A colorist weighs in on ‘the new world’ of HDR

By Maxine Gervais

HDR is on many people’s minds these days. Some embrace it, some are hesitant and some simply do not like the idea.

But what is HDR really? I find that manufacturers often use the term too loosely. Anything that offers higher dynamic range can fall into the HDR category, but let’s focus on the luminance and greater contrast ratio brought by HDR.

We have come a long way in the last 12 years — from film prints to digital projection. This was a huge shift, and one could argue it happened relatively fast. Since then, technology has been on the fast forward.

Film allows incredible capture of detail information in large formats, and when digital was first introduced we couldn’t say the same. At the time, cameras were barely capable of capturing true 2K and wide dynamic range. Many would shoot film and scan it into digital files hoping to preserve more of the dynamic range offered by film. Eventually, cameras got better and film started to disappear, mostly for convenience and cost reasons.

Through all this, target devices (projectors and monitors) stayed pretty much the same. Monitors went from CRT to plasma to LCD, but kept the same characteristics. For monitors, everything was in a Rec.709 color space and a luminance of 100 nits. Projectors were in the P3 colors space, but with a lower luminance of about 48 nits.

Maxine at work on the FilmLight Baselight.

Philosophically, one could argue that all creative intent was in some ways limited by the display. The files might of held much more information than the display was able to show. So, the aesthetics we learned to love were a direct result of the displays’ limitations.

What About Now?
Now, we are at the break in the revolution of these displays. With the introduction of OLEDs for monitors and laser projection for theaters, the contrast ratios, color spaces and luminance are now larger than before. It is now possible to see the details captured by cameras and or film. This allows for greater artistic freedom: since there is less limitation one can push the aesthetic to a new level.

However, that doesn’t mean all of a sudden everything is brighter and more colorful. It is very easy to create the same aesthetic one used to love, but it is now possible to bring to the screens details in shadows and highlights that were never an option prior. This even means better color separation. What creatives can do with “HDR” is still very much in their control.

The more difficult part is that HDR has not yet taken over theaters and or homes. If someone has set their look in a P3 48-nits world and is now asked to take this look into a 4000-nits P3 PQ display, it might be difficult to decide how to approach it. How do we maintain the original intent yet embrace what HDR has to offer? There are many ways to go about it, and not one is better than the other. You can redefine your look for the new displays, and in some ways have a new look that becomes its own entity, or you can mimic your original look, taking advantage of only a few elements of HDR.

The more we start using brighter luminance, bigger contrast ratio and color cube as our starting point, the more we will be able to future-proof and protect the creative intent. The afterthought of HDR, in terms of never having planned for it, is still something difficult to do and controversial in some cases.

The key is to have those philosophical discussions with creatives ahead of time and come up with a workflow that will have the expected results.

Main Image: Maxine Gervais working director Albert Hughes on his upcoming film, Alpha.


Maxine Gervais is a senior supervising colorist at Technicolor Hollywood.  Her past credits include Black Panther; The 15:17 to Paris; Pitch Perfect 3 and American Sniper.


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