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« Image Management | Main | Moviemaking and Food »

August 26, 2004

TV Colors

Dear Vanessa --

I've always found the colors displayed by TVs appallingly crass; they're as imprecise and crude as the colors in a daily newspaper. Ian Austen's helpful article in the NYTimes here explains why: the process of capturing and displaying visual information on TVs remains mired in 50-year-old standards. A large amount of color information is simply discarded along the way; the consequence is a buzzy, garish color wheel. Sigh: Americans and our obliviousness to matters of taste and beauty, eh?

But Austen's article provides some hopeful news too. A new company has developed technology that can replace some of that missing color with excellent results. An independent expert who viewed a demo said, "I was absolutely blown away." Whee! Eye-relief is on the way: the technology should start showing up in some new TVs next year.



posted by Michael at August 26, 2004



Ever had the pleasure of watching HDTV? Native widescreen aspect ratio, diamond-cutter sharpness and color brilliance you can practically touch. When you watch a brilliantly photographed show (like THE SOPRANOS) in HD, the technology actually brings out the pros of capturing something on film as opposed to video: you can see deeper into the shadows, blacks are richer and velvety, the grain structure of the medium is infintely finer, and flesh-toned highlights appear as crisp as if you were looking into a mirror. I can't wait 'til it becomes the standard.

And I hear Intel is producing a 42" widescreen, HDTV-ready plasma monitor that will hit stores 'round Xmas and retail for under 1K.

Oh, and there's a new DVD system called Blu-Ray in the wings which masters the discs for optimum playback in HD resolution. Old DVDs will play on the new machines, too.

"Techmology," as Ali G says, "is well important, inn'it?"


Posted by: Dick on August 27, 2004 10:11 AM

Let's hear if for tech improvements. Given how bad theater-based movies have generally gotten, it looks like home-viewing is going to be the redemption of movies. So quality at home is going to get more and more important. Me, I'm looking forward to the day when some of the edgier and artier filmmakers make their movies direct for DVD.

I found it interesting in Austen's article to learn that some people have been underwhelmed by HDTV. I've been mezzo-mezzo on it myself. Terrific detail! But something still over-electronic about it. And Austen seems to hint that the rotten colors play a big role -- that they may be more important in a viewer's experience than sheer detail is. So it should be a great improvement if someone can cross improved color with all that detail. As soon as such a TV goes for less than a grand, I'll be at the store with my credit card extended.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 27, 2004 11:15 AM

In the movie realm, Technicolor was, for a number of years, dominated by Natalie Kalmus. Here is a bit from the British Film Institute web site:

"[Natalie Kalmus]An infamous figure in the history of colour cinematography, who often fought with cinematographers and art directors and is generally considered to have contributed little to the films on which her name appears. The Technicolor system was invented in large part by Herbert T. Kalmus, who had married Natalie Dunphy in 1903. When she divorced him in 1922, the divorce settlement gave her the right to place her name as Color Consultant on all Technicolor productions."

Until her monopoly was broken in 1949 all Technicolor films were heavy on saturated colors. I believe Moulin Rouge (1952, with Jose Ferrer as Henri de Toulouse Lautrec) was the first non-Kalmus Technicolor film. Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographs were displayed in an excellent approximation of their true colors. There was a lot of noise at the time about how subtle the color in Moulin rouge was compared to what had been.

Perhaps the folks in charge of the TV world grew up in the era when you put saturated colors on the screen so people could tell the show was in color, and just never got over it. Wouldn't be the first time.

Posted by: JimT on August 27, 2004 4:57 PM

I'm kind of confused by this, since our retina has only three kinds of color-receptors--blue, green, and red--and our brain constructs all other shades out of combinations of the signals from these three types. So why wouldn't 3-color monitors be enough to simulate any color we can experience? Maybe because each type of receptor's response tails off gradually as you move away from the wavelength it's most sensitive to, as depicted in this diagram from this page?

Posted by: Jesse M. on August 27, 2004 11:13 PM

I spent several months in the US about eight years ago, and was quite startled when I got back home to Britain to see just how bright and vibrant the colours on my television were in comparison with what I'd been watching (aside from not having to put up with commercial breaks every thirty seconds - a typical British sitcom has a civilised three-minute break in the middle and nowhere else).

There are certainly drawbacks to the PAL system that we use (notably/notoriously the 4% speed-up with sourced-from-film material, raising the pitch by a semitone), but when it comes to broadcast TV there's very little contest: PAL pictures are higher-resolution and have vastly great colour accuracy. (I can't believe no-one's cited the NTSC = Never Twice the Same Colour joke, so I might as well do it here).

This only applies to broadcast television, though - the colours on American NTSC DVDs (of which I have a great many) seem fine.

Posted by: Michael Brooke on August 28, 2004 2:41 AM

JimT -- An interesting question, isn't it -- the extent to which our tastes and expectations get formed, and the role that the technology can play in forming those tastes. If you grow up drinking Tang, maybe real o.j. tastes weird to you. I spent my first night in years at a dance club last week, and was struck by how much more ... well, effective sound systems are now than they were when I was a kid. A consequence is that kids today seem to expect to get Dolby-slammed around. And thanks for reminding us of Kalmus, who I'd read about, though years ago. She must have been quite a woman; apparently she had the entire industry by the short hairs. It sounds like color quality suffered quite a lot due to her domination.

JesseM -- Thanks for links. I confess I don't by a long shot understand the science of color. I'll semi-feel I grasp, oh, the diff between CMYK and RGB "color space" ... but it'll only last for a few seconds, and then it slips away again. So I walk around with a dim sense that it's complicated, and that I'm all for improvement, whatever that may mean. Thanks heavens my eyes aren't terrible at registering and responding to the results! I'm like a person with a not-bad palate but who knows nothing about cooking. So I appreciate all tips and hints about how these things actually come about.

Michael -- I haven't seen much Euro color-TV, but aeons ago, when I spent a high school year in France, and before I was a serious film buff, I was knocked out by how much better the b&w Euro TV image was than the American: tighter, denser, deeper, with lots more continuity between the values -- blacker blacks, silvery grays, whites that didn't just burn out ... Watching movies on French TV, you had a much more movie-like experience. Interesting to learn that the same holds for color, tks. The American TV image is incredibly crass, which is a tragedy, as it seems to help promote a taste for crassness and garishness, or at least a resignation to it. I guess there's hope, though: people seem to love DVDs for numerous reasons, and one of them may be the tighter, less washy image that they deliver. So maybe tastes (or demands, anyway) will go up a bit. Here's hoping this new tech contributes a bit to that. I didn't realize that transfers to PAL resulted in speed-ups. How weird.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 28, 2004 10:51 AM

I didn't realize that transfers to PAL resulted in speed-ups. How weird.

In practice, unless you have perfect pitch and a very good memory, you're unlikely to notice anything unusual, though I remember a review in Gramophone of a VHS release of Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni that complained about the pitch shift. Unfortunately, the critic decided to blame the conductor rather than the film-to-PAL transfer, but that's understandable.

A tiny number of films are electronically pitch-corrected during the PAL transfer, but this process has been controversial - sometimes electronic glitches are introduced as a by-product (the PAL version of one of the Lord of the Rings films is apparently affected by this).

Of course, another side-effect to all this is that 100-minute films run at 96 minutes in PAL, which creates the impression that four minutes have been cut. This has led to a great many people to jump to the conclusion that certain videos have been censored quite severely - I remember a hysterical denunciation of Warner Home Video in Time Out for their "butchery" of Michael Mann's Heat, which apparently lost some seven minutes, though in actual fact the film was entirely uncut: the missing minutes were entirely due to PAL speedup.

I should also stress that if the original source was video (whether PAL or NTSC), pitch-shift issues don't arise, so in actual fact the vast majority of music videos should be fine in PAL.

Posted by: Michael Brooke on August 29, 2004 4:04 PM

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