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HDR Is a Thing Now

September 21, 2015 | By

It’s been quite some time since we really addressed the basic idea of what television and film is actually supposed to look like. We’re used to the idea that looking into a sunset on TV doesn’t make us squint as it does in reality. The pictures we view for fun are graded, of course, but they’re also forced into a narrow range by technical necessity. The brightest stars of the silver screen are, after all, just light falling upon a diffuse white surface, and we’ve become so used to it that the world of cinema doesn’t look as dull to us as perhaps it should.

It’s been a few years since someone at Dolby realized first that this was a problem, and second how it could be solved. The experimental approach taken was, reportedly, almost brutal in its simplicity: full-scale digital cinema projectors were focussed onto displays the size of a conventional television, producing an image which was, or which at least could be, bright enough to be genuinely dazzling. Modern displays are measured in nits, a measure of candela per square meter, where a candela is roughly the output of a single candle. Current displays manage, at best, a few hundred. Dolby’s experiments found that viewers subjectively preferred anything up to 10,000 nits – a hundred times the output of the average television. While peak brightness has been a target for film and TV exhibition, partly due to the inefficiencies of displaying stereo 3D, nothing even vaguely approaching these values has been considered before.

No 10,000-nit display has ever been built, but current whitepapers mention it as a future aim. Dolby has been showing a 4,000 nit display at exhibitions for a couple of years, though, and this alone has a surprising and longed-for characteristic: it makes the predecessor technology look faulty by comparison. Perhaps surprisingly, the 4,000 nit display was not shown at IBC this year.

Promisingly, though, the reason given was that all of the small number of prototypes that have been built are in use as grading reference displays, generating high dynamic range content. Productions including Edge of Tomorow, Man of Steel, Sherlock Holmes, Godzilla and The Great Gatsby are already slated for release in HDR on the VUDU streaming service.

That point, of course, is crucial. At NAB, VIZIO‘s Reference Series of domestic televisions, incorporating Dolby’s Vision HDR technology, were shown. The existence of Internet streaming takes much of the sheer heavy lifting out of distributing content, in comparison to building a complete new broadcast network as would have been required previously. HDR imaging has been standardized as of SMPTE 2084, and Dolby have described production and postproduction processes for the standard.

The key of IBC this year was the number of other manufacturers promoting 2084-compatible devices. Sony‘s BVM-X300 monitor, a superb 4K OLED reference display, was shown displaying HDR images. Other recent supporters include Filmlight‘s Baselight color corrector, Resolve from Blackmagic, SGO‘s Mistika, Digital Vision Nucoda, SpectraCal for display calibration, and others. Sony Pictures has recently become involved, and manufacturers of microelectronic components for consumer devices, including Realtek, HiSilicon and MediaTek. We are told that existing high-end digital cinematography cameras already have the capacity to shoot HDR. If we need a marker for the readiness of Vision for real-world deployment, it probably lies somewhere between NAB and IBC 2015, or even a little earlier. Vision got its name in January last year, making for a fairly brief interval before HDR in general became a mainstream concern.

None of this is relevant, though, without a reason to pursue Vision as a way of mastering (or remastering) films and television shows. Vendors constantly blandish us with new reasons to spend money, some of which work – widescreen and cinemascope, for instance – and some of which seem perpetually stuck in development hell, like stereo 3D. If anything ever deserved a chance at success in this context, it is this. Unlike 3D, there is no issue of viewer discomfort, and the additional complexity on set is comparatively slight. Unlike high frame rate, there is no fundamental tampering with the way the motion of a motion picture is rendered. Unlike ever-higher resolutions, the improvement is immediately obvious and visible even at a distance. It doesn’t even force anything on anyone. If the artistic intent is for gentle, low contrast images, it’s just as possible and just as reasonable to create them. It is, almost objectively, a generalized improvement in the possibilities of film and TV. If there must be a next big thing, it will be an absolute travesty if Dolby Vision is not it.

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