IBC Wrap Part 1: High Dynamic Range Is a Hit, But Hurdles Are Ahead For Cinema and Broadcasting

Rick Sayre - H 2015
Courtesy of Pixar

This is the first in a two-part series of high dynamic range (HDR) at the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC). Part 2 in the series, which focuses on work toward live HDR broadcasting and related developments, is here

This period of rapid high dynamic range (HDR) technology development should be used as a “time to reassess the high ground” in terms of image quality, Rick Sayre, supervising technical director at Pixar Animation Studios, told The Hollywood Reporter during the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC), which wrapped this week in Amsterdam.

HDR – offering a wider range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks in an image—was among the event’s hottest topics, with a flurry of news as well as debate in both cinema and broadcasting circles.

Across the exhibition floor, which attracted an estimated 55,000 delegates from around the world, many manufacturers demonstrated HDR technology for cinematography, postproduction and theatrical exhibition. Additionally, there were a few early technology demonstrations of the potential of HDR in live broadcasting.

But the term HDR is being used to describe various, different technical specs, and that’s prompted an urgent need for some standardization. Organizations including the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and International Telecommunication Union continue their work on technical standards. At IBC, British broadcaster consortium Digital Production Partnership (DDP) elaborated on its intent to develop a spec for producers to deliver HDR to broadcasters. Meanwhile studio consortium Digital Cinema Initiatives is exploring the addition of HDR to its digital cinema spec.

“While it’s positive that there’s excitement and the desire, the danger is that it’s on the verge of being rendering a term that doesn’t mean anything,” Sayre warned.

At its best, HDR can make a noticeable difference, asserted Dominic Glynn, Pixar's senior scientist, during a keynote panel that also included Sayre and Industrial Light and Magic's Jeroen Schulte“HDR enables filmmakers to deliver a version of the film as originally conceived but which they were unable to do before. We can show the audience colors they've never seen before.”

Added Glynn: “Our filmmakers are ecstatic about this and hope there will be places to see these stories."

On the theatrical side of the equation, an issue will be screen count. The early Dolby Vision (Dolby’s HDR format) releases such as Disney’s Tomorrowland and Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out were only available on a handful of screens. “We hope there will be lots of [HDR-supported theaters]. We look forward to taking this step and reaching cinema into the future," said Sayre.

From a creative standpoint there will be plenty of experimentation. "We have yet to fully explore what it means to light for HDR," Sayre related. “A director of photography will know instinctively what an audience is going to see and what dynamic range is appropriate but just because you can show more doesn't mean you should show more in terms of the story. We need to beware of gimmicks.”

The industry has been exploring both HDR as well as areas including Ultra HD 4K resolution (four times the picture informatiom in HD). Sayre shares a commonly-held belief that HDR is a more noticeable difference that 4K—and that could be good news for budget conscious producers. “More pixels (4K) is more expensive, better pixels (HDR) — not necessarily,” he said.

“Everyone recognizes that this will become a very marketable attribute,” Glynn summed up, but warned, “there’s a lot of marketing in the consumer electronics space and from service providers … but perhaps the marketing’s very early, before the home platform isn't truly understood and agreed upon.”

To that end, the UHD Alliance — a coalition of Hollywood studios, broadcasters and manufacturers — is on track for a January launch of its quality standards for HDR in home entertainment, as well as other attributes such as 4K and a wider color gamut, according to Alliance chair Hanno Basse, who is CTO of Twentieth Century Fox.

The goal is to communicate these standards to consumers via a logo program. This would include, for instance, putting logos on qualified TVs, as well as content such as Ultra HD Blu-Ray Discs, so that consumers know they have purchased qualified content that can be viewed on a supported device. This effort is about presentation and therefore compliments the work of others standards bodies in that the UHD Alliance’s specification will be format agnostic.

In January, the spec is expected to launch with parameters for consumer devices, as well as content mastering of movies and series television. Then second-stage work would begin on a spec for content that goes through live broadcast production process, reported Basse.