H.265 Tag

What Did We Learn from the “GoT” Debacle?

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

The impenetrable darkness of “The Long Night”

It was a simpler time before April 28, 2019. The Khaleesi was going to be the savior of Westeros, Disney was on their way to owning all of us, and Joe’s Pizza in the Village had the best slice. While two of those things might still be true, they don’t matter anymore because we now live in a post-“The Long Night” world, a world where terms like H.264 and megabits per second are no longer muttered about only on tech blogs but discussed out in the open around water coolers (is that still a thing?) Now that the dust has settled a bit from the Game of Thrones kerfuffle, what are some of the things that came to light out of the darkness of that long night?

 

 

Lesson 1:  Public Enemy No. 1—Compression

If you haven’t realized it from the discussion here at Cineluxe over the past month, compression has become a hot-button issue—for good reason. GoT fans were confronted with Lego-like picture artifacts for the duration of the 82-minute “Long Night” episode, and they’re not happy about it.

 

While the video quality of home viewing has increased dramatically over the past few years with 4K UHD becoming more mainstream and the latest TVs allowing for great-looking HDR and far more vibrant colors, compression hasn’t always kept up. For years, H.264 (also called AVC) was king, and really, still is. It can compress video all the way up to 8K resolution, and has been tweaked to include support for wide color gamut and HDR, and to produce smaller file sizes. But it just can’t create files small enough for efficient delivery through the current pipelines without leading to the kinds of problems that were amply on display in “The Long Night.”

 

You probably read Andrew Robinson’s take on H.265 (aka HEVC) as the next step forward. With H.265, a 1080p signal only requires a 3 Mbps bitrate as opposed to H.264’s 6 Mbps. And a 4K signal needs less than half of H.264’s bitrate—15 vs. 32 

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

Mbps. But, as Andrew mentioned, not everything is currently equipped to handle and decode H.265-compressed video. In addition to needing significantly fewer bits per second, H.265 does a better job with motion compensation.

 

I should stress that the Mbps numbers listed above are truly bare 

minimums, and at those rates you’ll likely see image issues. Netflix, which uses H.265 for all of its 4K content, recommends a minimum 25 Mbps connection for streaming.

 

Speaking of Netflix, they’re at the forefront of experimenting with new, better codecs for 4K streaming. As a result, you can expect to hear some new acronyms like VP9 and AV1 in the coming years. AV1 in particular promises to deliver HEVC-level quality while using even fewer bits.

 

 

Lesson 2:  It’s (probably) not your TV

The cinematographer for “The Long Night,” Fabian Wagner, found himself on the defensive after the uproar and, in addition to (rightly) blaming HBO’s compression, also blamed viewers and their TVs. “A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly,” he told Wired UK.

 

Technically, that is correct. The vast majority of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly. Luckily, they don’t really need to. Most TVs over the past couple years priced more than $500 come out of the factory looking really good and don’t

necessarily need to be calibrated. (But I would still recommend calibration for any mid-to-high-end TV, to make sure you’re getting that absolute most out of it.)

 

One thing Mr. Wagner brought up that has some merit is people’s tendency to watch TV with their lights on. Even minimal lighting can have an impact on your ability to see shadow detail in a darkly filmed scene, especially if you have an older LCD TV with mediocre black levels. So one quick fix for a murky picture might be to just turn off any extra light in you room.

 

If you want to make sure your TV is in the best viewing mode—and you haven’t had it calibrated—don’t, for the love of Werner Herzog, ever put it in Vivid (aka “Torch”) mode. Go for Cinema, or Calibrated, or Movie. These will generally have the best color accuracy and contrast/backlight/ dimming zones setting, and won’t include the bane of video reviewers everywhere—the “soap opera effect.”

 

 

Lesson 3:  The apps you use (and the device they’re on) matter

You can expect the quality and user experience to differ from one app to the next, since they’re all made by different companies that generally aren’t keen on sharing development secrets. But there can even be performance issues with the same app on different platforms—as Dennis Burger recently described in his article about the Netflix app. I have to admit, that revelation was a bit of a shock to me. The idea that a seemingly identical app could perform vastly differently through different platforms was a big surprise. Some variation is to be expected, but I would have thought it would be more of an academic argument than a bunch of extra artifacts on one app version over the other. Trying the Netflix app on a different platform could help clear up any artifacts you might be experiencing.

 

But this piece is really about how HBO screwed up. And if you’re watching HBO through your cable or satellite service, you’re dependent on the hardware they provide, which might not be offering state-of-the-art resolution support. For instance, if you haven’t replaced you DirecTV HDR in the past couple years, it might still top out at 1080i resolution. Signing into the HBO GO app (or the NOW app, if you’re streaming only) should guarantee 1080p support.

 

 

Lesson 4:  Choose your viewing window wisely

“The Long Night” had 17.8 million viewers when it initially aired over all delivery media, including cable, satellite, HBO NOW, and HBO GO. That was a new record for HBO, so 

congratulations are in order, I suppose. But with such a concurrent draw on the servers, the quality of the stream suffered. This severely exacerbated the already present compression artifacts, to the point of making the show unwatchable—hence the Twitter eruption that night and the next day. I watched portions of the episode a few more times that week after the viewing tide subsided to see if there was any improvement, and while the artifacts weren’t gone, they were much less obvious.

Lesson 5:  Aesthetic choices matter too

Why did the Internet hordes descend on Fabian Wagner? It’s rare that a cinematographer needs to come out from behind the camera to defend himself, but that episode was dark—intentionally so. It was his conception (in collaboration with the director) that was on the screen, after all, and people were upset they couldn’t see it. A hugely anticipated battle scene where you can’t see anything? Preposterous. In contrast, take a look at another famous nighttime battle—The Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. That place was lit up like a Christmas tree—or, more accurately, a huge amount of blue light that gave the feel of the moon. The whole sequence was masterfully shot.

 

That doesn’t mean “The Long Night” was shot wrong, just different. In fact, the move toward really dark seems to be a bit of a recent trend. In the spring of 2018, a little movie called Solo: A Star Wars Story was released. The cinematographer, Bradford Young, used a low-light approach much like Fabian Wagner’s to accentuate the shadows and grime of Han Solo’s earlier 

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

Solo: A Star Wars Story—into the darkness of the Maw

years. Complaints on the Internet were everywhere (for a Star Wars movie, go figure . . .) because many theaters, even in major markets, weren’t properly calibrated, which led to a lack of shadow detail. I happily didn’t run into that issue here in Los Angeles, and now regularly use Solo as a test disc for the gritty sabacc scenes and the darkness of the Falcon flying through the Maw.

 

 

What’s next?

Now that “The Longest Night” has brought the conversation out into the open, everything is solved and we don’t need to worry about encountering these problems ever again, right? Nope. Not by a long shot. It’s wonderful that we’re talking about what went wrong, but it’s going to take a while for the technology and the people who implement it to catch up.

 

Even though the first version of H.264 was completed in 2003, it didn’t really achieve widespread adoption until a decade later. The HEVC standard was ratified in 2013, and Netflix implemented it for 4K delivery in 2016, but it’s only recently begun to catch on elsewhere. If all of that is any indication, AV1 (which was released last year) won’t be in wide use for at least a couple of years.

 

And low-light cinematography isn’t going away, nor should it. But for HBO and their use of H.264, it does mean that grayscale banding in dark scenes will continue to be apparent. (We’ve already seen it again at the end of Episode 2 of HBO’s Chernobyl.)

 

The most we can do is make sure our TVs aren’t in Vivid mode, the lights are all turned off, and we’re using the best version of our streaming app we can.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Compression Revisited

Compression Revisited

an example of the compression artifact “banding”

If my last post made it seem like I hate compression in all its forms, you’ll have to forgive me. The simple fact is, without compression, there would be no digital video. All video is compressed. Period. Usually at the point of capture, then for exhibition at movie theaters, then again for home video. Even movies or TV shows shot on film are later transferred to digital for post production and compressed. There is no way to have a moving digital image of any kind without some form of compression.

 

For years, most popular digital video formats and capture devices have used H.264 compression. You don’t need to know exactly what H.264 is or how it works. Suffice to say, it’s been with us for a long while now, and it’s time in the spotlight is 

running out. Why? Because we’re moving ever faster towards needing video that maintains H.264’s quality, but with much better efficiency.

 

Enter H.265 (aka HEVC). While the similarity in naming to H.264 suggests there’s not a big difference, H.265 is an entirely different beast and the next frontier in compression.

 

So why are we, or am I, suddenly talking about the AV industry’s most boring topic? Well, because of Game of Thrones naturally. What, did you think I was going to ramble on about a Starbucks cup? No, compression is a big deal now because winter came and for a lot of folks it didn’t come with a very spectacular view! Suddenly the whole world cares about compression, even if HBO and the show’s creators would rather blame it on our lack of calibration. (Don’t get me started.)

 

You see, compression not only allows for digital video to exist in the first place but  also allows for so many of us to enjoy it all at the same time. So when a lot of people all decided they wanted to see some dragon porn at precisely 8 p.m. on the same Sunday night, it took a fair amount of compression to make that happen. Why?

Because digital video files are huge—not to mention complicated. Not like, “Oh, you attached a big file to that last email,” but rather, “Damn, you know I don’t have unlimited data on my cellular plan!” They’re actually even larger than that. In many ways, we’ve long since taken digital video for granted, because prior to the Battle of Winterfell, the only people who really griped about compression were AV nerds like me.

Compression Revisited

For what it’s worth, even most AV nerds misrepresent compression. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s a comparison between the amount of data it takes to deliver a 4K HDR stream via Netflix (or similar services) compared to the amount of data that UHD Blu-ray discs and your local cineplex deliver.

 

Most nerds will tell you (ignorantly) that the line between unacceptable 

garbage and perfect quality video falls somewhere between the bottom line and the middle one. That argument looks sort of silly, though, when you compare all of the above with truly uncompressed 4K video (see the chart below). The difference between the most and least compressed digital video you as a consumer can access is minuscule by comparison.

Compression Revisited

Again, this isn’t a conversation most people are having. But when everyone’s favorite cousin-f’ing dating show suddenly looks like The Lego Movie, well, people notice.

 

Mind you, as I indicated in my last post, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as too much compression. As we saw with Game of Thrones, you can reach the breaking point of any codec. But it’s not anyone’s fault. You see, we’ve only had digital video in a

meaningful way for a very short time. While digital video has existed since the ‘80s and ‘90s, it didn’t really become the standard until the early 2000s—which means we’ve covered a hell of a lot of technological ground in a very short time.

 

H.264 has been a godsend for digital video both at the capture and exhibition levels. But it does have limitations—not in quality, mind you. Believe it or not, H.264 is robust enough to handle even 8K-resolution files. No, H.264’s limitation is that for as compressed as it is, it actually doesn’t compress enough, so one of two things has to happen. Either you need to compress the files right up to their limit so more people can watch them on demand—thus the GoT debacle—or two, you need a new compression scheme. That’s where H.265 comes into play.

 

H.265 doesn’t really promise to do anything better than its predecessor, except retain the same or better quality but at a quarter of the size. That is all great news. But to get the same horsepower from an engine one quarter the size, you need to do some tweaking—or in this case, some fairly substantial computing.

 

As a result, not everything in today’s modern AV eco system is H.265 equipped, or compatible. Moreover, not every modern camera has H.265 capabilities despite being so-called state of the art.

 

In other words, we find ourselves in a bit of in-between state, a mixed bag of both H.264 and H.265 content and capability. That’s why, at the moment, Netflix can even rival silly spinning discs when it comes to picture quality, whereas other streaming providers, like HBO Go or HBO Now, can end up looking awful while eating up the same amount of your internet data.

 

The good news is that we’re marching ever forward toward the full-scale adoption of H.265—which, in theory, should make something like that disastrous Thrones episode a thing of the past. But until that day comes when we’re all able to get on the same page, more and more of us may have to come to grips with compression and why it is both the lifeblood of digital video and its achilles heel.

Andrew Robinson

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.

“Game of Thrones” Sheds Darkness on the Real Issue

"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

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.