CJ@SMPTE Conference – What We Want To Do With More

By J. Sperling Reich | October 22, 2014 4:36 am PDT
SMPTE Symposium 2014 - What We Want To Do With More

In an effort to provide updates on the proceedings of the 2014 SMPTE Technical Conference and Exhibition presently taking place in Los Angeles, CA, this post was written live, and in the present tense, during one of the event’s panel discussions. Comments attributed to panel members are paraphrased unless denoted specifically by quotation marks.

The daylong SMPTE 2014 Symposium is being held at the historic El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, CA on the first day of the organization’s Annual Technical Conference & Exhibition. The symposium is being hosted by the Hollywood Post Alliance as one of the first joint events SMPTE and HPA are putting together as they work toward consolidating their organizations by May of 2015.

The symposium begins with comments from Leon Silverman, President of the HPA and General Manager of the Digital Studio at Walt Disney Studios, along with Jerry Pierce, Vice-President of the HPA and Technical Advisor at the National Association of Theatre Owners.

This year’s symposium is meant to address workflow demands involved with emerging technologies offering higher resolution images with greater contrast, color and brightness, high frame rate production, immersive audio… generally more of everything.

During the first session, titled “So Tell Me More” Mark Schubin, whose not only the Program Chair at the HPA but has a list of credits too long to list here, does a yeoman’s job of educating attendees on the intricate details, studies of image resolution, high density range, high frame rate, screen brightness and immersive sound. Schubin’s presentation is so heavy on acronyms there are enough letters to make a complete alphabet soup in numerous languages. Way too much information to document in a blog post. At the presentation’s conclusion Pierce rightly says it was like “drinking through a fire hose”.

Suffice to say, big take away is that HDR provides the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to audience perception, but that there is no stopping 4K for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that marketers have gotten their hands on it and the technology is ready right now. HDR, laser light sources (screen brightness), immersive audio and HFR are still being worked on. Exacerbating the problems with imaging is that each of the enhancements interacts with one another… and not in a good way.

That brings us to the first panel discussion of the day, “What We Want To Do With More”. Journalist Carolyn Giardina moderates a panel that includes Ben Grossman, a visual effects supervisor who won an Oscar for his work on “Hugo”, Joe Kosinski, the director of “Oblivion” and “Tron:Legacy”, Steven Poster, a cinematographer who counts “Donnie Darko” and “Amityville: The Awakening” among his credits. and Steven J. Scott, a senior digital colorist at Technicolor whose numerous credits include “Gravity” and the “Iron Man” franchise.

Giardina conducts a quick survey of the room that reveals a good number of attendees work in post-production, only a handful working production and that an overwhelm majority are engineers (the latter to nobody’s surprise).

Giardina asks Kosinski if HDR is important to him. “Well I’m real excited by it, more than any other recent development, even more than 3D,” says the filmmaker. “That’s because anytime you can show your work that mimics the world we live in with the color and brightness of everyday life, I think that’s a good thing. Frame rate I have slightly different feelings on.”

Kosinski thinks the new laser projectors show promise and will give 3D a big “shot int he arm that it really needs”. He goes on to discuss his disappointment with the theatrical experience. “Doing work in the DI suite was great but I was disappointed when the film was shown theatrically. Often times new theatres are putting curved screens in that are silver but they are showing 2D films on them. They are bending over backwards to serve the 3D films but they are ignoring the 2D movies. It is so important that the theatrical experience be the premiere experience when the audience sees a movie. What you can see at home now with a decent quality television and Blu-ray often surpasses what you can get in the theatre. All this new equipment and technology has the opportunity to bring theatrical exhibition back to the premium experience it once was.”

Poster respectfully disagrees. “Most people can’t see in their homes better images than in the theatre,” he says. “You and I can because we have a setup that looks good. The vast majority are seeing TV’s with motion interpolation that they they don’t even know how to turn off, or its so hard to turn off they’ll never get into the menu. This destroys any image of movies … manufacturers are at fault for trying to market a bigger brighter image to sell more TV’s but it looks like – pardon me – crap.”

Poster is concerned audiences will grow accustom to the poor image quality they get at home and start demanding it in theatres. “All you engineers who think you’re doing well, you’re not, you’re hurting us,” he says.

Scott says when he first saw HDR he thought the whites were too bright. “When I see an image that is blasting me with highlights I say, ‘Okay, these needs to be tamed’,” he recounts. He believes a language for how to work in HDR and HFR needs to be developed, which will come with time and experience.

Scott goes on to detail a gripe he has with the 3D movies he’s timed. “When you have a silver screen, well, it’s not a silver screen, it’s a dull gray screen,” Scott says. “A movie on a silver screen, in my opinion, can never look good. For a long time when I went to a theatre and saw the movie was being shown on a silver screen my heart sank.”

Questioning moves briefly to the topic of laser projection. Poster says it’s hard to judge how laser projection will affect his work as a cinematographer and considers the technology a work-in-progress. “Just as we started to develop DCI, we realized there was a need for standard evaluation material and we don’t have that yet,” he says. Obviously one way to evaluate the technology is through using the Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Standard Evaluation Material (StEM), “We need another round of StEM material,” Poster states. “We can take the old stem material to start with and reprocess and remaster, but we need material shot in HDR and digitally so we can evaluate what it is we’re seeing.”

Between laser and HDR, Scott claims he may finally have the “absolute black” level he has always wanted, “To me what’s exciting is what can you do in that low end that you could never have done before.”

Grossmann joins the conversation by pointing out the VFX community was the first to start working with HDR images because they needed as much detail as possible when working with material. He stresses the need to capture as much data as possible during production via HDR and other methods. “We need to more closely emulate the human experience in order to appeal to human emotions,” Grossmann says. He thinks current projector technology is not up to the task. “It’s like watching bad youtube videos on my phone and now it’s like I’m watching something that emulates real life,” he compares existing projectors to laser projectors. “The more that my body is reacting to the images being shown in the same way it does in real life than that’s what can move me emotionally.”

This spurs a debate because Poster respectfully disagrees. “To try and recreate something that we can see in reality may prevent us from suspending disbelief,” he argues. “That happens by showing less, not showing more. I think it’s great to have these tools. I want to have all the HDR I can possibly have so I can throw stuff out. A window on the world doesn’t work.”

This prompts some back and forth about the difference between virtual reality (VR) and the cinematic experience before Poster says, “You know it all comes down to the story. I don’t care what technology we’re given, whether it’s VR or a 2D screen, if you can’t tell a story in a way that helps us suspend our disbelief than you may as well stay at home with your TV.”

Grossmann explains his point-of-view on the matter by detailing a project he worked on recently at the California Science Center. He shot the Space Shuttle Endeavor from all angles, inside and out, incorporating Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) because it will soon be put on display in a manner in which people can’t go in it. The goal was to capture as much visual information as possible for future projects. “The idea being you might be able to put on an astronauts suit and inside the helmet is a visor with a display at such a high resolution it feels like you’re on a mission on the Space Shuttle,” Grossmann says. “It starts with just getting those options. These kinds of experiences now are possible thanks to the technology and the lines between them will blur more and more.”

“What I’m waiting for is the retinal implant that will make 3D and VR glasses unnecessary,” Scott adds some humor to the conversation.

It’s time to talk about production and Poster says in terms of capture there is some interesting technology coming. On his latest film, “I was able to shoot all of my interior nights and exterior nights on a Canon c500 with an exposure index of 3200. It changed my entire concept of how I could light a set to tell the story. It was fantastic. At the same time it’s a little scary to say I have that much sensitivity and how do I control the natural light?”

Kosinski adds, “My frustration with ‘Oblivion’ was that we shot the movie at 4K but we didn’t have the time or the money to finish the movie in 4K. The visual effects are holding us up.”

Cue Grossmann, who says VFX is often faces the dilemma of being too far ahead and too far behind at the same time. He reports that 4K has four times more data for computers to process and that the cost is not “greed, it’s electricity, computers, processing time.” After doing the math, producers and studios don’t want to increase the cost of a production between two and four times when there is no assurance a 4K film will translate to more ticket sales. He complains that producers give his team a 7% increase in budget when working on a stereoscopic (3D) project. However, a 3D film is twice as much material to process and it takes two-and-half times as long to render. Producers tell Grossmann that the 7% comes from one half of the up-charge being passed along to the consumer; half goes to the exhibitor, a quarter to the studio and a quarter to producers, the latter of whom split their increased take with the VFX team and others.

Grossmann reveals that he is often asked to create 2K effects for a movie shot in 4K, but to not tell anyone that the movie will only be mastered in 2K because the producers and the studio are going to market the movie as a 4K release.

Poster states that it is getting harder to control the quality, 4K or not, because outside services such as labs are shutting down and a lot of the work is being done on set. Scott really loves working with 4K. “I think generally you look at it and you just know it looks better,” he says. “You have no idea why sometimes but you just know, maybe subliminally, it just looks better.”

Grossman concedes, “There’s this unfortunate problem right now where if you want to shoot a feature film in 4K it will probably not be distributed in 4K due to financial constraints.”

“It’s easy to capture in 4K, 6k or 8k the problem is finishing it, especially big effects movies,” Kosinski agrees.

“I’d rather have more bit-depth than resolution,” says Poster. If he has the choice between of shooting 4K at 10-bit versus 2K at 12-bit he’ll always take the latter.

That brings us to frame rates. “I did some tests of Oblivion at 48 fps and it didn’t feel like a movie to me,” Kosinski confesses. He wasn’t sure if maybe this is a generational issue because he was raised on 24fps. He thinks nature documentaries work perfectly in HFR. “For my next film the plan will be 4K at 24 fps.”

Poster would like to use “higher frame rates in only parts of the frame. Maybe there is software that can help blend.”

Grossmann says such software does exist, but that the issue is more psychological, “for whatever reason, have gotten in our head that 24 fps looks more like a movie.”

Scott is presently doing HFR tests and finds it fascinating. There are certain instances where the use of HFR is appropriate and others where it isn’t. “Post tools can give you incredible looks,” he says. “So that you have HFR but you can get a little bit more of the 24fps feel that you like so much. But we need to release ourselves from this legacy. It’s holding us back. We are married to this look.”

“At some point we will have to give up the idea of the look of motion picture film because we have so much more beyond that now,” Poster agrees. “We have the possibility of doing more.”

Giardina asks each panel member what they have on their wish list. Kosinski wants a compact 3D camera with a proper offset because on “Tron: Legacy: the 3D camera was 250 pounds and couldn’t be carried by an operator.”

Scott wants improvement on input devices. “More intuitive input devices that we can color with,” he says. “I’d like to have everything in real time. You’re missing the ability to be truly creative and have a creative flow because you have to wait for everything to process.”

Grossmann jokes that he wants a holodeck. (Who doesn’t?) Realistically, he’d like an accelerometer to place on the camera to see how fast it’s moving, panning and where it’s placed on set. He’d like to get LiDAR information through the lens.”

Poster wants professionals to petition television manufacturers to stop defaulting their products to smooth motion. “We are really hurting ourselves in the narrative world certainly,” he states. “You are creating an audience that will have no way to suspend disbelief.”

It’s time for questions from attendees and a gentleman from NASA asks what documentary filmmakers will want five or ten years from no in regards to HFR, HDR, etc. After hemming a bit the members on the panel respond true to the form they’ve maintained throughout the panel, and true to their profession.

“We’ll talk later,” Poster tells the representatives from NASA, saying he has a few thoughts he’ll discuss with him offline.

“And I’ll fix it later,” Grossmann quickly adds.

“And then I’ll show you how to do it properly,” Scott says to boisterous laughter as the panel concludes.

J. Sperling Reich