Video

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Like most of you, I’ve never put a tremendous amount of thought into the work involved in bringing a film from movie theaters to the home. Sure, I know the video needs to be compressed—more so for streaming-video services than for discs or high-bandwidth downloads, the likes of which you’d buy from the Kaleidescape store. But beyond that basic understanding, the process was a bit of a mystery to me.

 

Never one to let an interesting mystery go unsolved, I sat down with Kaleidescape’s Luke O’Brien, Director of Content Operations, and Mike Kobb, Principal Engineer, User Experience, to pick their brains about the process. I discovered that, in many ways, it’s a far more complicated undertaking than I could have imagined—mainly because there isn’t really

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Luke O’Brien and Mike Kobb

a consistent pipeline from big screen to home screens. Much of that could probably be attributed to the fact that the home video market is ever-evolving, and that what Kaleidescape is doing—delivering high-bandwidth, pixel-perfect presentations of movies, TV shows, and documentaries—is unique in this era of highly compressed streaming.

 

In short, the files Kaleidescape receives from the various studios vary quite a bit. But they all fall under the umbrella of “mezzanine files”—and if you’ve never heard that term before, you’re probably not alone. To put it simply, mezzanine files are lightly compressed video files that 

are usually indistinguishable from fully uncompressed video. And by “lightly compressed,” I mean that your average movie might arrive in a file that’s ten times the size of a normal UHD Blu-ray disc.

 

So, how does Kaleidescape shrink that amount of data to a file small enough to be downloaded to your hard drive, but not so small that it compromises the viewing experience? How do they ensure that the image you see on your screen looks just as good as—if not better than—the master files delivered by the movie studios? That was my first question.

—Dennis Burger

 

 

Mike Kobb  I think one of the things that is a huge asset to Kaleidescape is the human element that goes into preparing this content. This is done by people who take a lot of pride and put a lot of effort into making stuff look really good and ensuring that everything is right. They sweat the details. It’s not, and I doubt that it will ever be, an operation where a digital file shows up from a studio and gets tossed into the hopper and completely automated machines grind it up and out comes the end product.

 

Dennis Burger  How long does that process take? I mean, let’s take a recent mainstream theatrical movie as an example. Let’s say, Captain Marvel, which I think it’s safe to say is being prepped for home video as we speak. How long does it take you, from the time you’re given whatever files you receive from the studio, to the point where it’s prepared and ready to be released once that digital release date hits?

 

Luke O’Brien  Well, we’re constantly doing things to try and make that process tighter and cleaner and quicker, to shorten the windows. And we have a whole toolset we’re working to go wide with this quarter, which I think will speed up this process significantly. But as it stands right now, the average title takes several business days.

 

MK  Yeah, it takes us about two business weeks to prepare a movie.

 

LO  And we’ve done it faster, in cases where we’ve needed to. And we’ve done it much slower in cases where we’ve run into problems that needed to be addressed. But if we don’t think it’s good enough, we just won’t release it. There’s a quality line we have to defend with our products. And mind you, I don’t consider anything in that state forever. There are files that we haven’t been happy where we landed with them, and I consider them to be still works in progress. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they are. But it will be a happy surprise when they show up on the service looking as great as they should when they’re on the Kaleidescape System.

 

DB  This was honestly a bit of a surprise for me, and I think it would be for many people who just assumed that in this era of 4K, Kaleidescape simply got a copy of the UHD Blu-ray disc, ripped it to your hard drives, put it on your servers, and delivered exactly the same bits that are on the disc via the internet. It’s nothing like that, though, is it?

 

LO  No. The files we get from the studios are raw files in a variety of formats, depending on the studio. Some of them are going to be ProRes files, some of them are going to be MOV files, some of them are going to be IMFs (Interoperable Mastering Format). There’s a variety of base container files they use to send those over, mostly because these files are 

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

ready wildly in advance of when disc files are ready and we’re really aggressive about making sure we’re always hitting the first possible date a digital release can be made available to our customers. So, we need to receive these files in a manner that a lot of the other places in the digital market do take them.

 

But we’re handling them differently, because obviously our delivery method isn’t to create something designed to be pumped out and compressed and uncompressed to varying degrees for streaming. We actually had to create a way to take the base files they give us and to create a Kaleidescape Container File: Something that is a beautiful package that will serve as

the movie on the customer’s system, that they would then download and have locally to watch and enjoy.

 

DB  The process obviously still involves some careful compression, though. Do you also do your own HDR grading? I ask because I’ve noticed that your HDR sometimes looks more cinematic, more subtle than what I’ve seen on other home video releases.

 

LO  We don’t do our own HDR grade. We don’t do that level of file detail correction.

 

MK  We’re not looking to make any changes to the way the filmmakers intended that movie to look. We always strive to get it to be as proper a representation of that as possible.

 

DB  So, what would account for the subtle differences I saw in, say, Incredibles 2, where other HDR home video releases seemed to focus more on stark contrasts, but the Kaleidescape HDR presentation seemed to err on the side of subtlety and richness of shadow detail?

 

LO  Well, we do have a transcode process that we take the files and run them through. And that will not be identical to what will come through when any other person puts their files together. One thing I can say is that you’re talking about a studio that’s very protective of their property, and between us and the studio there’s often an elaborate process to getting our titles qualified.

 

DB  One of the things that prompted me to want to have this conversation was the Kaleidescape presentation of Blue

Planet II. I thought your HDR presentation of that series was just utterly stunning. Does a series like that—a mini-series that was created for broadcast on BBC, rather than a theatrical presentation—go through a different process than your typical movie release?

 

LO  Oof. That one’s a little bit different, because there are a lot more pieces in the supply chain on that particular title, because it was created for UK television presentation. That was really the intended final target. So, we worked with BBC and BBC worked with some external processing houses to have a regraded, transformed file. But they work with them to make sure they’re happy with all the color corrections as everything goes through to get it to a file format that we can take and transcode and deliver to our customers. But on this end, it just goes through our normal process.

 

I love the way that particular title looks as well, and I want to give Kaleidescape credit for absolutely everything I can. But really, you have to give BBC credit for making such a beautiful, spectacular original source file. I don’t know what process it went through elsewhere, but I do think it looks stunning on our service.

 

DB  Would you say the process of something like that, which was intended for TV broadcast, ends up being more complicated or less so than your typical blockbuster movie?

 

LO  I think the important thing to consider here is that we have a human review process. So, it’s certainly more time-intensive. I don’t know if it’s more complicated, but that series is, like, the equivalent of eight movies. It’s 400 minutes of someone’s time 

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Examples of video flaws that can appear during the transcoding process.

and a lot of Visine. 800 minutes, actually, because every episode requires two passes—because it will get an initial pass through our tools, and anything we see that we’re not happy with triggers a second pass, so it can be finalized and we can deliver it to our customers.

 

DB  What kinds of things might trigger a second pass?

 

LO  It’s all the stuff that you might imagine could conceivably bother you if you were watching this program on a reference-quality screen: Is there any sense that the black levels aren’t staying true? Is there any banding in the transitions of colors? Is the brightness fading properly when it should? Is there any macroblocking that 

shows up? And if any of that shows up, we work with proprietary tools to make sure we’re filtering out anything that’s not in the source file, that was introduced in the process of preparing it for public consumption.

 

MK  One other thing to consider, getting back to our earlier discussion about Kaleidescape versus discs: One area where we have some latitude is that the optical disc has whatever capacity it has, so when the disc is authored, they’re working with that limitation. We don’t have that limitation. We don’t have to conform our releases to something that could fit on an optical disc. We don’t have to worry about adding a second disc for bonus features. So, if a particular movie or TV series benefits from having higher-bandwidth encoding than a disc would allow, we can do that.

 

LO  Yeah, the result is that our files are big. They’re big because there’s all of that delicious, juicy information stacked up and stored in each one of those files.

 

MK  Exactly. But you know when you’re watching one of our premium movies that someone actually took the time to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that it’s right.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

How Do I Define a Luxury TV?

How Do I Define a Luxury TV?

I’m thinking about upgrading my living-room TV, a five-year-old UHD TV that doesn’t support HDR. The process of choosing a new TV has me thinking seriously about a question that several Cineluxe writers have already attempted to answer: How do I define the term “luxury”?

 

For me, luxury simply means going beyond what you deem necessary in a given purchase. Whether it’s cars or watches or speakers, we all have a standard in our minds of what the base model is, the thing that will get the job done in the manner we want it done. And then there’s the thing that goes beyond, the thing that delivers a higher-quality experience that may not be necessary but is oh so delightful.

The standard is different for each person, which means the luxury is different for each person. I’m generally a frugal (okay, cheap) person. When I shop, I tend to start at a base model and actually talk myself down to something less. The plus side of that approach is that the luxury bar isn’t set terribly high. Sometimes just buying a brand name feels like an indulgence.

 

But that mentality goes right out the window when we’re talking about TVs. I’ve been a video reviewer for over 10 years, so I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with the creme of the crop in the TV category. I’ve had a taste of the best, and it has definitely raised the baseline standard of what I demand from a TV.

 

I won’t buy a new TV that can’t deliver a true HDR experience—by that, I mean it must have a great black level, above-average peak brightness, and support for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. And since manufacturer review samples tend to be 65-inchers, I’ve grown accustomed to that screen size—anything smaller just won’t cut it.

 

Those requirements already set a baseline that’s higher than what the average person deems necessary in a TV, which is causing quite the internal battle between my inner cheapskate and my inner videophile over what’s essential in this purchase.

 

The (ahem) frugal side of me is leaning toward a midrange 65-inch LED/LCD TV—something with a local-dimming full-array LED panel and a respectable amount of peak brightness. As we discussed in a recent podcast, the performance of these midrange TVs has gotten so good 

that the vast majority of people will be truly blown away by the picture quality. My mind knows that these are very good performers that have the features I demand. They check all the right boxes. It’s a no-brainer.

 

But my heart has something else to say on the subject. It longs for the luxury of the far pricier OLED TV. I know rationally that, from a features standpoint, an OLED TV doesn’t really bring anything more to the table than those midrange LCDs. And while its performance is certainly better, it’s not two or three times better, which is how much more you’ll pay for a similar screen size—and that’s if you go with the “budget” OLED option. The true luxury purchase would be a flagship model like LG’s Signature W8, whose picture quality is essentially identical to lower-priced models in LG’s line. You’re paying for the sex appeal.

 

Ultimately, luxury lives on a sliding scale that’s determined entirely by our personal experience. Once you’ve experienced the Nth degree of performance and design—be it in a TV, a speaker, a control platform, or even a lighting system—your baseline is bound to shift.  You may know you don’t really need it, but it’s hard not to want it.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Why HDR Matters

If you read the reviews here at Cineluxe with any frequency, you’ve probably noticed that we make frequent reference to HDR—high dynamic range–video. By now, it’s a term you’re almost certainly familiar with. But if you’re not really sure what it means, you can be forgiven, because most of the standard marketing materials are confusing and misleading.

 

Here’s a perfect example. This image is representative of the images that most TV manufacturers use to convey the advantages of HDR. Look at that dull and washed out image on the left. Marvel at how it pales in comparison to the vibrant image on the right side of the screen. See how much better HDR is?

Why HDR Matters

There’s just one problem with this. This entire pictured is rendered in standard dynamic range (SDR). That vibrant, lifelike image on the right? Your old, non-HDR display could almost certainly render it with no problem. The image on the left? It’s artificially toned down and muted. This analogy isn’t really helpful. And mind you, I’m not knocking the graphic artist who made this particular example. The entire electronics industry seems content to rely on some variation of this example on every piece of marketing material promoting the advantages of HDR. I’m simply saying that if this is the only sort of comparison you’ve seen, you’re right to be skeptical.

 

So, how is one to understand the actually differences between SDR and HDR video? One easy way is to visit your local tech expert, be it a custom integrator or an electronics store you trust, and ask for a demo.

 

But you can also understand it with just a little math.

 

In short, the SDR video we’ve grown accustomed to for the past few decades, through DVD, HDTV, Blu-ray, and even non-HDR 4K, uses 8 bits of data to represent each primary color: red, green, and blue. What this means is that you can have 256 different shades of each of those colors, which are then combined to create the entire visual spectrum. 256 shades of red, 256 shades of blue, and 256 shades of green combine to create nearly 17 million total shades that can be displayed on a SDR screen, or captured in a video format like Blu-ray.

 

HDR, by contrast, relies on 10-bit (or even 12-bit) color. To understand what a monumental increase that is, understand that 10-bit color allows for 1,024 different shades of red, green, and blue, which when combined result in over a billion different shades onscreen.

 

Here’s a visualization of the difference between 10-bit and 8-bit, when limited to the blue channel alone:

Why HDR Matters

And grayscale, which represents every step along the way from pure black to pure white:

Why HDR Matters

Again, you’re seeing these images presented in SDR, but hopefully they convey the point that 10-bit video, and hence HDR, allows for more subtle variation in color and grayscale. Which means that you see more detail in the shadows of darker images (or darker areas of a complex scene), and more variation in the highlights of brighter images (or brighter areas of a complex scene).

 

But that’s not all. HDR also allows for greater image brightness, and more control over which areas of the image are dark and bright. Your old HDTV might be capable of delivering 300 nits (a standard unit of measurement for brightness), whereas many of today’s better HDR-capable displays can easily deliver 1,000 nits or more. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire 

image is brighter, mind you, as if you just took your old HDTV and cranked the brightness control. Turn up the brightness on an old TV, and the blacks get washed out and turn gray. Turn up the contrast to compensate, and what you end up with is an image with stark blacks, bright whites, and not much in between.

 

A good HDR TV, on the other hand, can make a small area of the screen—a flashlight beam, for example—shine with all the intensity of the real thing, while keeping the shadows wonderfully and natural dark, without robbing you of those all-important mid-tones in between.

If you’ll allow me my own dubious analogy, think of it like this: Imagine a piano that only had 22 keys. The key on the left is still low A, and the key on the right is still high C, but there are only twenty keys in between them and they can only be played with the soft pedal depressed. Compare that imaginary hobbled instrument to the rich sonic output of an 88-key Steinway Model D concert grand piano played at full volume, and you can start to really wrap your brain around the differences between SDR and HDR.

 

The bottom line is that good HDR displays do a much better job of matching our eyes’ (and our brain’s) ability to differentiate subtle differences in color and contrast, as well as the natural variations in brightness we experience out in the real world.

 

There is one other confusing aspect to all of this, though: The fact that there are competing HDR standards—which you may have seen referred to as HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Hybrid Log Gamma. You don’t really need to understand the differences between them to understand what HDR is and how it works, but we’ll dig into those competing standards in a future post and explain what sets them apart.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Can a Short-Throw Projector Replace a Big-Screen TV?

Can a Short-Throw Projector Replace a Big-Screen TV?

We’ve been talking a lot lately about front projectors versus direct-view TVs in the luxury home market—about the pros and cons of each. In general, the same truths apply now that applied five to 10 years ago: Front projectors are best suited for dark rooms and deliver the best value in screen sizes over 100 inches, but TVs are still the best choice for bright, multi-purpose rooms where you want a clean, all-in-one video solution.

 

One topic we haven’t discussed is how the ultra-short-throw projector fits into the equation. This is a product category that projector manufacturers are positioning to compete directly with big-screen TVs. UST projectors allow you to produce a very large image from a very short distance, oftentimes casting a 100-inch or larger image from less than a foot away. They’re usually designed to sit on a low stand and project the image upward against the wall. So, even though we’re still talking about

sorry (again) about the music

a two-piece solution that requires a projection screen, at least both pieces can be grouped together in one part of the room, more like a big-screen TV.

 

UST projectors are generally brighter than dedicated home theater projectors (ranging from 2,500 to 4,000 lumens), they usually rely on an LED or laser light source to provide a longer life span and instant on/off capability, and they often contain built-in speakers. A growing number even

include Web apps and/or TV tuners to more closely replicate the TV experience. A few examples of UST projectors include Epson’s LS100, LG’s HF85LA, Sony’s VPL-VZ1000ES, and Optoma’s upcoming P1.

Perhaps the most notable UST offering for this discussion is the $6,200 Hisense Laser TV, a complete AV system that includes a 4K DLP projector with a built-in TV tuner and Web apps, a Harman/Kardon sound system with a wireless subwoofer, and a 100-inch ambient-light-rejecting screen. It took a long time for Hisense to actually bring this system to market, but it’s finally available, and the company announced a larger, brighter, HDR-capable version at CES 2019.

 

Clearly Hisense is going right at the big-screen TV market, going so far as to put the word “TV” in the product name (since it includes a tuner, it is technically a TV). And while $6,200 isn’t cheap, it’s far cheaper than any 100-inch TV you’re going to find.

 

But is the Laser TV or any UST projection system really a better option than a large-screen TV? Based on what I’ve seen performance-wise from a couple of these projectors, I’m going to say no. The inherent problem with projectors is that they present an either/or performance proposition: Either you get a great black level to produce the best image contrast in a dedicated theater room, or you get a lot of light output that works in a brighter, multi-use space—but the minute the sun goes down or the lights go out, the contrast plummets. Even the brightest of these projectors can’t compete with an LCD TV, so they can’t do justice to new HDR source content the way even a mid-priced TV from the likes of Vizio or Samsung can.

 

At this moment, you can get a new 2019 82-inch Samsung QLED 4K TV for $4,500. For less than $2,000 you could assemble a good sound system to go with it and enjoy a true multi-purpose AV setup. Admittedly, 82 inches isn’t 100 inches or 120 inches, and prices in the TV market go up exponentially once you hit the 85-inch screen size.

 

So, if you’re thinking about assembling a media room in a multi-purpose space, you need to ask yourself a question: What do I value more, performance or screen size? If you want good performance that remains consistent regardless of room lighting, a big-screen TV is still your best bet. But if your heart is set on a 100-inch or larger screen, then an ultra-short-throw projection system may be the solution to deliver an immersive big-screen experience in a more room-friendly form.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.