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Bringer of Darkness: Game of Thrones and Video Display Technology

During this Spring’s 2019 television season, my viewing schedule has been dominated by two very similar epic series. Both stories involve the struggle between good and evil and the supremacy of one above many. Also, both have generated no small controversies. I speak of HBO’s Game of Thrones and the NBA Playoffs, of course.

For GoT, the primary controversy after the broadcast of Season 8, Episode 3The Long Night,” involved the overall darkness of the episode (visual, not emotional, although there was plenty of that as well). Conversely, in the NBA Playoffs, the main controversy has been: how did the refs not call a foul in the final seconds of the Nets elimination game!!!

For this article, however, we will stay with the darkness issue brought front and center by “The Long Night” episode and how it relates to the video display technology we in the live event world work with on a regular basis.

For many watchers of GoT Episode 3, lack of visual energy was a real issue as the scenes were lit so sparingly that major faults in HBO’s cable stream were apparent and exacerbated by most viewers’ display equipment. Many viewers, especially those watching an online stream on a laptop, experienced even worse video performance and complained loudly. Even my personal viewing system, which features a current high-end UHD monitor and was displaying the HBO feed direct from a Verizon Fios converter (non-HDR), fell apart during some of the dark action scenes. Dark backgrounds appeared as blocks in different shades of gray.

In general, movement and darkness are not friendly to compression algorithms, nor is movement in low-light scenes friendly to many of today’s “state of the art” large-screen video displays, where most manufacturers seem to cater to professional users’ preferences for quantity and convenience over quality of image. With many users fixated on cost and resolution—as in “I can now get a 1.2mm pixel pitch display for x dollars, isn’t that great?”—we forget that high resolution does not always mean better image quality. Content preparation, video processing, and transmission methods have significant bearing on the resulting image quality, particularly when the content pushes the boundaries of the technology.

As a point of comparison, walk around LDI and look at the content chosen by display manufacturers to show off new products and tell me what you see. For the majority, if not the totality, the displays will be showing bright daylight scenes that sit right in the technology’s sweet spot. This is especially so for the LED screens in the brightly lit environment of the trade show floor, and frankly, that’s what makes LED such an attractive option. For big bright images in high ambient light environments, there’s nothing better.

However, that does not mean that LED is always best. Yes, it gives scenic and lighting designers tremendous latitude in terms of placement and coverage, and that latitude generally translates into a higher quality viewer/attendee experience. However, I think we, as users, have let the display manufacturers off the hook, and I would love to see a re-doubled effort towards improved image quality.

To support my point, the roll-out and lack of acceptance of HDR might be a good evidence. In the professional live event world, HDR (whether HDR-10, DolbyVision or HLG) could make a significant impact on image quality but is never discussed as an option for improved image quality. Part of the fault for this lies in the ultra-confusing roll-out of the technology, what with different standards, lack of content, and general cluelessness. Be that as it may, it is just this year, in 2019, that we will see HDR supported by LED video processors.

As a video display professional, it is somewhat disappointing that proven methods for improving technology go unheeded. Compare that to the audio folks, who generally show off their speaker systems with some of the trickiest tracks around in order to demonstrate the fidelity of their equipment. I think it’s fair to say that, while high-end audio manufacturers continue to push the quality envelope farther and farther, manufacturers of LED and flat-screen displays have settled on pushing other benefits. Note that I did not include projection technology in that grouping, and that was intentional as projector manufacturers still seem committed to ultimate image quality as a mission. As an example, get a look at the new 40,000-lumen direct-laser models that are hitting the market now.

Soon enough, I suppose, we’ll all get swept up in the 8K movement, and then we’ll have even more pixels to play with. Whoopee. Hopefully, someone out there will also be looking out to improve the quality of those pixels.

Throughout a 40-year career in the entertainment technology business, Josh Weisberg has experienced each of the evolutionary leaps in sound, video, and lighting technology from a seat in the front row. Combining a rare level of business management and technical engineering acumen, Weisberg has a keen understanding of the mechanics of running a technology business as well as the engineering and design chops clients rely on for all types of projects. Currently working as a technology and business consultant (having stepped down from the leadership role at Scharff Weisberg and WorldStage in 2017), Weisberg utilizes his expertise in large-screen display design as well as other event technologies for clients in the event, arts, theater, and spectacle sectors.

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