LAS VEGAS — The age of ultra high-definition TV is clearly upon us. The exhibit halls at the National Assn. of Broadcasters’ annual convention and trade show are festooned with banners for 4K capture and post solutions.
But there’s not much excitement about it. In fact, there’s still quite a bit of skepticism about whether consumers will care about all those extra pixels.
There is excitement, though, about a related advance in television that is just dawning: high dynamic range TV. Cinematographers, designers and directors have long been frustrated at the limitations of television screens, film stocks, digital cameras and cinema projectors. HDR opens the door for them to bring the full vibrancy of the images they shoot to viewers. While HDR for cinema projectors is still at the experimental stage, HDR TV is nosing out of the lab into public view — and it may prove the killer app for UHD that gets consumers to upgrade their TVs.
There has been plenty of buzz at the NAB Show about HDR. It was a recurring theme of the Technology Summit on Cinema over the weekend, where cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki said in a panel that “Gravity” has already been color-graded for HDR and he’s looking forward to seeing it released that way. During the NAB Show proper, in a panel devoted to what UHD content will excite consumers, Vubiquity CEO Darcy Antonellis said, “It’s not just the number of pixels it’s the quality of pixels. Those of you who have seen high dynamic range, have really have seen a color palette you’ve never seen before It is stunning.”
Howard Lukk, standards director for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) and VP of production technology for Walt Disney Studios, told Variety at the NAB Show that filmmakers are tepid about 4K TV.
“There’s a feeling in Hollywood, and even at the Walt Disney Studios, in order to change over the complete marketplace to a new format, we really need more than just more pixels,” Lukk said . “Adding more dynamic range and more contrast really makes a big difference. … This really looks like it is the compelling thing that would make consumers make that transition to a new format.”
The problem with 4K is that it’s hard to even see the extra pixels of 4K UHD television unless you are very close to the screen, he said. “And resolution isn’t everything, you need contrast as well.”
High dynamic range screens, however, offer that contrast. The highlights are brighter, the blacks are richer, and images captured with an HDR camera can keep details in both highlights and shadows. Also, HDR images show more colors, because bright colors don’t wash out to white. HDR doesn’t change the feel of a filmed image the way high frame rates do and it doesn’t come with the headaches — both literally and figuratively — of 3D. On the brightest prototypes, the picture improvement is as dramatic as the shift from standard definition to HD.
Lukk described seeing a scene from the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” that had been re-color-graded for HDR. “When you looked at James Brolin in the creek, and you saw the highlights off the creek, it really felt like you were really outside, looking at this creek,” said Lukk. “It still looked like a film, still looked like cinema, but it really gave you that impression. That stuff is really compelling.”
Existing TV contrast and brightness standards are based on the limitations of old tube TVs. Flatscreens have long since exceeded those capabilities. Dolby Vision, Dolby’s HDR transmission format, can handle highlights up to 100 times the current standard, though consumer TVs probably won’t be that bright anytime soon. At Dolby’s NAB booth, the company is showing an advanced TV prototype with 20 times the peak brightness of the current standard. Technicolor is showing an HDR demo on a monitor that can reach peaks twice as bright as Dolby’s.
Richard Welsh, who is on the board of SMPTE and is co-founder and CEO of Sundog Media Toolkit, said creatives aren’t weren’t craving more resolution, but can spot the HDR difference right away.
Welsh said today’s digital cameras already capture at such high resolutions that pixel count isn’t an issue for most creatives. “But high dynamic range is something that gives (creatives) a big creative difference they didn’t have access to. Once you get to the point of displaying that content in the cinema or the home, you can present what you actually captured in the scene. I think that’s a game-changer from creatives’ point of view.”
However, Welsh said, HDR is difficult to explain and hard for people envision until they’ve seen it. Welsh said there’s scientific evidence that 4K by itself doesn’t add much to the viewing experience, but with HDR and a wider color gamut it’s “a massive step change.”
“The problem is in order to sell that, consumers need a good story, they need a number they can understand, and they all understand pixel count. We know that from the camera industry, where they go for megapixels. But the number for HDR aren’t the sort of numbers you can throw out to consumers to tell that story. The engineering and creative side of the industry understand (HDR) but it’s hard to sell.”
Also, while the pixel count for 4K images is standardized, there are likely to be many models of televisions, with different brightness, all able to call themselves “HDR.” Consumers will have to learn how to gauge what they’re looking at in showrooms.
Happily for the many creatives who are excited about them, HDR displays are coming out from the labs. Some major electronics manufacturers, eager to sell the current generation of UHD TVs, are not entirely on board with the HDR push, but Sharp, TCL and Vizio have announced HDR TVs that incorporate Dolby Vision technology. Dolby has one HDR TV in its booth, while Technicolor, in its suite at the Wynn, is showing its proposed approach to an HDR standard, which it hopes will be incorporated into the new High Efficiency Video Codec, an essential tool for UHD TV.
Technicolor is also showing its proprietary tech for expanding the dynamic range of library content. Its solution would be built into set-top boxes, so films and TV shows that were color-graded to the old standard would be able to take some advantage of HDR technology, even if the improvement isn’t as great as that on content that’s been color graded for the extra brightness and contrast.
Welsh said he believed that despite the difficulties pitching HDR to the public, when they see it, they’ll understand it — and want it. “The first time I saw an HDR TV, which is seven years go, I thought straightaway, ‘If that was the TV in the story, that is the TV I’d pick and I can’t imagine anyone feeling any different.’ Not because I’m an engineer; it just looks amazing.”