“Game of Thrones” Sheds Darkness on the Real Issue
Hey, did you rage tweet after Episode 3 of Game of Thrones because, well, you couldn’t see it? Did you blame the filmmakers and HBO for an experience that was tantamount to trying to watch porn at 3 a.m. through lines of static like when you were a kid? Did you?
We’ve all come to the same conclusion in the weeks that have followed, and that is that compression is the villain here, not HBO, not TV manufacturers, and, of course, not us the viewers. It’s compression’s fault. To which I say good. I’m glad this happened because maybe now we can have an honest conversation about the issue of compression.
I feel like I’ve been stuck on an island these past 15 or so years, droning on about compression while the rest of the AV world ran full steam ahead into HD, then 3D, and now 4 and 8K. HD, 4K, 8K all sound sexy, and like the exterior of a car they’ve
marketed to get your ass in the showroom. So, if 4K is the body, compression is the engine, and, well, she’s a two-cylinder with some rather old horses under the hood.
Nothing makes or breaks a digital video presentation more than compression. Before those physical-media stalwarts start typing See, I told you so, may I remind them that their precious silver coasters are compressed to shit just like the rest of today’s digital video feeds. Now, I can hear them saying, Yeah, but discs are less compressed. True, but the argument is weak, for discs can vary wildly in their levels of compression (just like streaming). Moreover, no one wants your silly discs, so it’s all moot.
Getting back to the topic at hand, compression and streaming (i.e. the video format that will ultimately “win”). Presently most video is compressed using the H.264 format, which back in the day was fine—hell, it was great!
But when H.264 revolutionized digital video, it mostly had to contend with SD content and all that it entailed. Now, that same compression scheme is being pressed into service in a radically different world. It is because of compression that the promise of 4K—hell, HD—has been curbed over the years. Did you know the HD spec encompassed 10-bit color and a larger color space too? These are not 4K-exclusive selling points, but rather bits of information and performance left on the AV battlefield due to compression and our collective digital eco-system being unable to handle the demands of more.
So, what did we do?
Naturally, we gave poor old H.264 more to choke on, because no one understands compression, only what it looks like. They don’t want to accept why it’s happening, they just want to be mad at it. Thankfully H.265 is here, and is slowly being adopted, only it’s very hardware/processor intensive, which makes it expensive to implement.
H.265 promises higher quality at lower file sizes. For example, if 1 hour of content using H.264 comes to 4 GB, then H.265 should give you equal or better quality but with a file of only 1 GB. These are not exact figures, but rather an illustration I hope is easy enough for everyone to understand. With smaller file sizes, the hope is that it’s then easier for feeds to stream faster, further, and with more consistency, thus resulting in (hopefully) a better viewing experience. Of course this is all predicated upon the notion that the hardware at either end can do some of the heavy lifting itself, as H.265 is more complex than H.264. Thankfully we’re getting there, and will ultimately get there in the end. It just takes time.
So the next time you turn on Netflix or HBO Go and watch whatever drama turn into The Lego Movie, don’t get upset. Know that it’s happening because once again, we demanded to run before we learned to walk.
Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.