says Lee. "That raises questions not only about access, but also about the authenticity of the image. Take a really hard-hitting look at child prostitutes in a Third World country. Should that be beautiful and pristine? Does it need to be?"
Many marginal filmmakers have decided to forgo the increased price of admission needed to work in HD. They're skipping broadcasters entirely and beaming their stuff right out on the Web.
Ironically, the lower broadcast quality of Web videos such as those found on YouTube tends to make us believe they're more "real." Witness the effectiveness of fake viral videos like the recent Bridezilla ad campaign.
But while this fact may make it seem that online videos and HD are in opposition, according to futurists like Dark, that's just a matter of time.
"Technology is a moving target," he said at the March conference. "No matter what we do today, it's going to get better, sharper, brighter. Eventually, we'll have high-definition YouTube. I think they're all going to come together, and I can't wait for that day."