On HDR Displays and Grading

Today, Samsung and Amazon announced yet another HDR standard for televisions. In case you're not familiar with the idea of a High Dynamic Range display, it's—get this—brighter than a normal display. That's it. This groundbreaking idea apparently needed about four competing standards, one from Dolby, the sound company. Now there's a fifth.

I couldn't resist chiming in on Twitter.

To be clear, that's me HDR-ifiying the shot. There is an actual "HDR" edition of Sicario on 4k Blu-ray, but from the looks of it, it has the same intentionally compressed dynamic range as the HD version these stills were pulled from.

That's a good thing. That's the filmmaker's intent.

Update 2017-04-21: Be sure to read all the way to the end for more on this. Seriously, you don't want to miss it.

Notes on this Rant

To be clear, I created a straw man by taking a beautiful movie, Sicario, and coarsely applying the only area of quantative “improvement” that HDR allows: brighter highlights. This was only possible because Sicario doesn't even use the entire dynamic range of HD video. The filmmaker’s intended look fits entirely within the low-dynamic-range container of HD Rec709. It’s a low-contrast, low-saturation film. The “HDR” 4k version is no different, and seemingly enjoys only the qualitative benefits of enhanced color fidelity and resolution in the 4k Blu-ray edition. Those are real benefits. And there are movies with bright, poppy colors that would happily occupy the greater dynamic range of an HDR TV. And working to that standard, a filmmaker would, of course, still be welcome to opt out of the brighter highlights, and choose their own dynamic range “box” to work within.


...in practice, that won’t be the case. Because even without HDR, TVs already ruin movies by trying to make them look “better.” HDR is just another axis for your relatives’ TV to be set up wrong. And just like modern TVs try to “fix” 24p with motion smoothing, you can bet they’ll also offer all kinds of delightful modes to “HDR-ify” your LDR content. And if you think that will look better than my coarse examples above, you haven’t seen how bad TVs already are.

HDR has the potential to be a useful tool. But TV manufacturers will absolutely screw it up.

Follow Up 2017-04-21: All the Ways I’m Wrong

There’s been a lot of great response to this post, and some thoughtful disagreements. I opened the door for the disagreements by structuring my argument rather sloppily; conflating two different ideas.

Argument 1: I’m not personally Interested in the Creative Potential of HDR for Cinematic Images

I can’t be “wrong” about this one, because it’s my opinion, but of course you are welcome to disagree.

When I took the intentionally, creatively LDR images from Sicario and brightened up their highlights, I wasn’t saying that your HDR TV will do this to Sicario. Nor was I saying that an mastered-to-HDR-standards version of Sicario would look like that.

What I was saying is the good old Prolost argument that less is more with cinema. Sicario is widely regarded as a very beautiful film. It intentionally uses a very low dynamic range, less than even Rec709 allows. The only way the HDR-ness of HDR can “improve” that is if some idiot tried to brighten up the highlights. What I was trying to show is that the flagship feature of HDR has nothing to offer Sicario.

But I mixed that argument in with my distrust of consumer television manufacturers, which opened my up to rebuttals like this:

He’s right, there’s nothing about the HDR standards themselves that should mess up our movies.

Chris in the comments below said “There is beautiful potential for artistic expression in HDR.” I’m sure that’s true. But this is just another case where I don’t think the way movies look is broken. I like rolled-off highlights and constrained palettes. I imagine Kylo Ren’s lightsaber could look amazing in HDR, but I’d probably prefer the way if would look if it was shot on a vintage roll of Kodak 5218. If your idea of a pretty movie is more along the lines of Pacific Rim than Arrival, you’re going to love HDR.

So on argument 1: I’m not wrong, but neither are your disagreements.

Argument 2: HDR is Another Axis for Consumer Televisions to Ruin Our Viewing Experience

I kinda started my argument with the creative, “Sicario is pretty and doesn’t need HDR so why would anyone ever” point and then concluded with the “Samsung will just screw this all up anyway” point. Which is not how you’re supposed to write convincing arguments. Oops.

But I remain concerned that HDR will simply mean that TV manufacturers will forget all about making blacks blacker and colors more accurate and simply try to blind us with how bright, sharp, blue, and smooth their images can be.

Rod Bogart, one of the smartest imaging nerds I know (we met at ILM, he’s now at HBO, and his actual initials are RGB), replied:

A number of other people chimed in here as well to point out that since HDR comes with metadata that tells the TV what it is, there’s a greater chance that the TV can show it correctly.

In the marketing site for LG’s flagship OLED HDR TV, the actually state that “With[...] Dolby Vision, you can be sure that your entertainment is viewed the way it was meant to be seen.”

I want to believe. But I’ve been hurt so badly.

Before five competing standards of HDR, there was only one HD color standard in the US: Rec709. Just one. A really easy one. A 27-year-old one. And no consumer TV shows it correctly by default. They all try to make it brighter, sharper, bluer, and more saturated.

Guess what HDR-capable panels let them do? That’s right, make images even brighter, even bluer, even more saturated.

There’s also another danger, which is that studios could get in$pired to sell us HDR retransfers of library titles. I hadn’t mentioned it, but Todd Vaziri (another ILMer) picked up on it:

The temptation will be there to contravene the original filmmaker’s intention for the look of an important film, just to demonstrate the value of new TVs and new opportunities to buy a movie you’ve already bought three times.

The good news is that that for all the brighter-is-better LCD panels out there, there are also these amazing new OLED panels, which are being used more and more for professional grading and really do look great. They are HDR-capable, but they are also very accurate and have great contrast. Prices are coming down too.

The other good news is that the folks transferring Sicario to HDR 4k seemed perfectly happy to ignore the opportunity to create poppy, bright highlights where there were none before.

So if HDR gets anywhere close to helping home viewers see what filmmakers intended, I’ll be delighted. But you’ll have to forgive my skepticism, as history indicates quite the opposite. I just spent a week traveling, and every hotel TV I saw was showing letterboxed SD channels stretched to fill a 16:9 frame. We can’t even get the simple stuff right, and five competing HDR standards are anything but simple.

So on argument 2: Too early to tell if I’m right or wrong. History is on my side. But I hope I’m wrong. I may need to buy a new TV someday.