The state of HDR (according to Sony)

Marco Polo Netflix in HDR
Neal Romanek
Analysis
January 22nd 2016 at 3:41PM : By Neal Romanek

Sony's TV Technology Days get us up to speed on everyone's favourite video advancement, HDR

Of course Sony wants to educate you about their products. If you don’t know how to use a Sony PXW-Z100 4K XDCAM, you’re not going to buy a Sony PXW-Z100 4K XDCAM.

But Sony has turned their product training into a fine art. Two years ago, the company decided to lease a space at Pinewood Studios, turning it into the Sony Digital Motion Picture Center (DMPC). The Centre is now home to continuous workshops and tutorials on Sony systems and the theory and skills needed to use them.

The Sony Pro Europe website too features an extensive range of online tutorials covering everything from IP networks to broadcast cameras to pro audio to questions of craft and technology. And it’s all free. Yes, you get to go down to Pinewood and learn about Hand-held Camcorder Operation or BVM-F Series Trimaster EL Monitors Operation for free. And there are webinars, if the idea of visiting one of the world's great studio lots has no appeal.

Sony Technology Days

This week, Sony held the UK leg of its Sony Technology Days, which featured a half-day of general training covering three sessions, “4K & HDR Production”, “New live infrastructure over IP”, and “Workflow production from capture to archive”. Sony Technology Days is part of a European roadshow which has travelled Europe over the past couple months, from Turkey to Poland.

The sessions were well attended by a cross section of media industry crew and tech staff, including camera operators, integrators for major post houses, and CTO’s. Granted there were some sales pitches gently folded into the content, but with engaged delegates who really knew their stuff, the presentations become useful springboards for discussion and for taking the temperature of where industry technology stands.

Sony Technology Days

The Sony Digital Motion Picture Center playground

 

One bit of kit that was a magnet for delegate attention was the Sony BVM-X300 Trimaster EL OLED critical reference monitor, showing 4K HDR images about as well as you’re likely to see them on a grading monitor. Whenever you show 4K High Dynamic Range images, you’re inevitably going to attract a crowd, whether it’s technologists who want to talk about OLED’s and nits, or creatives exclaiming, “Yes! That’s what an image is supposed to look like!”

For those who have completely avoided the media industry for the past year: HDR, or High Dynamic Range, describes images which have a much wider dynamic range (the number of gradations between black and white) and a much wider colour gamut (the range of colours that are displayed). HDR content requires cameras able to capture that dynamic range and colour space (which we have plenty of), and bright displays which can show them (which we don't have as many of), and a chain in which those images can be delivered to the viewer (which is just getting off the ground). 

HDR's time has come (hasn't it?)

Peter Sykes, Sony Europe strategic technology development manager, delivered an HDR primer and explained why its time has come.

First of all, the first HDR movies and TV content have been completed and are shipping. Last year Amazon became the first VOD provider to distribute HDR content. Netflix followed with Marco Polo available in HDR. And Disney released Tomorrowland in an HDR version showing in a few select Dolby Vision cinemas.

A lot of high-end masters – most feature films, for example – already contain the image data needed to be graded in HDR versions. Once there is an adequate pipeline for distribution, there will be plenty of market incentive to regrade new HDR versions of any number of feature films or high-end TV productions.

But delivering in HDR is pretty pointless unless you have displays that can show it. This is where the development of the technology slows - as is often the case - to the pace of the consumer’s willingness to upgrade. Will people switch to HDR TV’s? Probably. Eventually. The fact that a 4K HDR display consumes notably more power than even a standard 4K monitor is a potential issue, and the uncertainties around standards have slowed things as well.

But HDR TV’s are becoming more widely available - Sony’s new Bravia 4K HDR TV’s for example, and the company’s 4K TV’s with X-tended Dynamic Range pro which creates an HDR effect – a kind of ‘HDR-lite’ – based on Sony’s own propriety conversion algorithms.

 

HDR workflows are here (pretty much)

The HDR post production workflow is also becoming more robust and simplified. Cinema cameras have been able to capture the image information needed for High Dynamic Range images for some time, but affordable HDR grading monitors have only appeared recently. There’s the Sony BVM-X300, of course. Also Canon’s 24in DPV2410 and 30in DP-V3010, Dolby’s Dolby Vision 32in monitor and Vizio’s 65in and 120in monitors, which run on the Dolby Vision system.

And a reference monitor doesn’t need to be gigantic to be effective for HDR grading. A 30in 4K monitor viewed at arm’s length provides as much or more picture detail as a dubbing theatre projector – a fact confirmed by Pablo Garcia Soriano, the Sony Digital Motion Picture Centre “colourist in residence”.

There is no monitor available that can reproduce the entire BT.2020 colour space, the colour gamut standard for UHD TV’s. The Sony BVM-X300 monitor gets about 80 to 85% of the way there.

The triangle represents the BT.2020 colour space, inside the entire range of human colour perception:

Rec2020 color gamut

 

HDR standards are (very nearly) here!

HDR standards for mastering and delivery are finally here.

SMPTE developed its ST 2084 HDR standard and there’s the Hybrid Log-Gamma standard too, jointly developed by the BBC and NHK. There will be a meeting of the ITU in a couple weeks, and it’s hoped that the Hybrid standard will be adopted. Sony also has its own SLog3 system, which it intends to hold on to until an industry standard is universally accepted.

HDR live broadcasting is a reality (in theory)

The first live HDR broadcast trials have been done too. Last year Sky Deutschland held a trial broadcast of live UHD in High Dynamic Range of the German Supercup Final from Wolfsburg Stadium with a fiber link to Munich. Naturally, Sony participated, supplying their HDC-4300 cameras and the BVM-X300 monitor.

The aim of the trial was to evaluate how 4K HDR characteristics worked in a live chain to an HDR screen – and also, just as importantly, to an SD screen. There was a single camera feed, and different configurations were compared by switching between them (manually), every fifteen minutes. The test compared the SMPTE ST 2084 and the Hybrid Log-Gamma standard, jointly developed by the BBC and NHK. The Hybrid standard performed particularly well in outputting back to a Standard Dynamic Range, suggesting that Hybrid could be the best option for HDR in live broadcast.

So it would appear all the pieces are in place. HDR elbowed its way past 4K (and 8K and stereoscopic) as an eye-grabbing, audience and artist-pleasing advancement in image capture and display. It’s not just a leap forward in quantity (of pixels or inches), but a leap forward in quality, transforming video to a literally brighter and more colourful medium. And Sony's eager to push us along.