UHD Post-Creating UHD

AlphaDogs is one of the west coast’s premiere post houses, but even they find the prospect of creating UHD projects challenging.

A lot of people in our industry think they know what UHD (Ultra High Definition) video is. It’s as obvious as the sun rising in the east, isn’t it?

Since I look at content creation from a post production perspective, I can tell you there is more confusion than clarity when it comes to actually creating UHD. Perhaps that is because while our original analog TV signal was specified by a technology group, the National Television System Committee (NTSC) in 1941 for black & white followed in 1953 for color, and the digital conversion came, at least in the U. S., in 2009 under the aegis of another techno-quorum, the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), UHD got its genesis as a display format.

On October 17, 2012, The Consumer Electronics Association declared that "Ultra High Definition", or "Ultra HD", would be the designation for screens that have an aspect ratio of 16:9 or wider and at least one digital input capable of presenting native video at a minimum resolution of 3840 X 2160 pixels.[

Of course, almost from day one the marketing arm of every set manufacturer began mis-appropriating the sexier term “4K” to describe these new digital wonders despite the fact that 4K is a concept created for the cinema world and thanks to the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) is far more specifically defined.

Still, by 2015 the Ultra HD Forum was created to promote a UHD production ecosystem and in 2016 the UHF Alliance, a consortium of content creators, distributors, and hardware developers used that year’s CES to announce its “Ultra HD Premium” specification.

That term encompasses the minimum resolution of 3840 X 2160 pixels, at least 10-bit color depth, wide color gamut, High Dynamic Range imaging (HDRI) and rendering (HDRR).

There was only one not-so-minor problem. Domestic broadcasters couldn’t carry the UHD signal and pretty soon Internet streaming providers who were not restricted by government allocated RF bandwidth were cutting into their viewership.

This hesitancy to actually deploy distribution of UHD programming has been tracked by the International Association for Broadcast & Media Technology Suppliers (IABM) whose members account for over 80% of the broadcast and entertainment technology market’s revenues. 

They poll end users twice a year, both in April at The NAB Show and in September during the IBC convention.

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According to the IABM’s lead research analyst, Lorenzo Zanni, in the 2017 edition of these surveys approximately 1/3 of those responding had no intentions of launching UHD delivery at all.

In fact, according to Zanni, “Most UHD deployments are in Europe (45%), followed by Asia-Pacific (31%) and North America (20%) – LatAM and MEA have 4%, 2% respectively. In terms of transmission, most offerings in Europe and Asia-Pacific are IPTV, while in North America OTT prevails.”

The purpose of this series of articles is to understand why UHD has not exploded as a delivery format. This is one of the driving forces behind the potential of ATSC 3.0 threatening to completely overturn the broadcasting apple cart. It’s an especially querulous conundrum in light of the fact that, again according to the IABM, by 2020 50% of households will have a UHD TV set.

The best place to start is at entry point of a production funnel, in this case, with one of the most innovative post houses serving Hollywood: AlphaDogs, an independent post house founded in 2002 in the middle of the Burbank media district.

Serving a wide variety of clients, AlphaDogs utilizes a broad spectrum of post technologies, from Avid’s Symphony to Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci, and is also the host of the often-monthly Editor’s Lounge where post pros gather for Friday night drinks and chat to network their profession.

“Unless you are delivering to the likes of Amazon or Netflix, I guide clients away from finishing in UHD,” began Terence Curren, editor/colorist and founder of AlphaDogs. “Even Disney released ‘Star Wars VII’ in 2K, and what studio is more interested in future-proofing its archives than Disney?”

Curren heard that last gem directly from Ben Rosenblatt, co-producer of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.

“It does pay to capture at higher resolutions like 4K even for HD productions,” Curren said. “But why pay to release in the larger formats like UHD if you can’t actually see the difference on the screen?”

The Cost And Multiple Standards

So what is the difference between finishing in HD and UHD?

“Well, first you have to buy all new gear,” Curren reflects. “Thant includes more storage, more processing power, more infrastructure bandwidth and bigger monitors. The NLE’s can all handle it, but the bottom line is, what’s the point?”

This has become a pet peeve for Curren, and why he is convinced the broadcasters are never going to do it. There won’t be a significant return on the investment in UHD for over the air delivery until we get a major breakthrough in compression. Of course, this doesn’t affect OTT (Over The Top) distribution, but Internet streamers don’t have to amortize the cost of an expensive network license.

One of the most costly investments for a shop like AlphaDogs is in critical evaluation monitors for their color correction rooms.

“It takes a lot of capital to invest in reference monitors,” Curren said. “When you are trying to clean up dead pixels you can’t cheat with HD displays.”

Then there is the question of HDR. Which flavor of HDR does the client want?

“It’s the wild, wild west out there,” Curren laughs. “We are really looking for one standard to win out. It’s an entirely new concept, with Dolby Vision saying they want 4,000 nits of brightness and Sony reference monitors putting out 1,000 nits while home TV’s are limited to 400 to 600 nits. It makes our job tough to satisfy the end user.”

For example, traditionally a colorist would put the luminance level of a face at about 80 IRE and let the sky behind it clip at 100 IRE.

“Now, with HDR, the face would be really bright and you’d get sunburn looking at the increased brightness of the sky,” Curren explained. “The kind of HDR you are timing for will determine where you set your levels, but they are not all the same. And to make it even worse, you can’t even buy a Dolby Vision monitor. So that’s why I call it the wild, wild west.”

The solution AlphaDogs has come up with is to use the highest level consumer OLED HDR screen they can find as a final eye check.

“I want to give the consumer the best product we can produce,” Curren said. “The problem is that even with the greater investment we are called upon to master UHD, it doesn’t really improve the viewing experience at home.”

In the next article, we’ll look at the UHD signal, and some of the equipment used to post it. By the time we’re done I hope you’ll understand the point of my opening metaphor. The sun doesn’t really rise in the east. Just like UHD, that’s just a misunderstood illusion.

Editor's note: Part 2 and Part 3 of this three-part series are available at these links.

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