Netflix Video Maker Shoots For Highest Common Denominator
In recent days we’ve witnessed a lot of chest pounding from different manufacturers who are beginning to roll out their spring 2015 TV model lines.
Most recently, LG brought a pair of experts from Netflix to its 2015 spring TV launch review to discuss their feelings about the first crop of “Netflix Recommend TVs,” all of which use LG’s new webOS 2.0 smart TV platform, LG’s next-gen 4K Ultra HD OLED, WCG 4K UHD LED TVs and their expectations for the new standards and capabilities being determined now.
The following is a compilation of question-and-answer responses during the event (from both public remarks and a discussion with HD Guru) from Matt Lloyd, photography director for the new Netflix original series “Daredevil” (from the Marvel character catalog), which was shot in 4K Ultra HD. The series premieres starting today (April 10, 2015) on Netflix. We will have a Q&A report with Scott Mirer, Netflix device partner ecosystem VP, in a following article.
Read Lloyd’s interview after the jump:
Q: How important is it really to the filmmaker that a television accurately render color and shading exactly as shot and produced?
Ultimately for us it is about the material hitting home. We’re all servants of what’s written and what’s performed by the artists. We’re trying to elevate that and bring it home in a dynamic and effective package. If you can sit down with an episode of “Daredevil” or any show and take home what’s being told by the writing, the artist and the director a little [push to] green or blue [by the TV set] doesn’t mean much. There are some guys who feel that it is absolutely critical – someone like David Fincher, where everything is on the numbers all the time, and there are some who couldn’t even tell you what it is.
It depends on the scenario, but I don’t think we should be actively tweaking viewing standards to make sure the televisions perform better, we should be tweaking the television to better represent the content that’s issued. I think the partnership between Netflix and LG frames that nicely. It’s a distributor coming to a viewing system manufacturer and saying, `How can we adjust our ideas about how people are going to watch this at home?’
Do you feel as a filmmaker that your voice is being heard in the standard setting process for the next generation of 4K entertainment in the home?
Yes, absolutely. They listen and have nothing but the greatest respect for the work that we are trying to do, and ultimately they want people to use their system to have this experience. If we’re all on the same page in terms of standards and delivery I can make different choices without having to hedge my bets on every little thing, and be empowered to do cinema-quality work in a small-format context…
The amazing part is having a partner like Netflix that does not operate like any motion picture or television studio that I’ve ever worked with. I would have directors show up on the set and we’d be working and be very excited about the look and we’d sort of tease them with dailies to get them into the flow and you’d get there on the day and the guy’s kind of sitting there saying, `They really let you get away with this? This is going to be Okay?’ And I can say, `Yes, it’s going to be Okay.’ That’s because we’ve taken control of the delivery again in a way that is going to be incredibly exciting for the business.
Q: There are number of different HDR standards in play, do you have any particular preference about which one is eventually selected for use in the home?
A: The HDR thing doesn’t really get into my wheelhouse, because I don’t do the kind of work that requires it much. When I think about HDR I think about what a studio like Pixar is going to be able to do in terms of really changing the scope of how their animations are going to be able to capture worlds and the level of detail. When we go down the road of testing this HDR stuff, and there are a myriad of different things with light-splitting prisms that do a highlight capture and shadow capture and a mid-tone capture, blending these things together, mixing them, it just starts to feel at some point like… we are just going to capture it all and repaint it later, so there aren’t any real decisions being made. That sort of an image is not something that I’m exploring actively. I want a set that is going to be able to reproduce six tones exactly the way I want them, not 26 tones exactly the way it was on the day. That’s what lighting and camera positioning are about. It’s making those choices.
Q: With the penetration of 4K Ultra HDTV sets rapidly ramping up, do you think the production community is going to now aim to produce content for that?
For a long time there was sort of an arms race going on between the various high-end digital cinema camera manufacturers, and there was an argument between bit depth and resolution. Some went down the resolution road making cameras that could very quickly go from 5K to 6k and started going through the roof, but at the end of the day, every single piece of this media gets down-rezed to 1080 or even 720 sometimes. The resolution conversation didn’t really come into it until we started to get into 4K delivery, and that’s an entirely different conversation, because all of a sudden you’ve put that 2K or 1080 content on a system that can act as native 4K… So now, if you can deliver it, as we’ve been doing to theaters for some time, it’s exciting to know that the actual heavy lifting of the resolution is going to be delivered.
Q: In shooting `Daredevil,’ what sort of enhanced 4K capability were you supporting with the cameras and equipment you used?
A: We used a whole bunch of Red Epic Dragon-enabled sensors, so that means up to 6K of capture. Because Netflix had the 4K mandate, we did a lot of testing. I determined that because in a show like this, where you are bouncing between frame rates, almost on an hourly basis, it didn’t make any sense to shoot 24 fps work at 6K and all of our high-speed work having to drop down to 4K, because in terms of data rate, it’s obviously not manageable to shoot 120 fps in 6K. So we decided that we would use 4K as our base for all of the work from 24 fps up to 120 fps, all doable with the Red Epic Dragon. The capture format is what they call Red Log, which is basically a super low-contrast curve, which we longingly refer to as the `digital negative,’ which is the full span of reproducible tones in the imaging system – not intended for viewing, obviously. We are applying [3D look up table] LUTs to the back end of that, which act as print stocks and change the curve of that negative into a positive viewable image that has an infinite amount of contrast, and some shows have a much softer look to them. Some shows like [“Daredevil”] have a much harder look. In combination with a lot of years of research and development that have gone into 3D, we’ve created a certain amount of viewing LUTs that we sort of use for on-set viewing that previews what we are going to do in the final grade and allows our dailies colorist to then apply [ASC Color Decision List] CDL correction. So, it is basically LUT plus CDL equals the image that you see in the dailies. Then, on the back end, in the post pipeline, the Red Log is then transcoded into [Digital Picture Exchange] DPX that then has the viewing LUT plus the CDL applied to it as a toggle function, and the final grade is a conjunction of the dailies work plus whatever final tweaks are done – Power Windows so on and so forth – to sort of enhance the image. And these guys [Netflix] are obviously heavily involved in that knowing their delivery specs and what the tolerances are for how dark can dark be? I was amazed. I’ve never worked with a studio that was so open to the sort of extremes that we were playing with. The final finished product is delivered at 10-bit 4K, 24 fps.
Q: How is it that you can push the limits as you shoot and still have it look good on a less capable device like a smartphone or tablet?
A: I never had an issue with how things are resolved in an iPhone or an iPad scenario. It’s always looked a lot better to me. But I think what we are talking about here is the difference between an OLED, LED, plasma and CRT. The take that I got is let’s [use] the logic of let’s work to the highest possible delivery standards and everything else is going to fall in. Whereas in other scenarios, you would sort of do the reverse and say, this is what most people are going to see.. So we are sort of elevating the expectation on delivery [at Netflix].
Q: In postproduction is there a particular monitor or display that you use?
A: It’s funny, but I still love the old Sony CRTs. We calibrated our eyes and our way of thinking to that. I still have my main guy at Company 3 LA dust off the CRT and bring it out and have it set up, because we know what that is. LG is not really in that [studio production monitor] market, but Dolby and Sony are putting out incredible monitors – Sony BVMs are great and we use them a lot for on-set preview and finishing as kind of a gold-standard for OLED output. But I’ve been known to pull out a whole range of monitors. When I was doing “Fargo” I pulled out a plasma, a CRT, I was having them compress it to MPEG and watching it on an iPad, because I was so entrenched in this mode of being infuriated that it was looking so different on all of these different platforms. It looked like a garage sale of monitors out there. But it was all so we could tell how it was going to look on all of these different kinds of displays.
By Greg Tarr
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