The Peril Of HDR: Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

There is a disturbing and growing consensus among viewers that many movies and TV shows today are under illuminated or simply too dark. As DOPs, we surely share some of the blame, but there is plenty of blame to go around.

For DOPs, one obvious factor is the wide-availability of ultra-sensitive, low-light cameras that enable shooting deeper into the Magic Hour and beyond. Today, the lack of photons no longer deters the DOP determined to capture scenes by the light of a distant star or their iWatch. You know things have seriously gone off the dolly rails when DOPs feel the need to use ND Sky Control to shoot cityscapes at night!

Still, there is no denying that downstream compression also plays a huge role as the streaming services unwittingly push low-key, once tastefully-illuminated scenes over the edge into the inky abyss. Given the economics of today’s all-digital networks, OTT operators are understandably compelled to squeeze more content to more subscribers through their finite pipe. Quoting the 19thcentury French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (who no doubt foresaw today’s omnipresent digital morass): ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.) For DOPs, the age-old adage couldn’t ring truer: The perceived quality of our work, whether viewed at home, in theatres, or on mobile devices, will always be largely dependent on bandwidth.

Thus, given the exigencies of streaming and the economics of modern distribution networks, HDR is producing something of a dilemma for many DOPs. With 20+ stops of exposure latitude to work with, DOPs are increasingly feeling the urge to utilize the full gamut, pushing HDR’s real and practical limits to the extremes.

Are today’s movies and TV shows too dark? Many viewers think so. With 20+ stops of exposure latitude, hyper-HDRilization has become a growing occupational hazard for DOPs.

Are today’s movies and TV shows too dark? Many viewers think so. With 20+ stops of exposure latitude, hyper-HDRilization has become a growing occupational hazard for DOPs.

Of course, one can also attribute the dark look of today’s programs to the latest fad, like shakycam of the 1980s, high speed lenses stripped of their coatings in 2014, black painted houses in 2019, and pickleball. Fads have been a part of the human experience for years, since before camera obscura, and so inscrutable, underlit scenes, and hyper-HDRilization, may also be viewed as just another fad as well.

Indeed, we’ve seen such overindulgence in new technologies before. We experienced, for example, the mindless application of Cinemascope through the 1950s, the dizzying use of the zoom lens in the 1960s, and the in-your-face, overzealous unleashing of 3D depth cues by DOPs in the 2010s – and we all know how that turned out.

To be clear, I am not implying that High Dynamic Range in and of itself is a passing fad. The technology has more than proven its value and appeal, resonating with viewers in a way far more profound (recognized or not) than merely increased resolution or a wider color gamut.

Thinking about the 3D debacle from a decade ago, one can argue that excessive depth and left-right separation contributed significantly to the format’s ultimate demise. Stereo DOPs, after viewing many hours on and off the set, became habituated to the exaggerated crossing of their eyes, to a point that viewers found viewing and fusing such scenes uncomfortable and even painful. Like the drug addict who requires over time more and more narcotic to achieve the same high, DOPs today, employing HDR, also tend to push the technology’s limits to achieve the greater thrill or a signature look. One result, notably, is shooting longer and deeper into the Magic Hour regardless of the viewer’s ability to perceive detail or much of anything at all.

Working with HDR, DOPs must consider the less-than-ideal viewing conditions of viewers on their phones, at home, and on the street. Screen brightness and the amount of ambient light can vary widely.

Working with HDR, DOPs must consider the less-than-ideal viewing conditions of viewers on their phones, at home, and on the street. Screen brightness and the amount of ambient light can vary widely.

In time, many 3D DOPs learned to modulate the amount of depth by restricting the action in front of the screen, for example, and by more careful blocking of the actors. Today, striving to maximize the dynamic range in a scene, DOPs would be wise to adopt a similar sensibility by considering the typical actual viewing environment in the home, and how much of HDR’s 20+ stop latitude can and should be utilized.

Unlike in theatres where screen brightness and ambient light levels are rigorously controlled, the viewing environment in a family room or den can vary widely. Too much ambient light from a window or table lamp can easily wash out the screen, and negatively impact how our work is seen and appreciated. No doubt, a high percentage of viewers who deem scenes or entire movies as too dark are viewing the programs in far less than ideal conditions.

Years ago, I recall sitting in a New York City mixing studio, where after completing the re-recording session and everything sounding great, the mixer dutifully trotted out a tiny 16mm projector speaker to listen to the playback.  He understood that viewers would likely experience my show in a range of listening environments, and not necessarily in a theatre with large studio speakers.

Considering HDR today and how best to apply its range and promise, the savvy DOP is mindful of the many variables inherent to the home viewing environment. A setting sun, window light streaming in, and greasy fingerprints across the TV screen, are all part of the equation.

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