Sonnenfeld: Not Everything Needs To Be Shot In 4K, HDR
Director and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld delivered an unexpected message Wednesday to home theater product reviewers attending a CEDIA Expo-eve symposium for Sony’s 2018 4K SXRD projectors — 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) are great, but not everything looks better using them.
Sony brought the legendary director of such hits as the three Men In Black movies and Get Shorty to discuss his thoughts on the state of the art in home theater equipment as well as the new tools technologies like 4K and HDR are giving him to tell his stories.
Despite seeing some impressive images from Sony’s new 2018 4K SXRD projector models, Sonnenfeld wasn’t exactly ready to start grading all of his new productions with ultra sharp, contrasty pictures. In fact, he said there are many times he feels an image looks better when it’s soft and flat.
More importantly, he echoed the sentiments of many of his fellow content creators in urging Sony and other manufacturers to do something more to turn off motion smoothing circuitry that makes certain 4K movie images look unnaturally sharp.
The following is a transcription of Sonnenfeld’s speech (just as the director intended):
Barry Sonnenfeld: “I’d like to see what ever you guys can do to make your projectors be incapable of producing anything in Cineflow, Motionflow.. In fact, the guys that do Stranger Things have contacted me because they want to find a way to prevent those controls from becoming default, because it really is, truly a horrific thing that is happening.
However, I do worry that the AV guys who are going to install those projectors don’t have a clue what they are doing.
I don’t want to sound really old, but the more technology advances, it retreats a little at the same time. So, what I’ve been doing over the past bunch of years is take advantage of technology’s good stuff and minimize the bad.
One of the few technologies that have actually become better without becoming annoying is the digital projector.
For the past 23 years I have always had a screening room in my home, some bigger, some smaller. In my case, this was partially out of a work requirement and partially out of self defense. For 30 years I lived on East Hampton, Long Island (N.Y.), where the local movie theater was run by United Artists. The screens were small and dirty and the floors had many years of toxic, spilled sodas and Milk Duds, and I would only wear, shoes or sneakers that I was ready to throw away upon leaving the movie theater, since most of the sole would dissolve during any movie at the rate of 1% per minute. That’s why I would never go to a movie that was over an hour and a half long.
I had 90 minutes to watch it, get out and go home before I had no shoe.
We had the premiere of Get Shorty, which I directed, at the East Hampton UA Theater. I went in the day before to do a test run. I wore shoes that I would never wear again, and of course, the sub woofer had been disconnected years earlier, because when ever a loud movie played in the main theater people in the next one complained that they were being disturbed by the thumping next door. So management turned off the subs.
The surround sound speakers had been disconnected because there was a hum.
Unfortunately, this is not symptomatic of just that small movie theater.
Although the theater-going experience improved with stadium seating, Atmos, better projection and sound systems in general, they’re often not well maintained even by the theaters you would think care more.
I premiered Wild, Wild West in LA. In the movie capitol of the world, in a theater that had been playing what ever that Star Wars was at that moment. Warner Bros. didn’t want to spend the money to have Lucas Films’ THX division come down to tone the room.
They said, `Come on. The theater is playing George Lucas’s Star Wars. It’s gonna sound great.’
So I said, “No, get THX down here.” So, THX came down to… it was either the Mann or the Chinese Theater … and there were no subs. The sub woofers had been disconnected. So George Lucas owed me thanks for toning his room again.
I’ve always felt it is the transmission… the last stop in the process that screws everything up. Musicians spend endless months working on their new album so that kids can listen to it with bad ear buds. Directors and cinematographers spend years creating a brilliant movie only to have it watched on iPhones with too much ambient light, and in the case of a theater, some how it doesn’t have the speakers working or the projectors are putting out 50% fewer foot lamberts than are required.
I’ve never had a premiere, ever, where the theater’s projector was putting out more than half the industry’s standard for foot lamberts.
When I arrive in the theater I make them clean the projector glass which has been filthy from decades of neglect and is putting out half the foot lamberts and no contrast because the theater glass is smokey and filthy. No one maintains their stuff, and that’s where home theater is fantastic.
I want to tell you a little about my home theater history. I’ve always used Sony projectors, in part, because they’ve always been much quieter than other projectors.
The first projector I had, which I am calling a VPH1270Q, which was a three CRT projector, was in my theater screening room, and I had the best screening room on the East Coast. Spielberg, I call him Speily, used to come up and watch movies. It was a double system 35mm projector screening room.
It had its own separate projection booth, and the 1270Q was in that room. When we sold that to first Roy Furman [who later sold it to] Harvey Weinstein, both men bought it for the screening room. Not because it had a view of England, but because of the screening room. It had curved walls. It was extraordinary.
But when we sold it and went to a different home, I built a special channel and put in my [Sony Qualia] 004, so it could be air conditioned and it could be quiet, because although I was a cinematographer, I loved sound, and I’m actually more involved in sound than picture these days. I then discovered that that projector was so quiet, I didn’t have to have it in a special ventilation system, and I actually just left that off so I could have access to the projector easily.
One thing [I like] about Sony projectors is how amazingly quiet they are.
I loved the three CRT projector so when I moved to this new home I bought the 004, which I loved. Eventually, we moved year round to Colorado, and we have a screening room there which I love. At first we put in an ES200, which was great but was not 4K, but what it did have, which was fantastic, was a separate system that would move over and anamorphosize and de-anamorphosize, which is now built into these projectors. But it used to have this separate thing [for the aspect ratio masking], which I just loved. I’d have my friends sit in a room looking at a 16:9 letterboxed image. I started the show and then I’d press the button and my side masking would open up and widen out and they’d say, `Wow, this is amazing.’
My theater also has six sub woofers. It has more sub woofers than any theater in America. It is extraordinary. People in other counties call me up and ask me to lower the subs. So, I loved the ES200, but then the real game-changer was the ES1000, which I still own, which is great because it doesn’t have that separate thing. And it’s 4K and 3D. If you ever saw the first Thor, it was even better in 3D.
We get Academy screeners. So we spend all of November and December watching our movies.
I do believe that home theaters are the future of the industry. One of the biggest reasons is because of what is happening to the streaming networks. Studios like Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Amazon and soon Apple, are releasing content that is not available in theaters, but have the scope, scale, sound and high-end photography that is as good as theatrically released movies.
Truthfully, the writing is better and more compelling than what you would see in a movie theater. Sweetie and I go downstairs every night to watch Netflix and turn on a television series much more than we watch a movie.
It’s interesting, technology is often ahead of both science and art, and I don’t think any of these streaming services would exist, truly, if it wasn’t for the advent of 16:9 gas plasma and then LCD, LED screens and home theaters.
When I started working on television, we had to frame for 4:3, even though we had to protect for 16:9. The image was all about 4:3.
You would never have seen a show like Breaking Bad, which is full of scope and scale and wide shots, if it wasn’t for technology leading art.
But moving forward technology is both good and bad. Technology has brought us much better sound — I have all of those subs. But here’s the really bad news, and I’m going to just attack Motionflow and Cineflow and all of those flows. Then, I’ll get into HDR, which I also have problems with. You guys have to solve my problems.
Years ago I walked into the Sony store on Madison and 55th Street. Every television for some reason was showing Titantic. Sir Howard would never have let that happen, because it probably would have been a Sony movie. Probably Spiderman.
But in any case, every television was showing Titantic and I called a salesman over and I said, `What happened? All of these televisions look horrible! On every set is a disaster and I don’t think it’s because of the iceberg.’
And the salesman said, `Oh, is that because they all look like General Hospital?’
`Exactly. It looks like I’m watching The Making of Titantic.’
Of course he picked up the remote, went through endless layers of menus and then he turned off the button that was Cineflow or Motionflow or whatever, and it looked like a movie again.
Unfortunately, engineers of all the television manufacturers think that video looks better than film, and that sharper is better than softer, and I think in some cases they are wrong.
In fact, I left the L’ermitage Hotel in LA where stayed because they refused to give me the remote to turn off Cineflow. I could not watch anything on TV and I was there for weeks at a time. So now I’m back at the Hotel Bellaire which is fine.
So here’s the truth: 4K video and 8K for HDR are not the answer for all situations. 4K and 8K are good for two things only: marketing and watching hockey. That is it. I’ve always claimed that no one has seen a hockey puck go into a net before 4K. Before, people would see a red light go on and hear a horn and say, `Oh, someone must have scored.’ But they never had actually seen a hockey puck until 4K. I think that’s fantastic.
I’ve just finished up three years working on A Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix. Netflix insists that all of their shows be shot on 4K cameras, which is fine, although it means the most filmic-looking camera, the Arriflex Alexa, cannot be used to record a Netflix show.
This is 3.7K. That’s just wrong. Actually, it’s not helping the viewer. It is hurting the viewer. It’s another victim of progress.
Other studios are starting to make the same demands. So what is the cinematographer to do about shooting in 4K? If we buy really crappy lenses without any anti-reflective coating made in the 50s and 60s. Suddently the cost of CoAP lenses is skyrocketing because they are really old and not nearly as good as modern lenses.
In our case we use the best and sharpest lenses, which are called Master Primes, but we put Harrison double fog filters in front, we put glitter filters in front. We do everything in front of the lense to make it not look like 4K, because we don’t want everything to look sharp. We don’t want everything to look contrasty.
No actor wants to be shot on 4K without filters in front of them. They don’t look good. They look crappy. We are making art and we are not filmming a science experiment.
So, now I want to talk about HDR. I shoot a lot of still photographs and I love HDR. I shoot everything in HDR because I lived in Colorado and it’s really contrasty.
The trees, when the sunlight hits them, will be f22, the shadows will be f1.4, there is no way I have that much range on any sensors. So what I do with HDR is shoot 9 bracketed photographs: three exposures under 2, one over normal, one over, two over, three over. So I have these 9 stops of range and using software I can over expose the shadows, I can under expose highlights and create beautiful HDR still photographs.
I tried to convince Sony with their Alpha still cameras to extend their bracketing range and they wouldn’t do it, and they were wrong. It would only do it to 2/3rds of a stop, three stops over and under. I begged them to extend the range. So I am a man who lives for HDR.
But it’s terrible as a device for all situations. For indie features it’s great. For nature shows it’s great, because you want to reduce contrast. In my case, I shot three years of A Series of Unfortunate Events on a stage in Vancouver. We controlled everything. We never went outside.
We built islands and beaches and forests and night time sets and caves. But we controlled the exposure. We controlled the lighting and we had a very narrow pallet — a very moody, narrow dark kind of image.
The first season looked extraordinary because we finished it on [Standard Dynamic Range]. Netflix, or course, for marketing reasons, wants to say everything is HDR, and we started to finish the second and third seasons in HDR and I said to Netflix, `This is horrible. You’ve got to come and see this.’
And then the night before they were I going to come, I realized that I was going to lose the battle and the difference wasn’t as much as I thought. Truthfully, if I didn’t control it. All of the new televisions were going to have HDR anyway and they were going to expand that image to HDR without my control.
But here’s the thing. What HDR tried to do was to say, `I see Barry’s images and poor Barry, there’s no contrast. I am going to help him. I am going to expand the range.’
I didn’t want high dynamic range. I wanted it flat and moody. But it does it anyway. It took these light bulbs that had exposure to them and brightened them. If you tried to darken those light bulbs they would just solarize. Lemony Snicket’s white collars would just glow like it was under ultra violet light, and so we would add mattes just for his white collars.
At the end of the day, we took twice as long in the HDR suite as we needed and we got it close but not as good as what we wanted.
Admittedly, it would be better because when those television sets expanded at least I controlled it.
The point is: just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be.
So what I’m telling you, is how can you guys fix the user experience with menus or with education? Because, I’m telling you, all of these years that I had these screening rooms, the guy comes in when I’m not there. He sets up my room but I don’t know any installer that really spends the time [to educate the user]. Maybe you guys need YouTube instruction manuals or lessons right on the projector so that I can play a couple of lessons from the projector and know what to do because no one will tell you.
But I want to have button so I can turn off HDR, and I want to be able to turn off Cineflow and never have it turn on unless I’m watching a hockey game.
Allen Daviau, the cinematographer said, `I’ve been shooting HD for years. It’s called 35mm film.’
What 4K is doing, and 8K will be even worse, is totally preventing costume designers from using certain clothing. Because of moire, you can no longer have certain stripes. You can’t have checks. You can’t have hounds tooth. Before we put any costume on any actor we test fabric now, which we never had to do. But so much of it is moireing now because of 4K, and 8K is going to make those stripes even wider before you can use them.
Again, just because technology can do something doesn’t mean it should be done. I wish you guys could come up with a way to anti-moire things and to come up with a way to not be as sharp. Because we are doing everything in our power to actually make the lenses worse.
But I think another reason home theater in the future is going to be great is because of technology like Kaleidescape. I think it won’t be long before we are able to watch first-run, day-and-date releases in our home theaters, due to things like Kaleidescape and their level of privacy protection.”
By Greg Tarr
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