Hurdles Remain Before High Dynamic Range Can Go Mainstream

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation - H 2015

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation - H 2015

Many technical hurdles still exist before audiences can enjoy High Dynamic Range (HDR) in their homes. 

"HDR makes a noticeable visual difference,” asserted Ben Rosenblatt, co-producer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, during the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA) Tech Retreat that wraps Friday in Palm Springs. “We are doing our HDR passes on Star Wars, and both Star Treks and the last Mission: Impossible."

HDR refers to the ability to reproduce a wider range between the blackest blacks and whitest whites. It took its first steps into the public’s eye via cinema, with Dolby Cinema-branded theaters and Imax laser-projection installations. At the recent CES in Las Vegas, all major set-makers announced plans to offer HDR-capable TVs, plus the new Ultra HD Blu-Ray format is capable of supporting HDR, and certain OTT platforms such as Netflix plan to offer such content.

“Netflix is really excited about HDR," said the streaming company's production engineer of original content Chris Clark. "The main thing is setting up a pipeline for [standard projects] so that can be finished for HDR later, if they want to. [The makers of] Marco Polo knew they wanted HDR [when production began], and in other cases like Daredevil we had to go back and make an HDR version.”

For production, several cinematographers were on hand to discuss the potential of the format. Most high-end digital cameras already support HDR, so the issues involved its creative use and maintaining control of the image.

International Cinematographers Guild president Steven Poster said that “with HDR, we are much less limited by what we can do, but just because you can, doesn't mean you should. As a storyteller you have to be aware of what you are presenting with each shot.”

Cinematographer Bill Bennett agreed, saying “you don’t have to use it at full throttle all the time.”

Both emphasized the importance of maintaining the creative intent. Said Bennett: “I firmly believe there’s not an automatic solution [for creation an HDR version of a project]. I don’t think that’s possible. It’s about what’s important to the story and you as an artist have to have a hand in each deliverable.”

Among the most potentially contentious areas of HDR is how to deliver it to the home via over-the-air broadcasting. There are varying views on how to achieve this, including two technical approaches that were presented during the retreat. They are Perceptual Quantizer (PQ), which was developed by Dolby and in general is seen as the one most interesting to Hollywood; and Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG), developed by the BBC and NHK, which is generally viewed as the one most interesting to broadcasters.

Speaking on PQ, Warner Bros. consultant Michael Smith asserted “professional displays support PQ (i.e. from Dolby and Sony) and postproduction tools support PQ. Mastering [workflows] support PQ.”

He added, “PQ is a non-proprietary open standard; Dolby Vision is based on PQ."

Peter Wilson of consulting firm HDDC spoke about open format HLG, noting, “The target audience is the Wild West of the home. We wanted something that could also be used for live content [i.e., sports] and to have some level of backward compatibility with the existing sets in the market.”

Organizations aiming to address this issue, including global standards bodies International Telecommunication Union and Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, as well as the Ultra HD Alliance coalition, all have meetings scheduled in March. There could be more news in this area by the National Association of Broadcasters' annual confab in April.