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May 12, 2023

DCS Looks at ‘Advanced Resolutions and HDR’ at NAB 2023

Michael Bravin, a Canon Fellow, moderated a panel at the recent 2023 NAB show that looked at ‘Advanced Resolutions and HDR’. The members of the panel were:

  • Liam Ford, SVP of Engineering & Technical Operations at Light Iron
  • Cinematographer and noted VFX Producer Phil Holland ,
  • Philip Hodgetts, the CEO of Intelligent Assistance, and
  • Canon’s David Doko.

The panel session was on Vimeo at press time here.

Bravin started by asking what people understand by Advanced Resolutions and HDR. Advanced Resolutions are those above 1080P was the conclusion (so including 4K/UltraHD and also 8K – editor). He said that the panel discussion would not be about the technology but about the challenges and opportunities for creators and clients.

Each of the panellists then gave their own view of the topic.

Individual Views

Michael Bravin (left) and David Doko

David Doko said that ‘right off the bat’, that these days advanced resolution means 8K. Canon has the R5 C camera that has an 8K sensor and the firm has always wanted to capture content in the highest possible resolution. HDR is helpful as it also gives the impression of higher resolution even at 1080P or UltraHD. The combination of more spatial resolution and HDR can give a much better viewer experience, Doko said, but can also give challenges.

Philip Hodgetts said that from the post-production perspective  there were a lot of storage and workflow problems, but also a lot of opportunities. He doesn’t see ‘cropping all the 4K images needed from a couple of 8K captures’ as a solution, but said that over-sampling was ‘always going to look better’ the further down the delivery pipeline you go. He discovered this phenomenon when VHS content created from 35mm film looked better than his content that was created natively for standard definition. The better the source, the better the result, he emphasized.

Practical Issues of Resolution & HDR

Liam Ford also looked at boosting resolution and dynamic range from the practical point of view and that can mean challenges with bandwidth on networks especially when moving content between facilities etc. There’s a challenge because you are ‘pushing boundaries’. You need better compression formats but there is also a cost. Everyone is moving to the cloud, but, Ford said, ‘moving a terabyte out of AWS costs you $90 – and at 8K or 16K, a terabyte is nothing’. The technology is there (or almost there), but cost can be a challenge.

Phil Holland is noted for pushing the limits of the technology when creating content and he started by saying that there is a different challenge in displaying 8K compared to the clear benefits of oversampling from 8K or above in content capture even if the delivery format is UltraHD or less. He said that he had already finished motion picture content in ’32K’ last decade. However, he said that genlocking and synchronising displays was ‘a pain’ to show that level of content on displays, but most houses scanning 70mm film with 16 bit scans are around 11K-14K. There’s a heavy overhead to that but it’s happening. Bravin said that the content from Holland is compelling.

Phil Holland

Better Technology for Better Story Telling

Bravin also highlighted that the development in technology is to improve the experience and story telling to the audience and make it more immersive, not just for its own sake. Bravin asked Holland to expand on what he is doing and he highlighted the aspect of more immersion. He said that he had heard in the past that ‘We’ll never do 4K’ but that was already history for him and ‘yesterday’s conversation’.

Holland has created demo content for TV makers and some actually ships as demo footage on TVs which is ‘really wild’. He pointed out that there are many 4K sets around and streamers are really pushing high quality UltraHD while codecs such as H.266/VVC or AV1 are going to really help content to be more widely distributed. 8K in the home is ‘right around the corner’, Holland believes. YouTube can support 16K already!

8K Capture and Production is Getting Easier and Cheaper

Ford agreed that the aim of post-production facilities, such as his, is to meet the needs of clients and said that few clients are currently looking for facilities beyond 4K for the final output, even if content is shot at higher resolutions. He emphasized that the main real technical need with higher resolutions is just to ‘buy more storage’ and fortunately storage costs have come down ‘drastically’. He expects the costs to come down at the same pace as the desire for higher resolution increases. HDR is a different story and from just one in 20 jobs being mastered in HDR a couple of years ago, now 90% are in HDR. Netflix has been driving this trend and has been ‘aspirational’ and Netflix’s initiatives have encouraged other streamers to match it. HDR-graded content is increasingly the ‘hero’ version of new productions.

In terms of software and tools, Holland said that there are no real challenges in the production process as non-linear editor software apps (NLEs) are resolution independent and many work with proxies. The only time you might not use proxies in production and editing is if you have a special viewing session. HDR is ‘ubiquitous’.

Monitoring the 8K

Turning to monitoring, Doko said that he is always being asked for bigger and bigger displays with 8K display as creatives want to see the content ‘pixel for pixel’. He also pointed out that even Canon’s best lenses are basically ‘edge to edge 4K’. When people are shooting with the R5 C 8K camera, they are often using lenses that are not capable of 4K. There is still a question of getting the whole resolution chain to 8K levels if you want to deliver 8K to the viewer.

Holland said that he originally worked in a group making film scanners and he started in the ’90s with 4K acquisition from film. The whole server room had just 4TB of storage in total. He was a digital colorist and had to work with film makers and processors as the industry transitioned to digital. ‘Everything seemed to change every three months’, he said, but now although there is progression, developments are more incremental.

‘You can use vintage lenses for 8K’, he said, as a lot of the value of the higher resolution is in ‘removing that digital fingerprint’. (In this, he echoed the comments from Loren Simons of Red Digital at the recent DEG Entech Fest) When you have too little resolution in digital formats, he said, it looks awful – that’s obvious. He has designed a good production pipeline so can often stay in RAW and avoiding proxies and that can make you more efficient. Ford agreed that many more jobs are done purely in RAW now. Holland clarified that if you are moving around the world, proxies make more sense, but in his facility he has around 300 terabytes of storage! That is also backed up externally, twice!

External Network Bandwidth Not Increasing Quickly

Liam Ford

Ford said that networking bandwidth had not reduced in cost fast enough. There he was referring to ‘facility to facility’ bandwidth, rather than internal facility network speed. That is a bit troubling and that’s where he sees the biggest challenge especially as we’re not at the end of resolutions, bit depths or frame rate enhancements. Bravin said that his discussions with sports broadcasters have revolved about the increased cost to deliver 4K. Broadcasters would like to provide content at lower resolution and then get the TV displays to do the upscaling. This is getting more feasible as upscaling is getting better all the time.

Netflix wants to be a 4K streamer. Bravin said that if you have an Apple TV 4K box, you can see a lot of the content that Holland has created and you can really see how good your TV set can look. Holland said that he is mainly using Red Raptor cameras to capture content.

Bravin said that we might be getting closer to the limits of display resolution in the home with current technology and that in the past TV set makers have thrived by persuading owners that their current set is ‘out of date’. Holland said that he worked with THX, Warner Bros and others to look at issues of resolution and he has a tool on his website called ‘Optimal Viewing’ to help calculate the best distance to view a display from. He did a lot of work on what he called the ‘window effect’ that looked at how people perceive their TVs and how they started to see the TV as a window onto the world. This has led him to wonder if there will ever be a need to go beyond 8K in the home.

Outside the Home is Different

Outside the home, it’s different and Holland created a 40′ 20:9 aspect display in Times Square in very high resolution. An 8K ‘phone would be ‘insane’ he said, but Bravin said that for VR, you might well want 8K per eye. Canon has a camera and lens combination that can capture dual 4K images but Bravin said that the experience is  ‘a bit lacking in terms of the reality experience’. He would like to see more resolution, per eye.

Philip Hodgetts

Hodgetts highlighted that when ‘editing for the story’, you rarely need high resolution and said that ‘back in the day’ software editing with NLEs was often done with such low resolution that you could not even reasonably tell if a shot was even in focus! That has changed now. He doesn’t need to see 8K when he is cutting. Holland said that there is sometimes you see a conflict between the performance and the technical issues. A great performance (he referenced a scene Antony Hopkins) may be out of focus. When you are editing in full resolution, you have an advantage as you may choose different shots because you can see quality control issues in some shots.

Good Reference Displays Matter

Doko said that good reference displays are essential to understand what you are capturing and Bravin pointed out that 4K and 8K capture makes it harder to accurately judge focus in the camera viewfinder as they are so small. On the other hand, Bravin said, he had shot 720P in the past that was out of focus, but when dubbed to standard definition looked ‘pin sharp’. Downscaling the resolution can mask production issues. Holland highlighted the challenges of stability in film transport (in camera and on screen) which could, effectively, reduce the theoretical resolution in half.

Better Compression is Desirable

Ford highlighted the importance of better compression as so much of what is seen in the home is radically compressed. When you consider how compressed the signal it’s amazing how good it looks. He also said that there is a vision for post-production that sees the original captured content moving to a central store and is then not moved again, but simply accessed by those that need to work on the content at whatever resolution and in whatever format is needed.

HFR Can Mean ‘Too Much Accuracy’

Holland said that the process and pipeline can change depending on the project and the particular challenges. Ford said his big concern is high frame rates as they ‘remove the magic’ and he really didn’t enjoy the HFR version of the Hobbit. He’s a ‘big fan’ of 24fps. On this topic Holland said that 24fps really helps to ‘blur’ things while high frame rates mean that you really see everything accurately.

‘You can kick the tripod and may not notice it’, Holland said, at 24fps while 60P shown at 60fps will definitely make the kick visible. The move to HDR also affects panning speeds – you have to pan more slowly to avoid judder and strobing. The higher the contrast, the more care you need to take and many in the industry are still learning what is possible.

In the early days of HD, editors had to do real work to remove appearance imperfections that artists were concerned by, such as wrinkles and going up in resolution just amplifies this. Doko added that bad HDR can emphasize skin imperfections and that needs real attention and skill by colorists. 

In conclusion, Bravin said, it’s great to push the envelope technically but you need to see what is being delivered to meet the needs of creators.

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