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Creating for HDR in Cinema
BY JON SILBERG
Tech reporter Carolyn Giardina of the Hollywood Reporter sat down with Dominic Glynn, senior scientist at Pixar Animation Studios, and Jay Holben, director of the ASC’s “StEM2” (Standard Evaluation Material follow-up to the organization’s first StEM film, released in 2004). The former explained his company’s approach to creating and mastering for HDR; and the latter touched on the experience of shooting and finishing the HDR version of the “StEM2” film.
Their conversation was recorded as part of the SMPTE-sponsored discussion “HDR in Cinema – Part 2.” While the first session focused on the future of HDR-related technology, this colloquy primarily concerned the creative aspects of image-making for current and future HDR display technology.
Pixar, Glynn said, has always endeavored to stay ahead of the technology curve, frequently creating versions of their movies for delivery specs that don’t exist at the time of production and which in some cases might never exist. Pixar features, he explained, spend roughly five years in production.
“Often, we have art direction conceived specifically for a world that doesn’t yet exist for exhibition,” Glynn said. “We have a laser projector that can get four times brighter than [the current Dolby Cinema] spec. Our art directors come up with imagery sometimes without anyone knowing how we’re going to show it to people.”
Referencing their 2015 hit “Inside Out,” he recalled Pixar’s making the most of the then-new Dolby Cinema format. “At the time that film came out, we had a good portion of it which very deliberately [moved beyond] the P3 gamut. It was a very aggressive treatment in terms of the color correction on that film,” he said, noting that the 48-nit P3 and the BTU 709 versions were all graded individually, not derived through any kind of transform, in order to make the most of each display format.
This touches on a key issue: While there are tools such as Dolby’s Content Mapping Unit (CMU) designed to take imagery graded for one display spec and re-map it to others, there are still many professionals who argue that this is still an imperfect science at this point and that to make the best possible use of each display format, a separate version of the project must be color graded specifically for each.
This, said Glynn, is Pixar’s take: “We haven’t yet gained confidence that some assistive tool — I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense — to demote a larger gamut or dynamic range to a smaller one is adequately able to finesse the creative direction that we would have applied manually.”
So, is the future of feature film distribution one of an ever-growing list of separate passes and diverse deliverables?
Noting that “Avatar: The Way of Water” required the creation of more than a thousand different deliverables – variations in terms of maximum nits, frame rates, 3D and more – Giardina asked Glynn whether that’s how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future, or if he sees technologies on the horizon that could simplify the process?
Glynn noted that Pixar is in the privileged position of “having the liberty to discretely treat each of these exhibition opportunities to exploit its specific characteristics when [doing so] is appropriate to the narrative. To that end, we spend a lot of time creating multiple masters. At Pixar, every exciting new technology means a new master.”
But he acknowledged, “That’s not a scalable solution for the vast majority of even very big-budget Hollywood films.”
StEM2 and HDR
Holben spoke about the issue in terms of his work on the “StEM2” film. He and cinematographer Christopher Probst had focused their attention entirely on getting a master in P3 at 48 nits where they wanted it, only subsequently thinking about HDR versions. In the future, Holben said, he expects to give more consideration to the possibilities of HDR earlier in the process.
Glynn also stressed that Pixar’s artists are primarily focused on the uses of new display technologies, such as HDR, to enhance story. The immersive qualities of a completely dark theater without distractions and projection that can get much brighter than moviegoers are used to, he said, are important because they can eliminate “the technological divide between the audience in their seat and the story that’s being conveyed.”
To illustrate his point, Glynn brought up another visual enhancement that Pixar applied to “Inside Out:” The native 4K rendering of the film that the company created (for theaters capable of displaying it) was, he said, valuable primarily as a storytelling enhancement.
He acknowledged that the greater resolution helped enhance big landscapes, “with spatial detail in buildings off in the background and in beautiful blades of grass we rendered in the foreground. We were able to take advantage of the additional pixels there, for sure. Those are the eye candy money shots for 4K resolution.
“But that moment when a character’s tears start to well up in their eye and the camera’s up close and the focus is right there — that’s when the 4K really, really matters! That’s when it enhances the emotional immersion for the audience and their connection to the character.”
Another topic that came up in this freewheeling conversation had to do with a growing trend of re-interpreting old films for HDR — a canvas that the long-gone filmmakers likely never imagined.
Holben said he would be troubled by an HDR version of “Casablanca.” “Maybe it would have deeper blacks, or we’d see more details of the silver nitrate in the film, but what is the intention? How would that reflect what the filmmakers wanted to convey?”