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Finding Clarity with HDR

NEW YORK—The emerging technology of HDR will be the focus of the session "The Road to High Dynamic Range: Finding Clarity" at the 2015 CCW/SATCON at the Javits Center here, Nov. 11-12. Moderated by Robert Seidel, president of SMPTE and vice president of CBS Engineering and Advanced Technology, the panel will include Rod Bogart, director of production R&D at HBO, Hugo Gaggioni, chief technology officer for the Broadcast and Production Systems division of Sony Electronics, and Katie Hinsen, finishing artist at Light Iron.

Katie Hinsen

Broadcasting Engineering Extra spoke with Katie about what she plans to talk about at the session, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11.

Broadcasting Engineering Extra: What is your role at Light Iron?

Hinsen: I’m a finishing artist here in New York. In the television world it is sort of the equivalent to online editing. So I take care of a lot of things here in the New York office including developing workflow and leading the project from a technical perspective. A project will come to me, I will do the conform, I will do any visual effects work, I’ll do any technical finessing. I will support the colorist, but I do not do the color. I take care of the “beauty work,” which of course is a lot and basic visual effects. And then I will also prep for deliverables. It’s pretty broad.

BEE: What is your experience in handling and dealing with HDR?

Hinsen: I’m the senior finishing artist at Light Iron in New York. Between the L.A. and New York offices, both coasts have been working on HDR TV shows and we’ve been doing R&D on this basically ever since at the 2014 NAB Show it looked like HDR was going to happen really fast. So we started doing R&D company-wide after that, and finding out as much as we could about it and how we might handle it if it came along. [HDR] is really important, and a big part of what we are known for is being ahead of the curve in terms of technology—it means that before a job comes to us we have to know what we are doing. L.A. did some HDR work first, and then here in New York, we did some HDR work this year. We actually worked on a pilot for Amazon that is coming out soon, and it is in HDR. Basically, Amazon and Netflix, their deliverables now are including HDR because they can. Not all of their shows but we are seeing that it is a trend.

BEE: Does one need a colorist background to work with HDR?

Hinsen: It depends on what you mean by “work with HDR.” You can work with HDR anywhere within the confines. You can be working with HDR in camera, you can be working with HDR in editing, all those areas. In the editing process, you’re not actually working in HDR. The big secret with HDR is that it’s not a big a deal as everyone is making it out to be. Because the thing is, you’re only actually working with HDR in camera and in color, and in deliverables clearly. Everything in between that you’re not actually working in HDR. You might be working with HDR files, but that’s only relevant to what you’re displaying.

A lot of the cameras—such as the ARRI cameras—shoot in HDR, but we were previously working with the file coming out of the ARRI camera, but only working to piece on that color space. So we were clipping it at 100 nits. HDR allows you to use all of that information if you wish. So, in the editorial, you don’t necessarily work in HDR; it doesn’t matter. It’s the same concept as when we were doing 3D. You weren’t generally cutting in 3D, you’re just cutting. You would shoot in 3D and have to be aware of it then, and you would grade and finish in 3D and be aware of it then, but everything in between it you have to focus on the creative storytelling and that sort of thing. You don’t need to focus so much on whether it’s HDR or not.

I think it’s important for people to know that HDR isn’t as scary as I think it’s being made out to be. We have the technology, we can use it, so use it. It looks great. I think the only limitation is whether or not you can see it. And if you can’t see it, then you’re just seeing what you’re used to seeing. But if you have a display that shows it then it’s awesome.

BEE: Is there enough cost-effective gear available to deploy and produce HDR content? How do you feel about the availability of technology now for handling HDR?

Hinsen: There are certainly more consumer monitors out there then there are professional monitors. But I think all emerging technologies these days don’t start with the professionals any more. Emerging technologies tend to start with consumers because of accessibility. If you have a lot of infrastructure to upgrade then it takes a lot more commitment to take on an emerging technology, but hobbyists and home users don’t have any infrastructure to deal with so they can play around and take a lot less risks with new technology.

So a lot of emerging technologies—we saw this with 3D, we’re seeing it with HDR, we’re seeing it with virtual reality now as well—the consumer market is really taking off before we kind of pulled up our pants and set the standards. There’s a lot of consumer tech out there now capable of HDR, there’s just not a lot of content. And it is coming, we are making that content in HDR. So I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of cost-effective professional gear out there in terms of monitoring. But that’s the thing, I work at a level where I’m not looking for cheap professional gear, I’m looking for good professional gear. But there is certainly consumer gear that is quite available, quite easily got.

I think people were waiting for OLED because it’s better quality, and you have to have a small monitor if you have OLED. But we’re doing it now, we’re making HDR shows, so we’re getting good, quality professional monitors so we can do a really good job at it.

BEE: What is the biggest challenge in working with HDR?

Katie: There are few challenges with HDR. It’s not a massive, fearful big thing, and it’s not as big a leap as 3D was back then. I think the biggest challenge is actually educating people that they don’t need to make a choice. If you want a better quality picture that a consumer can see a noticeable difference, go with both 4K and HDR. You don’t have to have that argument, you don’t have to ask that question. It sounds silly, but that is kind of the biggest challenge, letting people know that it’s totally doable, it looks great, don’t be scared, let’s go for it.

BEE: There’s some skepticism out there among professionals that consumers can’t tell the difference between 4K and UHD. They tend to say the “secret sauce,” the thing that really “turbo-charges” 4K and really makes it noticeable is HDR. Do you agree with that?

Hinsen: I do. There have been studies done, and there was one particular one the BBC did, where they asked consumers how much of a difference can you see. They showed them HD, then they showed them 4K, then they showed them HD and then they showed them HDR. Everybody overwhelmingly said “Oh, I can see a big difference in HDR, I would rather invest in that than 4K.” But the truth is, our eyes are actually becoming a lot savvier; the consumers’ eyes are becoming a lot savvier. Why wouldn’t you do 4K? We’re pushing 6K here; we just did a 6K film. I just don’t understand why you would want to do anything by halves when you can have something significantly and noticeably better, because HDR and 4K really complement each other. You got HDR, where everything is much clearer, you see a lot more of the picture; so why not have more of the picture with 4K? People are starting to see enough 4K now they’re noticing that HD looks more like standard-def to them.

BEE: Is high frame rate a requirement for HDR?

Hinsen: No, it’s different. 4K is about the size of your image. HDR is about how much contrast and how much color you have. And high frame rate is about how many frames per second that you have. Each of those three things can be done independently of one another. However, there is a benefit to using high frame rate when you’re working with HDR, in that when you have higher contrast, you can see more. The biggest challenge I think that we’ve found in terms of the actual practice of producing HDR is that you see so much more and you can’t hide anything. When you put in a higher contrast ratio, far more color, far more light going through, you can’t hide anything and you won’t miss anything. So everything has to be that much cleaner, more perfect. You can’t make any mistakes.

High frame rate is one of those things we think does help, because one of the errors that will be more revealed with HDR, with a higher contrast ratio—things like scrolling credits and fast movement—cannot look as good because of the higher contrast ratio; you can see more of the “skippiness.” So if you go into more of a higher frame rate then you have more of a smoother motion. So high frame rate may help HDR look better, but it’s not necessary at all. 

BEE: What is the best viewing environment to get the best HDR experience?

Hinsen: Ultimately we like to get the viewers to view in an optimal environment no matter what they may be doing. We grade in a dark theater, so we want you to watch it in a dark theater if you’re watching something theatrical. We know that if you’re watching television it’s probably going to be a little lighter so we do account for that. I think any optimal viewing environment—of course you want a dark room, you want to be straight on the screen—but that’s not realistic. So, I don’t think we need to be concerning people about optimal viewing conditions.

There have been other technologies that we say you need to be right in front of the screen, you don’t have wide viewing angles and things like that, but HDR is just like watching TV, it’s just prettier.

BEE: When you compare what a person is watching in a movie theater, are they getting the HDR experience when they are watching today’s typical movies in the theater?

Hinsen: No, those are all still SDR. However, laser projection is an emerging technology [that handles HDR]. There are a few cinemas around doing that. I think there’s one cinema in New York that’s doing HDR.

BEE: So is it safe to say that HDR will be coming to the cinema as well?

Hinsen: I think that’s what is being pushed for. It’s not the standard yet, but it certainly is something that we are trying to encourage. It’s just that cinemas are often late to the game in terms of being able to provide that viewing environment. The thing with HDR is that it’s not necessarily so much about the content, it’s about the viewers’ ability to see it. So, to have HDR you have to have an HDR monitor or HDR projection. We can sit here and merrily make HDR content all day, it’s just that people need to be able to see it.

The standards for HDR are not done. The UHD Alliance and SMPTE are both working on it, but it’s not set in stone. Meanwhile, post houses like Light Iron, are making content because it’s being asked for. It’s going out there. So there are shows being made in HDR before the standard has been set, so in a way, we are kind of setting our own standard. Without putting a label on it, what we are generally working toward is probably what it is going to end up being. But these things are in the early stages and we are grading for 1000 nits. Most of your consumer HDR TVs go up to 800; SDR is 100 nits. So it’s 10x the amount of contrast and color.

BEE: What do you hope to impart to the audience at CCW with your role on the panel?

Hinsen: My role on the panel is that I can speak to actually working on an HDR production. When people want to know what it’s like to do post-production on an HDR show that’s something I can talk about. I plan on presenting a case study of what we’ve done without mentioning too much in terms of specifics, obviously because of NDAs. I’m going to talk about the workflow and how we did it and some of the tricks and hurdles. I really want to push two things: One, that it’s not that big a deal, you don’t have to completely change your thinking to start producing HDR content. For many people in production, it’s not going to affect you in anyway, it’s just you’re going to end up with a much better product. That’s about the only great significant change you’re going to find. So I really just want to let people know it’s easy, we did it, we had to do a bit of research and we had to get a few toys, but it’s not scary.

The other thing I really want people to think about is to stop arguing about this “more versus better pixels” and just realize that we should do it. This whole “4K versus HDR” thing is a silly argument to have. I think we should be doing 4K and HDR and I don’t see why we should be having to make that kind of choice.

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Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.