Why HDR Production Monitors Matter

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Why HDR Production Monitors Matter

PostWed Jun 16, 2021 12:59 pm

"I sort of equate shooting in SDR and finishing in HDR [to] shooting on film but exposing it on the video tap. You know you’re only looking at this little narrow band of the camera when in fact the camera has all this range, so why not look at it? With all that range, why not display all this range and you know you can still use it selectively in the grading process. You can say, okay, I want this to blow out and I want to control the contrast here, etc. But for me, it’s been a completely life-changing situation. I mean, at least it’s completely revolutionized the way I work and actually it’s created a situation where I’ve used a lot less fill light than I used to use. I’ve had to protect the highlights less because I really know where the exposure is. I’m very comfortable exposing the camera, so now even when I do an SDR finish job… I mean, this movie I’m on right now is destined for theatrical release; we’re going to monitor in HDR because I feel so much more confident in terms of how I can expose the camera when I’m doing that, so it’s completely changed the way I work". – Erik Messerschmidt

"One of the things that people get confused by is that they think, ’Well, if 90 percent of the people are going to be watching the SDR, then I’ll just view SDR on set, and I can stay in my comfortable paradigm that I’ve been working in for a long time. We’ll just make the HDR coloring look similar to the SDR.’ But, that’s actually not the case. In Dolby Vision and most of the true HDR workflows, your camera negative is mapped into HDR color space first, and from there the SDR is derived. That SDR version has nothing to do with what you see on set if you’re dealing with a Rec.709 LUT". – Armando Salas, ASC, Cinematographer, Ozark

Tim Stipan of Company 3, who has worked on all 30 episodes of Ozark adds, "An HDR grade is so much easier when the DP has set the light values in HDR [during the shoot]. I don’t have to work the digital negative as hard. Monitoring in HDR while shooting is a luxury, and a lot of productions aren’t doing it, but they end up spending more time in color correction trying to mitigate issues of blown-out highlights. Those color correction hours versus having a HDR monitor on set is something to be considered. Ultimately, the images will look better if the DP, DIT and gaffer can work together to create the best HDR version, then dumb down from that for the SDR version".

If the director and DP of an HDR production genuinely want to shape the look of the image from the start, viewing in SDR on set is woefully insufficient. Which may account for the fact that so many HDR productions fail to thoroughly exploit the dynamic range that HDR is truly capable of – and that viewers have come to expect. Most of these shows continue to be lit in an SDR environment, they’re monitored in SDR, and the very first time someone sees it on an HDR display is in the grading suite. DP Erik Messerschmidt sheds some light on why on-set HDR monitoring is important:

"For season two, we knew we were going to finish in Dolby Vision HDR from the beginning. With that in mind, and taking what we had learned the first season, I did extensive testing prior to our preproduction period to explore how it might affect my lighting and exposure. I worked with the DI colorist, Eric Weidt. He and I developed a color pipeline and on-set monitoring system that allowed us to monitor in HDR using an ACES workflow in Dolby PQ gamma and Rec.2020 color. For us, the setup worked great and I’m really proud of what we put together. We settled on the Canon range of HDR field monitors with the DP-2420 as our primary monitor. If one is going to finish in HDR, I believe it’s absolutely essential to monitor in HDR on the set, as HDR directly affects lighting ratios and exposure. During the DI of the first season I found we were stretching our highlights out to fill the added space in the HDR gamma space, which sometimes led to odd-looking practically lit night interiors. That is because, in most cases, I was not making full use of the sensor’s contrast, because my lighting choices were informed by an SDR monitor and waveform. Conversely, when monitoring in HDR I found I was less concerned with highlight detail, because I could see exactly where my exposures fell relative to the gamma of the final finish, and therefore was able to use more of the sensor’s dynamic range. It meant much less fill and more “exposure to the right” while still feeling confident I could work in the toe of the exposure range for most of the scene’s action". – DP Erik Messerschmidt on Mindhunter

And it doesn’t end there. While colorists do have access to the tools to see HDR, that alone is no guarantee that the master file will end up preserving all the dynamic range, tonality and color envisioned by the director and the DP. For example, the decision in post-production to constrain the levels in the HDR pass to maintain consistency with the SDR version (for reasons both technical and aesthetic) can prevent HDR from taking wing. Not infrequently, a project gets the green light for an HDR master after the fact; both the post-production house and producer preemptively rule out a version that dramatically departs from the SDR version; the result being that HDR turns out to be little more than a marketing gimmick.

One need only compare DP Manuel Billeter’s work on Jessica Jones, remastered in Dolby Vision after the fact, to Iron Fist, conceived in HDR from the outset, to see the dramatic difference an end-to-end HDR workflow makes. Billeter had to visualize scenes differently from before, and audiences can witness that in the number of sets with bright sunshine which would have been unthinkable in the past. At a bare minimum, the editing suite should also be furnished with a consumer HDR TV, as cuts between bright and dark scenes have a different impact on the viewer. Instead, what ends up happening is that 99% of HDR films on Netflix and elsewhere, while technically HDR, are in reality little more than SDR movies with a few specular highlights thrown in here and there. The good news is that, as the audience for HDR increases; as the price of HDR production monitors falls; as innovative solutions like LINK HDR and dailies platforms Frame.io and Moxion continue to evolve; and as DPs do give a damn about stuff like lighting ratios, on-set HDR monitoring will eventually become the norm.

Jay Holben, ASC: So, if I called you up today and said, Polly, I have my first HDR job tomorrow, what should I be aware of, and how do I approach this?

Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC: Well, I would say, make sure that you have an HDR monitor on set. – ASC Insights

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