Technicolor's Tim Sarnoff: High Dynamic Range Makes a Noticeable Difference (Q&A)

On Saturday, Sarnoff will appear on a panel at the PGA's Produced By conference with Arri's Stephan Ukas-Bradley, Technicolor colorist Mike Sowa and cinematographer David Stump.
Courtesy of Technicolor

Earlier this year, Technicolor's Tim Sarnoff was appointed to the newly created role of president of production services -- a restructured group that includes visual effects, postproduction, animation and digital cinema distribution worldwide -- with an aim to create what the exec describes as a more "holistic" approach to production and distribution.

Sarnoff will discuss his views on the business during a panel on Saturday that THR's Carolyn Giardina will be moderating at the PGA's Produced By conference.

Panelists for "The Big Picture: Imaging and Creativity From Capture Through Post" also include Stephan Ukas-Bradley, Arri's director of strategic business development and technical marketing; Mike Sowa, colorist at Technicolor; and cinematographer David Stump.

Sarnoff joined Technicolor as president of digital productions in 2009. Before that, he headed Sony Pictures Imageworks. Prior to appearing on the panel, he talked with The Hollywood Reporter about his strategy and his views on topics such as Ultra HD and high dynamic range.

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What aspect of the business keeps you up at night?

It's becoming much more clear that production [i.e. VFX, sound, color grading] is consolidating into one conversation. We are trying to simplify these complex processes and take a much more holistic approach.

We have a new production service group [combining Technicolor's digital production and creative services units] for the entire production, rather than dozens of individual conversations. We believe, in the coming years, the diversity of the way we distribute and how we process content will become more complicated. The goal is not to make it simple, but to simplify complex processes. … Simplifying is not cheap. Simplifying is organized, optimized and organic."

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Could you give an example of how you plan to implement this view?

In production services, if we are working with VFX and digital intermediates and sound, there's no reason we can't have all of those communicating.

We're working on a production tool set to allow production through distribution to be structured under one environment -- a sort of cloud-based production operation that every environment can access if they have security clearance. We're testing some aspects of this already.

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We also plan to open a 20,000-square-foot facility in Burbank, in October, to make sure media services are connected. The new facility will offer media services including encoding, transcoding, subtitling/closed captioning, digital distribution, tape-to-file conversion, metadata transformation, DVD and Blu-ray Disc compression and authoring services. [These services are currently housed at multiple sites in Glendale, Hollywood and Burbank.]

There's so much talk about various ways to improve the image, such as with higher resolution and high dynamic range. What is of interest to you?

I'm interested in things that make a difference and change the viewing experience. I'm not sure I can tell the difference between 4K and 8K resolution. I can absolutely tell the difference when I see high dynamic range [HDR, or a wider range between the darkest and brightest colors that can be produced on a display]. The deeper, more vivid the color, the more impact it has on me personally. We are prewired to respond to color.

Studio clients are very interested in HDR, but they are concerned about having to redo their libraries more than once -- not just new product but all [library] product. Any major [format] change should take into account the next 20 years. And it has to make enough of a difference for consumers to take note. HDR is the thing for me.

I can see a difference between 2K and 4K. I think that's more about [viewing] distance and [screen] size than quality of the image.

I'm not a huge fan of the faster frame rates. … Frame rates change the way we perceive the image, but the younger you are, the more acute you are to a faster frame rate. You see frame flicker less as you get older. In fact, what you see today and what you see 30 years from now will be different.

What does digital cinematography make simpler? And what does it make more difficult?

Digital cinematography can take the guesswork out of what you are doing; you can see it in real time. That has changed everything -- there are more iterations, more people can see it at once, there's faster distribution to different departments so they can start working on it. All of this is good, and it also make the system more complex.

More people are working on the same thing at the same time. You have a lot of opinions; what you can change, you will. Now we are changing things that we never could before. When you see something on set and you don't like the lighting, you can change it that day … but if the prepro team has set up a plate with the original lighting for VFX, they are going to have to go back and readjust it. That make the process of VFX more complex -- an unintended consequence.

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