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
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.
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
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
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.