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HDR: Go with the flow

It is just under a year since the first series commissioned to go though an HDR workflow in the UK, The Innocents, first aired on Netflix.

Since then an impressive amount of expertise in the format has been banked across the industry, with estimates that around 100 projects have passed through the UK’s grading facilities. The work is being spread across facilities and across machines, with no company and no HDR toolset seeming to have a noticeable edge over its competitors. There is though one commonality.

“HDR is very mature,” says Thomas Urbye at The Look, who graded The Innocents. “It happened very quickly and it’s been driven by Netflix primarily.”

Netflix leads colour change
HDR is very much a case of where Netflix leads, others follow, leading the industry rapidly to the point where UHD HDR is now the de facto standard for any high-profile projects, certainly any with international co-production money attached and/or a streaming future. And, as anyone who has worked with the company will testify, Netflix has a fairly proactive approach to ensuring it gets what it wants and how it wants it.

Workflow checks
“They want to know exactly what your workflow is,” says Urbye. “You have to list what camera you’re using, how you’re going to conform it, what resolution you’re going to work at, what you’ll debayer to, how you’re going to grade it, what systems you’re going to use…In the last six months they’ve been all over it; they want to see every bit of kit you’re using, how you’re using it, how you’re calibrating your screens. It’s very, very different from the bucket that used to be BBC and ITV — where you just delivered it and, if no one called you, you used to assume it was okay. No one from the BBC or ITV ever came to visit us, yet Amazon and Netflix have been here regularly.” Other broadcasters are falling in line and seem to be happy to let Netflix drive the HDR spec forward (though both Amazon and Sky top out at 1000 nits as opposed to Netflix’s 4000).



Investing in monitors
This has led to increased investment across the industry in monitors, albeit not quite up to the 4000 nit capable Dolby Pulsar that Netflix likes to mention every now and then (there is unfortunately, only one in the country) but rather to the 1000 nits that is the Dolby Vision minimum spec.

“You have to have that monitoring right through; online editing and finishing suites, effects, QC,” comments George Panayiotou at Bristol’s Films @59. “We’ve just bought a dozen Sony monitors so that’s a big investment. If you’re going to jump into the world of UHD HDR that investment just comes with it.”

The required spend is, of course, not just on HDR kit but the equipment required to post in UHD as well (HD HDR is not a thing now, and is increasingly unlikely ever to be one). Increasing volumes of UHD work – which Panayiotou says now encompasses up to 60% of Films @59’s projects – lead inexorably to increased storage and network pressures that need to be addressed. And as he adds somewhat ruefully, “Clients’ expectation of storage costs is usually zero.”

Dolby Vision takes off
Away from UHD, Netflix’s insistence on Dolby Vision deliverables coupled with its current dominance of the HDR market means that post is also rapidly standardising on DoVi.

“We feel that Dolby Vision provides the best quality image for our shows/films on the service while also allowing us to support a variety of display devices,” explains Alison Beckett, Netflix director of post production UK & EMEA. “Dolby Vision is a full ecosystem from post to the screens people watch on, and that was attractive because it preserves the creative intent, which is very important to us.”

HDR then SDR
DoVi, of course, entails a very specific workflow in which the HDR grade is done first and the SDR deliverable, when required, is derived from it (Urbye delivers a good soundbite likening it to a stereo fold down of a 5.1 mix).

“Our experience has shown that creating the HDR grade first and then adding a trim pass to the automatically generated SDR, give the colourists and DPs confidence that a single deliverable can be achieved which maintains their creative intent for all subsequent versions,” comments Simon Gauntlett, director of imaging standards and technology at Dolby Europe.

While this is a way of working that people are slowly becoming more used to, that doesn’t mean it is universally popular with opinion pretty much split between the colourists we talked to. Some argue that as SDR is still the main revenue stream and still the main way people will view a series, it should have more pre-eminence in the process; others that the DoVi SDR output is extremely good, will get better, and diving into the SDR and making adjustments is not always required and not too big an issue anyway. Perhaps more prosaically, it’s also another billable item.

“We have found the most complex aspect relates to reviews, and if clients are offsite, this can mean a skim pass before the master grade is locked which has obvious drawbacks,” says Matt Brown, managing director at Manchester’s Core Post. “Other than that, I think grading software could introduce SDR conversion layers or node sets. For example, where a skim grade is affecting the entire image and you only want to adjust a specific element, adding power windows or vector keys on to a dedicated SDR node set that can be easily disabled across a timeline would be really great.”



Managing expectations
In fact, one of the biggest emerging issues is that once a nervous production team has been coaxed into the HDR world, dropping them back into the SDR one after five days in a grading suite means that SDR expectations then have to be managed.

“The first challenge is to educate clients on what HDR is and how we could use the increased dynamic range to best suit their project,” says Asa Shoul, senior colourist at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea. “The second is how to best realise the new creative intent in SDR which can appear disappointing once the client has embraced HDR. We make this easier for our clients by running dual monitors from the same timeline for a live comparison between HDR and SDR.”

HDR is, of course, not simply a post process. The Farm’s Aidan Farrell, who has just finished Riveria 2 for Sky, points out that best practice means the whole production needs to be onboard from the outset. “All these shows are being lit in an SDR environment, they’re being monitored on set in SDR, and the first time someone sees it on an HDR display is in here,” he says. “The production designers and make up designers and costume designers all need to know as well.

“You also need to have a minimum six stops latitude,” he continues. “At the meetings beforehand we will talk about the various high-end cameras that have huge amounts of latitude and are perfect for capturing HDR, and then I will get drone material or something coming in that doesn’t have any of that stuff.”
 
The trouble with TV sets
There are also issues with the delivery process as the ‘Darkgate’ episode of Game of Thrones’ last season showed, the union between compression and low bandwidth streaming is not a happy one. And, beyond that, there are also definite issues with consumer sets.

“Every time I have problems or unhappy clients, 90% of the time it’s because the TV hasn’t been properly set up,” says Pablo Garcia Soriano, head of colour at Mission Digital, who spent much of his time at a certain major football tournament last summer adjusting the sets of chaffing broadcasters. “You can have a fantastic reference monitor but you have no idea what people are watching on at home.”

Garcia Soriano, who sits on the ACES board, suggests pressure could perhaps be put on manufacturers to make adjusting HDR settings easier, in a similar way that other campaigns have highlighted the pernicious problems of motion smoothing (he is though quick to point out the ACES might not be the best organisation to do this). But HDR is not just a resolution bump - rather it’s a whole new way of treating colour, and it’s not just the consumer that needs educating about it.



Mythbusting needed
“I think there are some common misconceptions, and some myth-busting is needed across all departments, which is something we want to help with,” says Neflix’s Beckett. “For example, we hear that HDR has to be a certain “look,” bright, saturated and contrasty. The truth is, it can be whatever the creative wants it to be; we’ve seen all sorts of visual styles in HDR. We believe it’s up to the creative to determine how it helps set the atmosphere and tell the story.”

“Don’t think that you need to burn people’s eyes out,” says Narduzzo Too’s Vince Narduzzo. “HDR is an amazing step forward and I believe will become the industry standard. Enjoy its beauty and subtlety, and let the images speak for themselves.”

It’s a common sentiment and one that goes to the heart of the role of the colourist. “Our main job is to focus the attention of the audience and then enhance the picture,” says Garcia Soriano. “It’s really easy to overcook when you start with your first HDR grade and you pump everything up to 11. It’s a massive help to the story telling, but it can be distracting to the audience.”

Asa Shoul cautions not to use the full range just because it’s there, saying that colourists need to go outside and physically feel what the real world is doing to their eyes. “Then go into the suite and try and recreate that,” he says. “When HDR is done right the image should suddenly appear three dimensional. Also be careful that skin/walls etc still appear to reflect light and not emit it; that’s when you’ve pushed things too far.”

25 facilities are now licensed for Dolby Vision content production in the UK, and that number looks likely to increase as the amount of content being produced in HDR ramps steadily. Workflows are evolving as a result too, Panayiotou saying that the linear process of post production is going out of the window as more DI-style work paradigms take hold. “Once the production teams are onboard with it, that makes life a lot more straightforward,” he says. “But it’s a change of approach for them; it’s getting their heads round that way of working and that we’re mastering out of our grading systems nowadays rather than our online finishing rooms.”

Demand is increasing from all angles. Beckett says that of the 600 million devices the company’s subscribers use to access Netflix in the course of a month, over 125 million of those are HDR capable. “We want to move to a place where all creatives across all budget types and genres around the world can leverage the opportunities and advantages of the format,” she says. And with broadcasters also increasingly mastering in the format ahead of TX rollouts, it very much feels that the next 100 HDR projects will pass through swiftly.

If there is a weak link in the current HDR technology stack, it is very much at the moment on the consumer side. But, the fecund consumer electronics market being what it is, even that is unlikely to be a problem for too long.

Posted 13 June 2019 by Andy Stout
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