CES Wrap: I Want My HDR! But With No Standard, What Does That Mean?

Dolby Vision - H 2015
Courtesy of Dolby

Dolby Vision - H 2015

High dynamic range emerged as one of the most talked-about topics this week at CES, but what does that really mean? Among Hollywood insiders, there’s lots of excitement that this is the future of television, but that’s tempered with plenty of concern about potential consumer confusion, and the need to sidestep a format war with an orderly rollout.

Broadly speaking, HDR means that the viewer would see a wider range between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks, and there’s general agreement that this will create a noticeable difference for consumers, more so than higher resolution (4K) alone. Still, it needs to be better defined. “How high is high dynamic range? And how can we make it so that you can make the content anywhere and be able to play the content everywhere?” asked Mark Turner, vp partner relations and business development at Technicolor.

“The good news is the manufacturers see HDR as a necessary next step,” said Stephan Heimbecher, head of innovation and standards at Sky Deutschland. “But we have many proposals and flavors of HDR — and no standards.”

At least four manufacturers have proposed HDR systems to the technical community, including Dolby with its Dolby Vision (which would also be the format for its emerging Dolby Cinema theatrical system), as well as the BBC, Philips and Technicolor.

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The newly formed UHD Alliance is getting involved in the HDR discussion as well, from standards to how to communicate its value to consumers. Meanwhile standards bodies the International Telecommunications Union and the Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers are already working on standards. “There’s not a lack of people looking at standards — the question is how we are going to put it together,” said Technicolor’s Turner.

But Panasonic’s Ron Martin asserted that “progress is being made.” For instance at CES, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced details of its new Blu-ray format supporting 4K and HDR that is scheduled for rollout this year. Its technical spec has a mandatory open HDR format and will additionally offer options that currently include the flavors of HDR from Dolby and Philips.

Samsung isn’t waiting for the Blu-rays to be available. The CE giant unveiled HDR-supported 4K TVs — which the company has branded “SUHDTV’ — that will launch during March in sizes ranging from 55 to 88 inches.

"The Fox Innovation Lab is working with Samsung, which is developing an open HDR format for its TVs," Fox Home Entertainment president Mike Dunn told The Hollywood Reporter. At CES Samsung demonstrated its new displays with dazzling clips from Fox’s Life of Pi and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Fox CTO Hanno Basse explained that Fox has been testing production and post, and that it remastered those titles in Samsung’s open HDR format using existing postproduction systems. Life of Pi was handled by colorist Dave Cole and Exodus by Stephen Nakamura. Dunn added that Pi director Ang Lee and Exodus helmer Ridley Scott were both involved and approved the final look of the remastered versions.

Lionsgate is also experimenting with flavors of HDR. Senior vp mastering and technology JoDee Freck said that, like Fox, Lionsgate is involving the filmmakers to maintain the creative intent. As for the business opportunity, she said, “If you have a successful box-office title, there’s no reason not to also create an HDR version if you are remastering the movie."

Dolby is bullish about getting its Dolby Vision format into the consumer market. At CES, it exhibited prototype TVs from Toshiba, Hisense and Philips. Numerous insiders predict Vizio might be first to actually launch a Dolby Vision set.

Dolby and Warner Bros. also announced a deal at CES through which Warners will provide Dolby Vision content, starting with The Lego Movie, Edge of Tomorrow and Into the Storm. On the prototype sets at CES it was showing clips from those titles and others including Godzilla, Oblivion, and David Attenborough's Galapagos documentary. Content needs to be mastered in Dolby Vision, and Dolby has already been working to offer support in leading color grading systems including Filmlight’s Baselight, SGO’s Mistika and Blackmagic’s Resolve.

But in addition to the availability of production and post tools, DreamWorks Animation’s head of digital strategy and business development Jim Mainard emphasized that filmmakers will also need to understand how to tell stories with this new palette. “I don’t hear about training creatives, but that’s something we have to think about,” he said. “It will take awhile to get the brain trust.”

But for HDR TV to truly take off, live broadcasting will need to become a reality. Heimbecher confirmed that this too is a current challenge, adding that Sky Deutschland is experimenting with ways to offer live sports — notably soccer — in HDR.

Dolby acknowledged that live broadcasting in Dolby Vision is currently not possible, though the company is working on it.

As to providing HDR narrative content, Netflix director of content partner operations Chris Fetner said the service is looking at multiple HDR formats, and its model is such that it could provide movies in more than one of them.

Dolby previously announced that Netflix, along with Amazon, Vudu and Xbox video aim to provide Dolby Vision content when the sets are available.

Samsung said that initially, HDR Fox titles for its SUHDTVs would be available for download on streaming service M-Go, using the new technical specification from the Secure Content Storage Association (led by companies including Fox and Warner Bros.).

With all this talk of delivering 4K and HDR over IP, numerous stakeholders on the manufacturer side emphasized that compression is therefore another important issue that needs quick attention.

But summing up, Netflix’s Fetner said: “There will be bumps along the way, but nothing is holding it back. We are really excited to make this happen.”

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA