HDR Isn’t About Tech. It’s About Storytelling.

HDR Isn’t About Tech. It’s About Storytelling.

When discussing the topic of high dynamic range (HDR) in film and television, it’s hard not to be swept into the technical aspects of this relatively new technology.

Step into any post-production forum, for example, and you’ll be walking face-first into a wall of specs, standards, and (sometimes) conflicting views.

I’ve been a colorist on short- and long-form content for most of my career—not to mention a huge evangelist for HDR—so I’ve been a part of many discussions about what HDR actually is. But one thing that doesn’t get talked about enough, in my opinion, is what HDR is actually for.

And that’s storytelling.

So I’m going to try to avoid getting bogged down in the technology of HDR in this article. But, if you’re looking for a primer, this video is a great place to start.

For your eyes only

The elevator pitch for HDR is that it delivers a higher visual quality allowing audiences to experience images that are more vibrant, like what we’re capable of seeing with our own eyes. More lifelike. If you’re watching a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, some might say the images are larger than life.

While it sounds simple, it’s an extremely lofty objective.

Imagine a cube, sitting on your desk. This cube represents the entire range of brightness and saturation you can fit into the SDR images we’ve been consuming for ages. Now turn your chair around. There’s a new cube behind you, only this one’s so large it just punched a hole through your ceiling. That’s HDR.

In simple terms, HDR is a container that can hold more brightness, more shadow detail, and more saturation. But this is a slightly reductive view of what HDR is for.

Color spaces
Display and camera color spaces overlaid on a representation of visible light.

What draws most of us towards the light of an HDR screen is the promise that it will get us as close as possible to the vision that the cinematographer, director, and colorist had inside their heads when they made the movie or show.

It’s never about the tech. It’s always about the story.

The power of light

Let me give you an example.

I recently watched Dune (Villeneuve’s 2021 version) on HBO Max, and there’s a scene where Paul stands in the dusk of their home planet of Caladan, pondering the colossal move to Arrakis that he’s about to make.

He’s standing near his grandfather’s grave, and even though it’s getting dark, you can see so much detail in the shadows and the costumes. There’s one lone star far off in the distance—it’s a very small object on screen—but it was so bright. There was such a stark visual contrast between the protagonist and his destination.

It was such an incredibly strong moment, this glittering, inescapable dot in the frame, that it gave me chills.

I can’t say for sure that this was intentional. For all I know, that star just fell where it fell in an HDR environment. But I like to think that it was deliberately made very bright to visually represent the heroes’ journey, and in a way that was made available due to the HDR color grade.

For comparison, when I watched the same scene a week later at an IMAX theater, the star wasn’t as bright, and the emotional impact I had felt before just wasn’t there. Despite the screen size and the immersive experience that IMAX offers, the scene didn’t land as well when the extra dynamic range was missing.

Crowning glory

Want another one? Try Netflix’s The Crown.

Every season of this series has been shot in some stunning locations, like Lancaster House (standing in for Buckingham Palace), Ely Cathedral (as Westminster Abbey), Balmoral Castle, Sandringham, and Kensington Palace, among others.

Admittedly, this is an incredibly impressive series in whatever format you watch it, but see it in HDR on a good screen and it’s breathtaking. These historic settings and costumes come alive. You experience the texture and depth of the locations in a way that really conveys the themes of heritage and tradition that run through each episode. When I watch this series in HDR, the environments are so vivid that I feel the burden and weight of these characters’ decisions, their conflicts, and the pressure of an entire nation on their shoulders.

And it shouldn’t be surprising when you experience this for yourself.

We’ve known for a long time that color palette can fire up an emotional response, so it’s a logical assumption that having more color can help elicit more emotion.

But even if that’s not the case—emotional response is very subjective, after all—HDR certainly provides the storyteller with a larger canvas and a wider selection of paints to create a more nuanced engagement with the viewer. Here are some of my favorite examples.

What’s stopping us?

So if HDR lets you tell your stories more effectively and accurately, why aren’t we all doing it?

The obvious answer is price, but that’s not the whole picture.

Even in top post houses in NYC or LA, you’re not going to see a Flanders XM312U or Sony BVM-HX310 on every workstation. While they’re getting cheaper all the time, these are expensive products that come with a cost component that can seem hard to justify.

And until the clients start demanding it, then there’s no pressing need to make that investment. Right? They’re the ones keeping the lights on, and if they’re not asking for it, why go out of our way to invest lots of money in it?

Well, here’s the irony: your clients may already be asking for HDR. They just don’t know it, yet.

Popping candy

Let me give you a personal example.

For the past few years, I’ve been color grading commercials for a theme park belonging to a well-known candy company.

During that time I’ve had to perform all kinds of weird tricks to push the colors of the brand as far as possible. Making the colors “pop” while staying within broadcast-legal limits. It’s a challenge!

Hershey Brand Colors
Candy brands often use highly saturated colors that are very difficult to reproduce in SDR gamuts.

As you can imagine, a lot of these very saturated brand images are already screaming to be let out of the box and breathe the way those colors want to breathe in the real world, which is ultra-bright and ultra-saturated.

So while the client hasn’t explicitly asked for HDR, it’s clear that what they want…is HDR.

But as long as client (and agency) expectations are defined by the limits of cable TV, we’ll be faced with a hard limit on the luminance and chrominance of the images that we can show. So what can we do to kick things up a notch?

Give it a shot

Just like the shift from SD to HD to 4K, change isn’t going to happen overnight, but a lot of the tools to democratize HDR are already in place.

While many professional colorists live and die by a bonafide HDR reference monitor from Sony or FSI that’s paired with a dedicated I/O card designed for HDR output, you technically don’t need one to begin working in HDR.

For example, in DaVinci Resolve, you can now get a 10-bit 4K HDR signal sent to an HDR-compatible computer monitor over a simple Thunderbolt 3 connection, which is a much smaller investment.

So our editing, coloring, VFX, and compositing software is already HDR-compliant. Monitors that can handle HDR are becoming less expensive and more widely available, and we can even shoot and view HDR material on our iPhones.

Viewing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo support HDR playback, and you can build your HDR collaboration and approval workflows quickly and easily in Frame.io.

When it comes to getting that content to your clients, all they need is an HDR-compatible iOS device and they’ll get to see it as it was meant to be seen using Frame.io’s HDR-enabled app (which can be Airplayed in 10-bit 4K HDR to the nearest TV).

So really, it boils down to two things. Are you willing to produce HDR content, and does your client actually want it? Assuming that the answer to the first question is “yes,” how do we change the second?

Some numbers

If you’re a numbers person, you might want to hit them with some market research first.

According to Statista, global shipments of HDR TVs are on the rise, with 136.5M units shipped so far this year (with America leading the charge).

On the mobile front, over 100 million iPhone 12s are in circulation, with iPhone 13 models poised to sell even more, and that’s not even counting the Android phones with HDR screens. (Nor does it factor in the effects of consoles like the Xbox Series X and Playstation 5, both of which were sold with the promise of HDR gaming.)

Then you can bundle in all of the major streaming services (Netflix, Prime, Apple TV, Hulu, YouTube, HBO Max, and Disney+) that support HDR to some degree. Most are promoting it; some are even making it mandatory.

Add all of these up, and you’ve got yourself a large audience that’s hungry for HDR content.

Show, don’t tell.

If the numbers aren’t enough to get your client over the line, maybe take a more direct approach.

This can be as bold as taking a 20-second slice of the job you’re currently working on and presenting an HDR version of it. Or you can let other people do the work for you.

Take this HDR sample on YouTube.

If you play this back in a browser on a non-HDR system, it looks really good. It was shot in Blackmagic RAW on an Ursa Mini pro 12K with a 55mm Zeiss Otus f1.4 prime. The lighting is on-point and the framing is beautiful.

Now play the same clip on an HDR TV using the YouTube app and revel in the depth. The evanescence of the bubbles. The tonal richness of the browns, blacks, and reds of the soda. The crispness of the ice. The tiny stars of fizz. Tell me you don’t want a Coke right now.

Or if you want something a little less commercial, you can do the same with Maya and the Three.

It’s the same story. Watch the SDR trailer on YouTube and it looks as good as the color space and dynamic range will allow. Play the show on an HDR screen with the Netflix app and the difference literally needs to be seen to be believed.

HDR Gold isn’t gold-ish. It glitters. Like gold is supposed to. Magic explodes off the screen. Hair looks glossy. Eyes look bright and alive…you get the picture (or maybe you don’t, depending on what you’re watching it on).

Obviously, as a colorist, I’m a little biased. But to me, the transition from SDR to HDR is far more significant than technological advances in screen size, resolution, or frame rate. It’s a generational shift in image quality and storytelling.

But the sharp-eyed among you might have noticed a problem with the examples I’ve given. That Coca-Cola bottle video? It wasn’t produced for Coca-Cola. And that trailer for Maya and the Three? It was uploaded to YouTube in an SDR format.

If one of the biggest advertisers in the world isn’t taking advantage of HDR to sell soda, and Netflix isn’t uploading HDR content to their own YouTube channel, even when it’s available, it’s clear that there’s still some road to travel and challenges to overcome.

Seeing the light

We can either stay as we are, or we can choose to move things forward by showing our clients just how much better their stories look when told with an increased palette of light and color.

The high end is already doing it, so it’s up to us to bring it into the mainstream. There’s really nothing stopping us.

As independent filmmakers and producers of short-form content, we can start this new adventure together. The filmmakers who make a living telling long form stories have already gone through this whole process of investigating, exploring, adopting and living in HDR. Now it’s the turn of the short-form community to explore the format for ourselves.

Because even if you can’t convince your clients that they need HDR right now, you’ll want to be ready when they decide that they do.


Featured image from Ozark © Netflix

Thank you to Jason Druss for contributing this article.

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