HDR, which boosts the range of contrast -- or luminescence -- and improves color performance, is having dramatic impact on the entire entertainment ecosystem, from content creation to distribution and consumption. Content creators and owners, like Amazon, Netflix, BT Europe, YouTube, 21st Century Fox, Vudu, Universal, and MGM have embraced HDR, while distributors are leveraging the technology to give consumers more immersive video experiences.
Despite HDR’s power and promise, content creators and distributors will be faced with the challenge of preserving creative intent while leveraging HDR to create more immersive experiences for viewers – regardless of the format or device they use to access that content.
We sat down with Mark Turner, Vice President, Corporate Partnerships and Strategy, Technicolor Hollywood Product Relations, to get a sense of the challenges and opportunities HDR holds for the entertainment value chain.
Turner: Stories told with images are a balance of color and light – and HDR gives you more of both: more color, more saturation, more light, more brightness, and more darkness. That gives the creatives so much more palette to play with. They can tell more stories, they can show previously hidden details in the shadows, we can have more lifelike explosions and outdoor scenes. It gives everyone more of everything.
Turner: One of our biggest challenges right now is this is a new medium and a new medium requires new content, new production techniques, new distribution networks, and new devices. There is a lot of investment, but in the end the reward for the consumer will be enormous. We have to work with the creative community to develop how to tell a good story in HDR – what [are] the problems you are going to hit, how do you fix those problems, what is impactful HDR? The industry will be affected if we have bad HDR, as it will be affected if we have good HDR. So we want to make sure that everyone is making good HDR – good HDR is making it all the way through the process to the consumers on their display and it looks as good as it possibly can when it gets there. And that is what Technicolor is here to do -- everything from capture through delivery to end devices – making sure that every single stage of the process gets the very best video it possibly can.[subscribe_reminder]
Turner: Take, for example, The Jungle Book. For The Jungle Book we created a lot of the visual effects, but we also did color grading – which means we mastered that file just before it went to both theatrical and home video. That is the last creative touch that anyone has on it – that was a Technicolor process. For The Jungle Book, that was seven versions of HDR just for theaters. Then we had multiple different versions for the home. Our job is to make sure that every single time a consumer sees that – on whatever screen it is – it looks exactly how the creative team wanted it to look.
Turner: Content creators have got to care about wherever their movie, TV show, TV commercial appears. Whatever screen it’s on, they have to care. It’s their baby, their prize, their work that has gone into that and you have to passionately care on every screen it’s on. We do – that’s what we’re here to help you make it look good on every screen you’re on. That may be an iPhone, it may be a laptop, it may be a tablet, it may be a 100-foot cinema screen, but on every single one of those, it is going to look the best it possibly can look.
Turner: Let’s be clear about HDR – this is not a niche business, this is the future of all video. In ten years, we will not be talking about high dynamic range and standard dynamic range – everything is going to be HDR. That’s why we have to get it right now. We can’t create a world now where we have certain silos that have proprietary technology in them, you can only do things one way, because this is going to be the future of our entertainment delivery systems from now through the next 100 years. We have to be completely clear: it has to be an open industry where everybody can collaborate, where we create an open workflow from start to finish. That means you can create content in any environment and know that it will play on every single screen. We can’t have certain content that plays only on certain screens –that breaks the consumer promise. At that point, we don’t have HDR everywhere, we have HDR for some people, but not HDR for the masses. And that is a disadvantage for everyone in the entire ecosystem. We need everyone to be able to play.
Turner: Right now we have a mixed audience. We have a small number of HDR screens and a very large number of standard definition range screens. Over the years, that is going to change. There will be fewer SDR screens and more HDR, but we are in a transition phase. This transition period is going to last years – that’s how long it takes to phase out old equipment and get new equipment in. Our challenge right now is how do you create content in that mixed environment? You’ve got to create two versions of everything, and our job is to make sure they both look great. What we suggest that people do is start with standard dynamic range – it’s available now, it’s the one most people are going to see – and make that perfect. Then separately go back and create the HDR. We don’t mix them in, we don’t start with the HDR first and force down a version for the SDR. We start with the SDR and make it as perfect as we can. Then we’ll go back and create the HDR and make it as perfect as we can and we will deliver them off to the consumer.
Turner: Now we’ve got two versions of the content we need to deliver to consumers. The question is how do we do that when we’ve only got one network? We have a delivery system that will allow both versions of the content to run through one network and if you’ve got an SDR TV, you’ll get the SDR version of the signal; if you’ve got an HDR TV, that same signal gives you HDR. Consumers don’t need to do anything, they just push play and if they’ve got a new HDR TV, suddenly they will get HDR out of the same signal. It’s magic. That combination of signals – SDR and HDR – that’s the new Technicolor. That is the brand we are going to push to consumers. You will know when you’ve got the SDR and HDR combined signal when you see your content presented in Technicolor HDR. That will mean if you’ve only got a legacy TV, you’ll get a great SDR signal that you will be able to watch on your TV. But if you’ve got an HDR TV, that signal suddenly will unlock all of the magical brightness and darkness and colors from that HDR signal. You will experience Technicolor HDR, which is the first time we have taken that “presented in Technicolor” out of theaters and pushed it into people’s homes. We have been waiting for HDR to do that. That is the Technicolor promise: High Dynamic Range is what Technicolor was always about 100 years ago when we invented color in theaters.
Turner: We can create new HDR content going forward. Our challenge is if you just bought a new HDR screen, you want to see it on all your content, not just big blockbuster movies from a few studios; you want it on live sports, TV reality shows and on local news. At the point HDR is synonymous, you will have it on all that content. One of the things we need to do is to bring forward the point where it is HDR Everywhere. There was a transition phase when we went from standard definition to high definition and it took years. But now we’re at the point where everything is available in HD – even the shots from the helicopter in local news. Eventually we will get to that point with HDR, but we’re not there yet. We want to bring that point forward. So that everyone gets to experience HDR as soon as they possibly can. We also have new technologies for that. We have the ability to re-master old movies, TV shows and up-convert them to HDR. And we are literally adding dynamic range – we are raising highlights, we are lowering the shadow details, we’re adding contrast everywhere in between. And that is HDR. We are going back and working with the creatives to re-master that content; to re-awaken that content.
Turner: We re-mastered Apocalypse Now, a classic movie shot on film in 1979 by Francis Ford Coppola. We have re-mastered that for High Dynamic Range – which was never intended when it was shot, but the cinematography was so beautiful that when we upscale it, it looks phenomenal. It looks like it was shot yesterday – rich colors, the iconic Technicolor look in High Dynamic Range.
Turner: You have a stadium that is filled with cameras – and it is a huge cost to upgrade those to HDR and as we talked about, there are only a small number of HDR screens now. At what point do you transition and replace all those cameras with HDR? That’s years away until we have enough scale. So what we have is a solution that allows you to upscale all the current broadcast – everything that comes out of that stadium – into HDR in real time and delivered to the consumer. There is one broadcast – one stream that has HDR and SDR in it. Everybody gets what they want out of their signal. The HDR is much more impactful. If you are in a sporting environment you can see the sweat dripping off of players, you can see the golf ball when it disappears into the blue sky, you’ve got rich, saturated colors, and it’s much more lifelike. And yet, everyone has got a signal. So we’re not just creating HDR for the one percent right now who have got an HDR TV, everybody gets a quality signal, but you can phase in the TVs in your house because you have one stream coming into the house.
Turner: We have a tool that will take all of the existing cameras in the stadium -- you don’t need to replace them – and up-convert the whole broadcast including the on-screen graphics to High Dynamic Range. It looks like you shot the whole thing with new HDR cameras. We’re saving production companies tens of millions of dollars.
Turner: Let’s be realistic about how HDR will roll out: Most people have more than one TV in their house. When they purchase an HDR TV it is likely to be the big TV in the living room. You’re then going to take the old Standard Dynamic Range TV and put it in the family room or give it to the kids. We will have households that have mixed TVs in them. If you’re a network operator, how are you going to deliver to those? You don’t want to deliver two signals – one for the TV in the living room and another signal for all the other TVs in the home. That’s impractical. The benefit of our delivery system is that you send one stream to that house. They record one show on the DVR, you can press play on any device in the house, and you’ll get standard dynamic range on those TVs, laptops, tablets, phones; you press play on HDR and you’ll get the HDR signal on those TVs too.
Turner: We are at a pivotal point in this industry. We are making a massive transition from Standard Dynamic Range to High Dynamic Range and it is these decisions that last for generations. So we need to make the decision now: are we going to support an open ecosystem where content can be made anywhere and played everywhere? Or are we going to allow proprietary systems to creep in? Where you have to create content in a certain way, on certain devices, using certain workflows -- and then it will only play back on certain devices that have been licensed by one company. That’s not the future we believe in. We believe that this industry benefitted by having an open ecosystem where everybody can compete and play and all consumers benefit in those sorts of environments.
Turner: We don’t believe in linking content creation with distribution. Those two have always been separate processes and they should remain so. When content is created, it should be created to look the best it can be. Distributors make different decisions. They have to deliver content, they have to deal with network efficiency, time to market, and quality of service – all kinds of delivery-related discussions.
Turner: Linking the two together is a dangerous precedent for this business. That means only certain content can play on certain distribution networks – and we’ve never done that before. We have an open system now; you can create content any way you want and it will work on YouTube, Netflix, and a broadcast system. We are big believers in that separation between content creation and distribution. If you’re a distributor, you’re going to get multiple sources of programming – Standard Dynamic Range for a long time to come. You’re going to get HDR programming, it may be coming from a studio, you’re going to have live broadcast streams, live sports, multiple formats -- and you’ve got to get all of that content to a consumer and all of it has to look great. You have one network and it has to look consistent across all programming from all sources. We have an encoding product that sits before distribution that takes any content regardless of how it was made and the Technicolor product will deliver it all to the consumer.