Its an HDR World
Kathleen Maher
Issue: Volume 38 Issue 3: (May/Jun 2015)

Its an HDR World

It was just 2013 when the marketing drums started beating for 4k and the response from that journalistic segment – seemingly paid to throw cold water on new technologies – was that 4k TV was unnecessary. The human eye can’t see 4k. Living rooms can’t be built big enough. And, the usual opening salvo: there’s no content. 

The fracas over 4k has passed with hardly a scuffle. The people who have complained that 4k TVs are a long way away have shut up – much faster than usual because 4k TVs are being bought much faster than expected. Prices for 4k started their inevitable slide toward the end of 2014, and consumers predictably started buying. Worldwide sales for 4k TVs jumped 500 percent compared to last year, and the content has started to flow, or rather, stream. 

The providers of OTT (over-the-top, as in over-the-Internet) content, such as Netflix, Amazon, and UltraFlix, are providing 4k content, and they promise to match the pace of innovation in ways their counterparts in cable and satellite can only dream about matching. However, DirecTV is also going to offer 4k service soon.

The upward trend for 4k TVs will continue of course, but, ironically, 4k really isn’t the point. The content creators and providers – the directors, cinematographers, and broadcasters – are much more excited about the potential of high dynamic range (HDR), and immersive audio, high frame rates, and whatever else they think up that 4k TVs could deliver. The inescapable message at NAB 2015 is that HDR is going to bring a real change in home TV viewing. 

Candid on Cameras

Cameras have been adding resolution, and along the way, have become capable of very wide ranges of light capture, which, if you’ll excuse a breathless aside – Isn’t it the most wonderful thing the way digital cameras have become so incredibly capable and relatively inexpensive? These cameras are enabling a shift in favor of independent filmmakers and cinematographers who can create professional content with their own equipment. 

Last year, AJA introduced its own camera. A year or so before that, Blackmagic introduced theirs. The cameras have been slow to ship, and both companies admit that making cameras is a lot harder than they had thought, but the goal is end-to-end control over the pipeline: in this case, the entire acquisition to computer workflow. In fact, Blackmagic, Red, and Sony have also added software editing, color grading, audio, and more. 

Relatively inexpensive cameras are paving the way for HDR content. From top: Blackmagic’s ursa, AJA’s Cion, and Red’s Weapon.

AJA is busy showing off its CION, and Blackmagic its range of cameras, including the URSA 4k and URSA Mini. Blackmagic also introduced a new 4.6k sensor for its high-end URSA cameras. Blackmagic further offers a free copy of DaVinci Resolve with its cameras, which enables color grading and editing. 

Canon showed off the talents of its new EOS C300 Mark II Digital Cinema Camera. It’s the second stab Canon took at building a movie camera on top of its beloved Mark II model DSLR, and Canon has taken customer direction to heart as it builds the new camera. The EOS C300 Mark II Digital Cinema Camera has a different sensor: an 8.85-megapixel Canon Super 35mm 16:0 CMOS sensor that supports up to 4k recording at 4096x2160. Canon answered its customers’ prayers with auto focus and threw in Face Detection (with Canon EF lenses).

On another front, Arri, which is the grandfather of professional movie cameras – well respected and still at the top of the game – introduced a small mobile camera for mounted applications. The Arri Alexa mini is a sibling of the popular Arri Alexa, and it goes head to head with the Red Epic (Dragon) camera. The Alexa mini supports 4k HFR technology up to 60p and has HDR capture.

Red’s new camera is being sold as an upgrade, and it is appropriately named The Weapon. It’s available as a camera body upgrade for all Red Dragon sensors. The Red Weapon is based on the 19-megapixel Red Dragon sensor with a 6144x3160-pixel area. It supports acquisition formats from 6k, to 5k RAW, to 720p RGB. 

The bottom line is, AJA, Blackmagic, Red, and Canon with its Mark IIs are pushing at the boundaries of filmmaking and fostering the community of independent filmmakers that’s growing up around affordable tools. The difference these cameras make is that they’re part of a line of tools, from Canon’s DSLRs (and Nikon and Sony) and up to professional movie cameras costing tens of thousands of dollars. Young people can train themselves, and fledgling filmmakers can make a movie on budgets that were impossible just 10 years ago. There is nothing bad about that.

Displays for Content Creation

The coming HDR content will require displays to be capable of presenting the expanded images, even as the transition to 4k is happening. The real transition will come when HDR-capable TVs are in the home and the content developers seek to differentiate their material. They were first rolled out at this year’s CES, and the earliest and expensive models are just now entering the market, so they won’t be a standard feature in most people’s houses for a couple of years yet. 

What’s striking about the trend to HDR, however, is how enthusiastic content creators are about the technology. The ever-increasing resolutions are good – yeah, more pixels! – but it’s an incremental change that brings its own challenges, as well. 

More pixels mean more storage, more demands on software and hardware, bigger loads to schlep around the network, and so forth. But, bring along high dynamic range, which fills out the cinematographers’ palette with more light and more colors, and now you have justification for the increased system demands. And cinematographers have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. 

Broadcasters Amazon, Netflix, and Vudu have committed to HDR content, and they claim the increased bandwidth requirements are incremental and doable with the upgrades already made for 4k. Companies like Philips, Technicolor, and Dolby are strong proponents of the richer color gamut. 

In developing the second-generation DreamColor, HP’s goal was to provide easier access to the monitors’ color management features. As a result, the monitors provide consistent 10-bit color accuracy with push-button color-space selection and easy color calibration. This past NAB was an important year for HDR, and HP has added a new monitor to its second-generation DreamColor lineup: the Z32x, a 31.5-inch 4k UHD (3840x2160) monitor with eight million pixels and a 16:9 aspect ratio. 

HP also introduced new narrow bezel Z displays, which will look slick in multi-monitor setups. 

Sony also demonstrated spectacular monitors for HDR workflows. The company says its technology is being used to make HDR content today, and it will be coming out with home TVs for HDR content in a real-soon tomorrow. 

IHS says LCD panel makers are targeting 40 million 4k LCD TV panel shipments – 17% of all LCD TV panel shipments.

The Sony BVM-X300 is a 30-inch 4k OLED master monitor. It’s the company’s newest release in February 2015, and is the movie star in Sony’s line of production displays. It is a full 4k, OLED with the blacklit-blacks characteristic of OLED technology. It offers a wide color gamut that conforms to DCI-P3, which is an expansion of the sRGB color space to extend the color gamut for digital movie theaters. 

LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, and Vizio are also shipping (or soon will ship) HDR-capable TVs. What’s interesting is that some of the manufacturers will also be shipping OLEDs as well as LEDs. By Christmas, you can bet the elves will be singing HDR and explaining why people now have to buy new TVs after they already knocked a wall out of their house to accommodate a 4k TV that is, unfortunately, HDR-free. 

Dolby introduced its Professional Reference Monitor years ago. Its high-end PRM-4220 LCD includes 3D LUTs to emulate the color and contrast ratio associated with film and digital cameras. Dolby says its Reference Monitors enable the creation of HDR content that’s for future 4k and 8k displays using a much wider color gamut. That image is stored in metadata so it can be reproduced in the best format for the target display. This, by the way, is an important part of the ACES standard, which is being accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences. 

Dolby has a head start in the HDR transition with its Dolby Vision, a collection of technologies for cinema and TV. Dolby Cinema includes HDR via Dolby Vision and the company’s advanced surround sound, Dolby Atmos. 

HDR Standards

At CES this year, the stakeholders gathered around advanced television technologies and announced plans to develop a framework to enable different broadcast options for HDR, immersive sound, high frame rates, and so on. Everyone is looking for a piece of the action, so licensing, as well as technology, will have to be worked out. 

The UHD Alliance ( made its debut at CES. It’s already misnamed because the group is looking beyond UHD for ways to create and transmit advanced content with HDR, high frame rates, and immersive audio as a standard. Dolby thinks everyone should just go with Dolby Vision, while the industry is looking for something a little more open.

Panasonic, for example, is suggesting the next iteration of Blu-ray, which supports HDR; it is also suggesting HDR could be a model for the industry. It mandates an open HDR format with options that include support for Dolby Vision and Philips. 

Samsung introduced HDR-supported 4k TVs at CES, which it is calling SUHDTV. Samsung is working with the Fox Innovation Lab to develop an open HDR format for TV. Lionsgate says it is also focusing on its own flavor of HDR, and like Fox, is working with filmmakers.

Netflix has an important voice in the adoption of HDR formats, and the company quite rationally says it’s not going to support a bunch of HDR formats, though it also recognizes it might have to support more than one. 

Most people pledged support for ACES and an active movement to persuade foot draggers to adopt ACES-based workflows to ensure consistency. The Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) standard proposed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been developed to give cinematographers, editors, and colorists the ability to create content that will be ready for HDR. The ACES standard lets content be developed using the entire gamut of colors. 

It is apparent that many are hitching their wagons to HDR, which was the “star” of this year’s NAB, and expect this star to burn even brighter as the year progresses.