Market Focus on HDR Intensifies

Michael Wise, CTO, Universal Studios

Michael Wise, CTO, Universal Studios

Resolving Production Workflow Issues Is Now a Key Goal

By Fred Dawson

October 3, 2016 – The pace continues to quicken in the long march to full realization of the enhanced quality potential of new video display technologies, especially as regards attempts to capitalize on stunning High Dynamic Range enhancements without the encumbrances imposed by the bandwidth-hogging 4K component of UHD.

Industry acceptance of the primacy of HDR is reflected in the recently adopted ITU HDR–TV Recommendation BT.2100, which, among other provisions, extends the luminance range and Wide Color Gamut (WCG) for 4K resolution displays embodied in the BT.2020 standard to content formatted for both HDTV 1080p and 8K displays.

There are still many issues to be worked out with HDR, which technically refers just to luminance range but in general parlance these days also includes WCG. But with growing consensus on HDR as the surest path to wowing the huge base of viewers who own 4K displays, content producers now have more reason than ever to weave HDR into the production process..

“Content shot and mastered with HDR, in my mind, looks better than any 3D content I’ve seen,” said Michael Wise, CTO at Universal Studios, who spoke at a symposium sponsored by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) in June. “It’s like looking out a window.”

HDR is now a key consideration in Universal’s and other studios’ production processes, although more needs to be done to reduce the labor involved and to improve creative use of the enhancements. “It’s about educating cinematographers, colorists and filmmakers about the art of the possible,” Wise said. “Honestly, there are some titles that don’t look as good as they could, but we do have really good ones like [20th Century Fox’s] Revenant.”

If striking the right balance between not enough and too much of a good thing when it comes to avoiding unintended perversions of creative intent is as much art as science, at least the science has reached a point where HDR can be used to consistently good effect across a wide range of displays in people’s homes. What matters most is that content be produced in multiple versions optimized to different HDR formats so that any display designed to work with one of those formats and even some that aren’t can render frames in accord with the intended variations in colors and brightness.

The ITU’s BT.2100 helps distributors make efficient use of these different format versions by  navigating a key area of technical complexity that has to do with the so-called “gamma curves” that determine the range of brightness values executed by different types of TV displays. The prevailing gamma curve used with the new generation of HDR sets is SMPTE’s ST 2084 dynamic range electro-optical transfer function.

ST 2084 defines a standardized approach to breaking with the 100-nit luminance limit used with the traditional gamma function on SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) displays. But there’s also growing support for what is known as Hybrid Log-Gamma, which was developed by the BBC and NHK and standardized as ARIB STD-B67 by the Association of Radio Industries and Businesses as a way to enable a degree of compatibility with legacy displays by more closely matching the traditional gamma curve while utilizing whatever capabilities they have to extend beyond the 100-nit limitation.

BT.2100 embraces a newly developed simple conversion process to enable use of either HDR gamma function for rendering content depending on the type of display in use. But the onus remains on producers to devise workflows that can deliver HDR versions suited to different display environments.

Simply scanning a finished film and enhancing it to HDR is not an economically viable solution, Wise noted. “Going forward our studio workflow will incorporate digital migrations that derive versions of HDR for different display environments,” he said, suggesting these would include the two leading TV formats, Dolby Vision and HDR10, as well as versions suited to tablets and other small-screen displays.

Right now this is a laborious process. Better cooperation among producers on formulating common parameters and procedures associated with mapping content to the various HDR format is essential to normalizing and streamlining how things are done from camera operations through all stages of production and distribution.

“We have to get together on this,” said Mark Lemmons, another SMPTE speaker, who at the time served as CTO at Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, a job he left in July. “It’s something that we have to do in partnership with others across the industry.”

But, as Ron Sanders, president of Warner Home Entertainment, noted at the symposium, it’s far easier said than done. Notwithstanding monthly meetings of studios, CE manufacturers, OTT companies and others under the auspices of the Digital Entertainment Group to work through technical issues, the consensus-building process “is like herding cats,” Sanders said.

HDR processes had yet to be incorporated into Warner’s workflow, he said, noting how hard it was to accomplish such formatting under tightening deadlines. “Windows are shrinking,” he commented, which leaves little time for remastering during the home entertainment post-production process.

“We have to get directors and producers to understand HDR,” Sanders said. “Once HDR is in the production process and the tools are more efficiently priced, [HDR-formatted] content will flow.”

The first Blu-ray players supporting the Blu-ray Disc Association’s UHD standard, which establishes HDR10 as the baseline requirement with Dolby Vision as an option, entered the market this year with under 50 titles ready for viewing in the new format. “We expect to have over 100 by Christmas,” Sanders said, speaking of titles from all sources. “You’ll see a huge ramp-up next year.”

Adding to the building HDR momentum is the emergence of content produced in HDR for OTT distribution. As previously reported, Netflix started down this road last year with a couple of series with ongoing expansion this year and now is reported to have about 100 hours of content available in the format. In June Amazon launched its first HDR-formatted series along with support for a handful of HDR-formatted movies with a promise to hit 150 hours of HDR content by year’s end.

Efforts to extend HDR benefits to owners of flat screens not equipped to support HDR per se but with luminance and color ranges exceeding the SDR parameters plays well with the expectations of consumers who purchased 4K UHD sets, especially as that base of users inspires expectations among distributors that there are monetization opportunities tied to delivering content in 4K resolution. According to Futuresource Consulting, worldwide shipments of 4K UHD sets reached 32 million units last year, representing a 160 percent increase over 2014 and 14 percent of all sets sold. Futuresource expects 4K UHD shipments will account for 52 percent of the market by 2020.

A recent global survey conducted for Irdeto by SNL Kagan found that 64 percent of service providers and 73 percent of content producers among the nearly 500 respondents believe consumers will be willing to pay 10 to 30 percent more on their subscriptions for access to 4K UHD content. Ninety-six percent of all respondents believe 4K UHD TV services will be widely adopted by 2020.