More and Better Pixels Are Inevitable. Here's How to Balance the Science of Pixels with the Art of the Show.
Chuck Meyer, Chief Technology Officer
Years ago I did a lot of work with NFL Films. The not-so-surprising reason they were called "films" is because originally they shot everything on film. They had cameras at every game. They would rush the film back to their main plant, convert everything on massive telecines, and produce the signal.
Skip ahead to when broadcasting started to move to HD and digital formats. It was a seismic shift for the industry, and I asked my customers at NFL Films: Are you worried about this? What are you going to do?
They told me I was missing the point. They know how to tell the story of football. Their camera angles and storytelling are their IP, and that value will translate to whatever the format is.
Today, video technology marches on and broadcasters have to deal with a dozen formats or more. And as more viewers become acclimated to 4K, HDR, WCG, and dare I say 8K, they're going to expect content that looks sharper, brighter, and more realistic than before. But ultimately, it's still the strength of the content that engages the audience.
Striking this balance between technology and artistic vision is the challenge our customers navigate every day. So what do they need to know? And how can we help?
The Inevitability of Better Pixels
For the past several years, there has been a trend in our industry toward more pixels. But the number of pixels alone are not that big of a deal. Most of us don't have a 150-inch screen that we can sit three feet from to create an immersive IMAX style experience.
Instead of more pixels, what it's really about is better pixels, and the science behind better pixels has been progressing for a number of years. The REC 2020 standard will pretty much reach the boundaries of human color perception.
The human eye can discern a far greater range of brightness intensity than we give ourselves credit for, and today's high dynamic range (HDR) displays let us reproduce highlights and shadow details that we didn't even know we were missing. Our brains can pick out those glimmers or subtle movements in the shadows that make us feel more a part of the action.
Color gamut still starts with three primary colors used to make all other colors, but as technology gets better, we can represent colors more accurately and in much more depth. Today's wide color gamut, which is a part of the REC 2020 standard, adds finer color gradations, livens up the greens and yellows in particular, and makes the ultimate picture feel more real.
Combine those technical advances with the fact that viewers today have many choices in how they consume content. They may want to watch it on a small screen like a phone or tablet, or on a large screen they throw up on the wall. They may want it over-the-top, on demand, or in the case of sporting events and award shows, live.
All this creates complexity in the studio. Because of the internet, consumers today will always want it their way. To meet this demand, studios may need to offer several formats for a single broadcast. So between the art of the show and the science of more and better pixels, the right equipment and workflows are needed to simplify the process.
Empowering Artistic Intent
Our job is to provide a workflow that can address all those permutations while helping customers create the most immersive and engaging shows possible. So we track emerging pixel technologies along with what consumers are demanding and walk that back to the director and the process of building the show.
When HD started, everybody talked about simulcast and the need to do two streams: HD and SD (standard definition). We had to empower the director to look at both streams and make an artistic decision about how to map HD down to SD. Rather than trying to monitor two separate parallel workflows, this approach keeps it simple.
Today on the set, we enable customers to work in the HDR experience. We design our equipment to run a whole HLG workflow or an entire PQ workflow natively, which means everything after that becomes a simple output conversion. We provide tools that make it accessible for directors to understand the formats they have access to, and the production team can implement the decisions simply, in one place, and on one set of equipment.
Because we have a wider color gamut and higher range of light intensity as we go to HDR, colorimetry decisions are also becoming more important. In the old days of Hollywood, a "colorist" would work in a lab to develop the film. Today, we put that artist right in the studio, whether it's a truck or their home office, working behind the scenes to adjust the color almost in real time so that the fidelity of the ultimate picture is true. This gives the director the ability to manage color and deliver the best artistic impression of what they're shooting—not just weeks later, but live.
These decisions are continually becoming richer, more complex, and more nuanced because of those advances in the science behind pixels and how that translates to a multitude of formats. But we're still working to keep things simple—and all this is absolutely consistent with how we're taking customers to the cloud.
Taken together, it's all part of the same continuum we've been working on since the industry began its shift away from film: Combining the science behind stunning pixels with easy workflows to capture an artistic vision, providing the tools to publish simultaneously in a variety of formats, and making it so customers can do all this in a heartbeat.
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