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Tackling the creative challenges of HDR

Imagine Communications' John Mailhot explains how, with the right technical infrastructure, the scene is set for increased deployment of HDR in more live event production

An increasing number of European broadcasters are investing in HDR production and distribution. They recognise that, to audiences, it makes an obvious difference — HDR is a means of attracting and retaining viewers.

Data shows that consumers see HDR as having a big impact: bigger, perhaps, than 4K. It may be that we will see the practical choice of 1080p/HDR as a dominant format — it is much more cost-effective than the jump all the way to 4K HDR, for basically the same audience impact.

HDR is already commonly used in cinema/drama production, where the concepts of colour management are well-established, and the standard edit software platforms are HDR-compatible.

The challenge comes in live production — particularly live sports. This is the genre that always drives innovation in broadcasting, because of the stakes involved (expensive rights and giant audiences) and the existing technical challenges (e.g., camera shading for sunlight and shadows in the same scene).

Television production isn’t just about relaying the exact scene to the viewer. Producers and networks may also apply their own specific “looks” — driving their unique brand value, while also showcasing the added dynamic range and colour gamut. Frequently, they will apply custom LUTs tuned to create the look they want.

The main cameras are routinely “shaded” by trained professionals to provide the matching and to supervise the output quality. But a large sport shoot will involve many other cameras, i.e., PoVs, stump cameras in cricket, goalmouth cameras in football. In HDR, the inter-mixing of these SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) sources into the HDR production is disruptive if not managed — these signals must be processed to match the look of the main signals as closely as possible.

On an outside broadcast, where desk space is limited, any additional colour shading must fit into the existing workspace and operator footprint. Imagine has worked on innovative solutions to address this issue — collaborating with Cyanview to enable their control surface for colour manipulation, as well as with many other operational control systems to support our SNP UHD/HDR processing engine.

Creating a consistent production from a large footprint of sources and delivering the artistic vision of the director in HDR are the primary objectives. But it is also critically important to translate that HDR look back into SDR — the way the vast majority of today’s viewers will see it. Responsibility for these translations is complex; the camera shaders and technical directors must consider how their fantastic HDR scenes will look in SDR, and the eventual translation downstream at the network hub must be done the same way it was “checked” on the truck.

Video processors and converters are found at many steps along the production pipeline, and as these productions shift into HDR, all these processors must be HDR-capable to preserve the signal fidelity — sometimes including custom LUTs and production-specific adjustments. All while fitting into the rack space, power, and other operational requirements of what is already in place.

At Imagine, we have been working on HDR with broadcasters and production companies for years, delivering UHD/HDR capabilities to operations as diverse as QVC Japan and the NFL Network in the USA. That has meant many conversations about HDR and colour space conversion, even as the production industry has been trying to standardise on how these HDR workflows should work. Flexibility is key, as there are many aspects of HDR production that are not yet settled or agreed among the production professionals, so our HDR processors must be able to adapt to the needs and wants of each user.

Major broadcasters are continuing to study how HDR affects viewership, with a focus on the practicalities of delivering productions at the right cost. The next wave of broadcasters coming into HDR all benefit from this accumulated knowledge and experience.

With the right technical infrastructure enabling consistent HDR delivery even within established SDR workflows, the scene is set for increased deployment of HDR into more live event productions.