Video engineers, who are not cinematographers, “assist” the images in getting from point A to point B. However, a video engineer is a middleman who is human and therefore subjective. This fact led Arthur Miller, ASC (see image) to pen the following diatribe for the May 1952 issue of AC: “Much of the poor quality of video films as observed on home receivers is due to faulty electronic systems of the telecaster, to poor judgment of the engineer handling the monitor controls in the station, or both…. In short, much of the trouble still exists because of the lack of standardization in the television industry. Perhaps the strongest point here is the fact that a new factor enters into the telecasting of motion pictures: the privilege vested in the network’s engineering staff to control contrast and shading as TV films are being broadcast.”

This passage may have been written in 1952, but Miller’s complaint is still valid today.

In 1956, Ampex Corporation launched the VRX-1000 (later called Mark IV), its 2” black-and-white magnetic tape recorder for the motion-picture and TV industries (see image). The higher resolution put the kinescope out to pasture, and when videotape was able to record in color, telecine took advantage. Color on videotape involved compression of some sort. For example, Betacam and Bosch Quartercam recorded the chroma signals in 2:1 compression, mostly to expand the wavelength of the luminance and thereby increase the signal-to-noise ratio. But the generational degradation still applied (see image).

During this time, CIE saw where color was headed and, in 1976, standardized a more perceptually uniform color space. Known as CIE L*a*b*, it made up for some of the deficiencies of the CIE 1931 or XYZ model. L* was a nonlinear function of luminance, a* was a value for which –a* is green and +a* is red, and b* is a value for which –b* is blue and +b* is yellow. The advantage of L*a*b* over XYZ is that equal numerical differences between color values correspond roughly to equal perceptual differences. In other words, with XYZ you could tell whether two colors would match, but L*a*b* goes a step beyond to allow you to calculate how different they look.

Around 1983, component video was introduced to the professional market, providing significant advantages over composite video. Component separated the chroma signals from the luminance and transmitted them individually. By keeping the color and black-and-white information separate, there was no overlapping of information, nor was there any resultant degradation caused by separation-filter circuits. Color fidelity was much better, as was resolution. Component video functions in the YPbPr color space, a derivative of the YUV color space.

NHK, Japan’s broadcasting corporation, took advantage of component video in the development of high-definition video. They developed the HD monitor and then worked backwards to create the equipment and camera to support it. This was an opportunity to start TV anew, and though the goal was 1,500 or more lines of resolution, the developers, SMPTE (now with a “T” for television) and, to an even greater degree, the manufacturers, aimed low: 1,125 lines or lower. Most scientists agree that 1,125 lines or less (and broadcasters and manufacturers have selected the lower resolutions) is below the optimum that the human eye can effectively process. Also, the selection of 16x9 as the aspect ratio was a head-scratcher. HD’s inroads into the homes of viewers have progressed at a snail’s pace: a little more than 20 years and counting. But with a higher resolution than NTSC standard video, HD did improve postproduction quality and film-to-tape and tape-to-film transfer. (But incidentally, picture resolution does not affect color rendition.) Julia and Julia, shot by Guiseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC in 1987 on high definition and posted in HD, was the first HD feature transferred to 35mm film for theatrical presentation (see image).

During this time of rapid technology influx and change in video and television, film was a constant. Sure, print stocks and lab development/printing improved dramatically, but film’s color process endured and remained unchanged because of its simplicity (compared to electronic algorithms, compressions, etc.) and reliability (again, compared to electronic algorithms, compressions, etc.).

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, CCDs (charge-coupled devices) began to proliferate, given their ability to read out RGB charges as signals to corresponding pixels. As a result, digital bits slowly began to pervade the entertainment industry without constraints, essentially opening a Pandora’s box that will be discussed in the April issue of AC. Digital requires standards, but is it too soon? As history has shown, the powers-that-be have not made ideal choices. However, during those years, no ASC Technology Committee of the current group’s stature existed to present unified “best-practice recommendations.” Now one does, and its members have something to say.

Jump to: “The Color-Space Conundrum, Part 2”

Curtis Clark, ASC
John Schwartzman, ASC
John Hora, ASC
Steve Gainer, ASCby Douglas Bankston
Douglas Walker (Kodak)
Larry Thorpe (Canon)
Richard Edlund, ASC
Allen Daviau, ASC
Lou Levinson (Post Logic)
Joshua Pines (Technicolor)

The works of:
Paul Doherty, Ph.D. (San Francisco State University)
Ed Reitan
Kresimir Matkovic (Technical University of Vienna)
J.L. Benson (University of Massachussetts)
J.A. Ball (Technicolor)
Daniel V. Schroeder (Weber State University)
Lynn Nielson-Bohl (Vanderbilt University)
Marc Green, PH.D. (West Virginia Medical School)
Josh Wortman (University of California-San Diego)
M.H. Bornstein, Ph.D. (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)
Robert .M. Boynton
James Gordon, Ph.D. (Brown University)
J.C. Adamson

American Cinematographer
ASC Cinematographic Annual
A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television (Fielding)
The History of Movie Photography (Coe)
Color and Culture (Gage)
A History of Motion Picture Color (Ryan)
Mr. Technicolor (Kalmus)
Color Television and Theory: Equipment Operation (RCA)
The Natural Philosophy of James Clerk Maxwell (Harman)

Web Sites:

<< previous || next >>

© 2005 American Cinematographer.