The 2018 HPA Tech Retreat: Digital In The Desert

2018 brought a new venue (The J.W. Marriott) for the annual Hollywood Professional Association Technology Retreat and a program chock-full of interesting talks, not to mention the usual enormous Innovation Zone (formerly the Demo Room). I first attended the Retreat in 2002 out of simple curiosity, and back then there were perhaps 100 – 120 in attendance. Zoom ahead to 2018, and well over 600 people made the trek to Palm Desert.

The primary focus of HPA has been and continues to be post-production, and in recent years there have been numerous presentations on managing workflows, metadata, and “director’s intent.” So it went this year, with an entire section of the Innovation Zone devoted to the Interchange Media Format (IMF, not the International Monetary Fund).

But there’s more to the conference than workflows. I can’t remember precisely when I started doing this presentation, but I attempt to recap my impressions of the Consumer Electronics Show every year – and do it in exactly 30 minutes. Jim Burger from Thomson Coburn opens the first day with a review of what’s happening in Washington DC with regard to copyrights and other legal issues, and we both try to spice things up with a little humor here and there. (Very little…)

Over 600 people attended this year’s Tech Retreat.

Of course, there are other things to talk about, such as the emergence of solid-state cinema screens using light-emitting diodes and how likely they are to replace conventional digital cinema projectors. Peter Lude of Mission Rock Digital covered this topic nicely and it appears we’re not quite there yet, although it’s been my experience that Asian countries are often happy to dive into new cinema technologies where we in the U.S. and Canada would proceed more cautiously.

High dynamic range (HDR) is another hot topic, as you might imagine. One of the highlights of my talk was how cheap Ultra HDTVs have become, with certain models available for as little as $8 per diagonal inch and equipped with basic HDR (HDR 10 static metadata) for just $1 more per diagonal inch. My conclusion was that the economic impact of televisions on the CE world has been greatly diminished – televisions are commodities now, and the average consumer buys TVs these days by looking for the best price on the biggest screen they can fit at home.

Of course, my observations stirred up a bunch of discussions and counter-arguments, the strongest coming from representatives of Sony. From my perspective, no one hurts themselves by waiting a bit longer to invest in an HDR TV, as there are still a few bugs in the system. Not all HDR formats are supported on all models, and some content players and TVs don’t establish HDMI connections correctly, enabling a lower bit rate connection and blocking HDR signals –  something that would drive the average viewer crazy.

HDR was a hot topic at the Retreat and Panasonic demonstrated dual HDR (left) and SDR (right) output from their newest 4K camera.

The Sony camp argued that it has never been a better time to buy an Ultra HDTV with HDR, and in fact older models might actually out-perform newer models as the race to lower manufacturing costs could sacrifice quality. However; Sony’s own Z9 LCD Ultra HDTV, held up as a paragon of HDR playback (albeit a very expensive one at $9,000 originally), has been discontinued and the likely cause is far lower prices for OLED and quantum dot-equipped LCD TVs. And they did admit that there are still ample problems with HDMI interconnections and clock rate detection that adversely impact Ultra HD playback on current models of televisions.

The elephant in the room is that there isn’t enough HDR content to watch in the first place. Yes, Comcast provided 4K coverage of the Olympics via streaming connections, some of it with HDR. And DirecTV (AT&T) carried the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 4K with HDR. But the pickings are still slim. An informal show of hands after Day 2 seemed to confirm my advice to sit on one’s hands – more attendees who were considering an Ultra HDTV with HDR purchase seemed happy to wait it out a bit longer than those who just had to jump in and get a set today.

I don’t know of too many people who have picked up Ultra HD Blu-ray players to watch HDR content, either (I haven’t) but I am aware of a couple of instances where said players didn’t work correctly with compatible TVs. In one case, the manufacturer of the TV and UHD BD player were the same! But given how low prices have dropped for HDR-equipped sets, it appears that HDR will become a standard feature soon enough, just like the late, lamented 3D did. And UHD BD players will come down in price to match conventional Full HD models soon enough.

Thursday’s session opened with a panel discussion on HDR “flavors” and featured participants from Dolby, Sony, Samsung, and the BBC. It was timely: A recent article in the Hollywood Reporter talked about people getting confused with all of the different HDR formats – HDR 10, Dolby Vision, Hybrid Log Gamma, and HDR 10+ (Samsung’s take on dynamic metadata). So far, I know of only one manufacturer (LG) that supports four HDR formats (HDR 10, Dolby Vision, HLG, and Technicolor, which is more of a transport than a display format). In theory, the TV should recognize these formats automatically, but consumers may perceive we’re in the midst of another “format war” like we were with Blu-ray and HD DVD ten years ago.

This panel was followed by another titled, “Establishing Metadata Guidelines for Downstream Image Presentation Management on Consumer Displays.” In other words, maintaining creative intent all the way through to the television. Another panel on Day 2 discussed the Academy Color Exchange System (ACES), which was developed to ensure color volume and data didn’t change from the camera through post and mastering. There is a never-ending discussion about preserving the director’s and colorists’ intent to the TV screen, but that’s much easier said than done – TV manufacturers have very different axes to grind.

While we already have a system to deliver HDR metadata to televisions using CTA 861.3 extensions, my thought was that perhaps the Cinema/Movie/User picture settings on Ultra HDTVs could be configured to also recognize ACES metadata and provide that more accurate cinema experience. This would involve encoding that data into Blu-ray discs and also streaming content, but it shouldn’t be impossible to pull off – and would actually provide some value to manufacturers, especially if they could re-label this setting “Academy” instead of Cinema or Movie.

I hosted three breakfast roundtables during the conference on OLED technology, HDR signal interfacing, and gadget fatigue. And the last roundtable was the most intriguing, as my colleagues talked about mixed experiences with Alexa, Siri, and Google, using flip phones more than smart phones, trying out VR goggles that are now gathering dust, preferring hardcover and softcover books to tablets, and just trying to disconnect whenever possible.

The fact is; we live in a world of abundant, cheap electronics. It’s hard to disconnect from all of this stuff as it’s become an integral part of our lives, but it appears some of us are trying to maintain some separation and are questioning why everything in our lives needs to be connected, as we were repeatedly told at CES 2018. I can say that a majority of HPA attendees don’t think it’s a good idea to have everything in their house connected to the Internet, based on a show of hands after Day 1.

If you’ve never attended the Tech Retreat, you should. The general sessions are thought-provoking and the sidebar conversations and informal discussions (including the breakfast roundtables) are well worth the trip. I’m looking forward to the 2019 Retreat, at which I will likely report once again on my impressions of CES….