Surfing Chaos Part 1

Emerging technology is a wave perpetually rolling across the entire spectrum of the media entertainment ecosystem. In this two-part series, I’m exploring the shifts in that ecosystem with Howard Lukk, a top technologist who is now the Standards Director for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) after being the VP of Production Systems for Walt Disney Studios and Director of Media Systems for Pixar Animation Studios. 


Steven Poster:  Our industry relies on a huge umbrella of technologies glued together to make media entertainment. You and I first met during the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) around 2002 or 2003. What’s coming at us may be a tsunami by comparison, but the DCI is a great historical lens on the dynamics of technical change. 


Howard Lukk: In the early days, the studios came together over technology at the Motion Picture Academy. There wasn’t another home for it.  I’m a film history buff and I’m not aware of any other effort like the DCI, where the studios came together independently to do something technologically. 


Steven Poster: What happened with the DCI was the studios coming together to create the environment and platform for the rollout of high definition. Right? 


Howard Lukk: The DCI was about projection, but to get there we had to come to terms with HD. A lot of people were trying digital projection and suddenly, it was like, “Wow, this could look all right”. But, there were all these different versions of technology to accomplish the same thing. You can take 35mm film anywhere in the world and put it up on any projector in a heartbeat. We couldn’t do that with digital cinema and the studios didn’t want to make 20 or 30 different deliverables. It was a nightmare. They knew SMPTE was working on this, but SMPTE was a bunch of volunteer engineers who couldn’t make business decisions. And the SMPTE folks had a history of working separately from the creative community—the cinematographers, directors and producers. We knew making technical decisions apart from the creative community would be a disaster. 


Steven Poster: And that’s how we met, at the ASC, putting together the first set of StEM materials (Standard Test and Evaluation Materials). It was a seminal moment when the industry began to realize that digital production is a continuum from acquisition through exhibition. That realization connected the mandate for digital exhibition to the capture side.  


Howard Lukk: There were a few studios eager to go with something like 1280 X 720, the lower end of HD standard from 1995. Then there was the rest of the community saying, “No, no, no… hold the farm. We have answer prints that are better quality than that.” People with densitometers and resolution charts got into all kinds of specifications, but we said, “Let’s really put the eyeballs to this and see what it means to have answer print quality”.  So, the DCI set answer print quality as the goalpost. That’s where cinematographers came in. 


We found out it was going to be much above 1280 X 720 HD. Was it 4K, 16K or 8K? We still debate some of that stuff. We found out that 4K is a pretty good match, but what about color and dynamic range? 


Steven Poster: That’s when some people began thinking I was something of a curmudgeon who hated HD. I kept saying, “it’s not good enough”, when what I was really trying to do was push forward the idea that the scientists, engineers and manufacturers can get there, but we weren’t there yet. 


We re-mastered the original 35mm and 65mm StEM footage a couple years ago and  now have High Dynamic Range, HDR versions. But, my feeling is that we really need to do a new set of StEM materials made with digital cameras. 


Howard Lukk: I agree. We need new digitally originated benchmark material for use across many different systems to verify that we really do have High Dynamic Range and wide color gamut. I found a diagram of HDR specifications on Twitter and it looks like we’re back to where we were with projection before DCI. 


Steven Poster: With the introduction of full frame and large format digital cameras, quality may be even beyond where we need it to be. But, it’s not just the question of where we go with the quality, it’s the introduction of technology like computational cinematography that requires the skills of the Directors of Photography, Camera Operators, First Assistants and DITs in post. We’ve never been through a change like that. 


And that’s where we’ll pick-up in the second part of the discussion.

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