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2nd year into owning OLED has led me to an existential question: what is the "correct" black level, my OLED, or a theater (aka not true black) (1 Viewer)

Carlo_M

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Long time members here will know that I've been part of the community since 1997 (right after getting my first full time job my first big purchase was a DVD player as Los Angeles was one of the initial 7 test cities for the new technology). I loved going to the theaters. Living and working where I do, I've always had to rent so a "dedicated HT room" has never been in the cards, but aside from that, I daresay I've built a pretty respectable home theater in my living room. Despite that, I love going to the theaters, there is no recreating the all-encompassing large screen experience at places like the TCL Chinese Theater (dual laser IMAX!) or Westwood Village's Regency Village (aka "the Fox Theater") which is now a THX certified experience.

I bought my 65" LG C1 OLED last year and I can say visually it was a true light bulb moment for me, in terms of getting pure, true blacks. I loved it so much that I just put up with the lower overall brightness than the older FALD LED TVs I'd owned. When the C2 this year went on Black Friday deal, I jumped at the 77" version for which I paid nearly the same amount as I did for the smaller C1 last year (which now is in another room). It has better brightness output than the C1 to the point where, yes it's still less than LED TVs, but not to the point where I consider it a trade-off. It gets plenty bright for even daytime viewing for me (full disclosure I light-control my room so I never have a fully sunlit living room, those with bright rooms with large floor-to-ceiling windows may disagree with my assessment of the C2's brightness).

Despite making major improvements in my HT over the past 18 months (OLED, going from 5.1.2 to 7.2.4, upgrading a mish-mosh of speakers acquired over the past 10-15 years to the Definitive Tech Demand Series (D17s for the main, D5c and D9s for all surrounds) I still love going to the theaters, especially the ones with big screens with great projection and sound equipment (the aforementioned TCL Chinese and Village theaters are two of my local favorites). I was in the crowd on opening day of Avengers Endgame when the Russos "snuck" in (there were several rows cordoned off when I entered, which made me wonder why the theater did that) and the joy of audience reaction to every key moment of that movie ranks right up there with the Star Wars re-releases in the late 90s when audiences cheered with the intro of every main character...especially Han.

But one thing has been bothering me recently. None of the great theaters, not dual laser IMAX, not Dolby Cinema, not IMAX certified, get "pure blacks" like OLED does. And lesser digital projection systems (like those in standard multiplexes) give black levels like edge- and rear-lit LEDs (e.g. very, very dark grey). It's the nature of projecting onto a screen right? Some light hits the screen somewhere, and so an adjacent part of the screen that's meant to be black will have a little light reflectivity that can't be avoided. No part of a reflective screen can "turn off" like an OLED pixel. I've more than once, over the last year or so, walked out of a theater thinking "well I miss the black levels of my OLED, can't wait until this gets released on UHD". The most egregious was the third Fantastic Beasts movie, which was very dark, and which I saw in a multiplex standard theater, and saw no true blacks, only shades of gray. Sure enough, a few months later and the home release was superior in terms of black level playback on my C1/C2.

Which got me thinking. What's the "correct black level" nowadays? To put a boundary on the discussion, let's limit it to current/recent major studio films of which the majority are shot and edited digitally. I'm sure a different answer would be suitable for films shot on...film...and edited in the analog/physical domain.

So can we agree to the premise that the majority of current big budget films (and many/most? big budget streaming shows/series) are shot digitally and edited digitally? If so, in those editing rooms, where the editor(s) and director(s) are making their creative choices on the final product's look and feel (lighting, exposure, color timing, shadow detail, etc.) they are likely doing so using state-of-the-art, calibrated reference monitors for playback...which are capable of displaying the true blacks that OLEDs can recreate. Blacks which, by the very laws of physics of projecting light onto a reflective screen, cannot be recreated in a theater.

In this modern film/show workflow, the existential question I'm facing is: what is the proper black level? This very forum is dedicated to the Home Theater, and our attempt to recreate to the greatest extent possible, the theatrical experience at home. In the past, we knew it was a fool's errand, that for most of us making less than seven figure salaries, our HTs would always be a step (or several steps) behind the theatrical experience.

But now, with OLED true black levels coming closer to the studio reference monitors than what a projected image can deliver due to the laws of physics (even one with as good a system as the dual laser IMAX at the TCL Chinese main screen)...we may now have in our reach something that brings us closer to the "artist's intent" than even the theatrical presentation.

Final note: I still love going to theaters and will continue to do so. Please don't mistake this for a "my home theater is better than going to an actual theater" post. My intent is to generate thought and discussion about something which owning an OLED TV has made me realize: that I preferred the black level performance on my OLED to even the best theatrical projection I've been to. And then the necessary corollary: with modern shot-on-digital and/or edited-on-digital films, is this actual the correct black level as opposed to what we see in theaters?

Would love to hear your thoughts!
 

Peter Apruzzese

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The closest I've seen to "pure black" theatrically has been in some Dolby Cinema presentations (though there is still too much ambient light from the floor lights in one venue I've gone to). 35mm dye-transfer Technicolor prints come in second.

I don't know what the colorists master their films on, but I imagine they'd at least have to give them a QC pass on OLEDs to confirm the black level is being dealt with properly.
 

Carlo_M

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This video is from 2019 but I came across it while doing some searching after my Initial post.



According to him $30K Sony reference monitor that “all of them use” but that Sony has stopped making…and apparently many of them have a larger panel since that reference monitor is small (when they want to show their work to the director, DP, and their inner circle) and he’s using a 65” Panasonic OLED. I’m sure others may be using other brands, and again this was from 2019 and significant improvements have been made in OLED performance since then.
 

Robert_Zohn

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The latest reference monitor used by Hollywood Filmmakers and Post Production houses is Sony's BVM-HX310, which is a Dual LCD Panel. So the back LCD layer generates the local dimming.

Panasonic OLED displays are no longer in production and they were mostly used a client reference displays, not typically for mastering.

Hollywood films are mastered on RGB OLED reference monitors, BVM-HX300 or the newer movies used Sony's Dual LCD, BVM-HX310 which also renders pure black.

Also know that although the mastering reference monitors are capable to go down to pure black they do master all movies differently for Movie Theaters, Blu-ray disc production, and streaming with different minimum luminance levels and peak luminance for each specific use.
 

Josh Steinberg

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In this modern film/show workflow, the existential question I'm facing is: what is the proper black level?

I hope this doesn’t sound trite, but: the proper black level is the one that the specific master being viewed was timed for.

By that I mean: in ye olden days, you’d make one version of the film, approve one answer print for all others to be measured against, and everything else was an attempt to get as close as possible to that one reference as each subsequent format would allow.

Nowadays, when a filmmaker hands in their final version of the movie, they’re required to provide multiple deliverables, including but not limited to: a 2K DCP timed for xenon lights sources, a 4K DCP timed for xenon, a 4K DCP timed for laser, a DCP for Dolby Cinema’s proprietary specs, a DCP for IMAX’s older xenon system, a DCP for IMAX’s newer laser system, a 4K HDR10 and/or Dolby Vision master for UHD physical media, a 4K HDR10 and/or Dolby Vision master for streaming, a 1080p master for physical media, a 1080p master for streaming, a 1080i master for broadcast/cable/satellite, a 480p master for DVD, etc., etc.

Lots of variations.

Some filmmakers start with the most advanced formats and tweak the other masters in reference to that. Some do the opposite, taking the simplest non-HDR formats and then adding to it. They’re all “correct” in the sense that the filmmakers are making different kinds of choices for different displays.

I’ve heard some filmmakers talk about looking at the non-HDR grade as the “reference” version and adding HDR as an enhancement to what in their minds were a completed work. I’ve heard other filmmakers describe their process as the exact opposite. Some love the added choices 4K HDR offer them; others want to maintain the limitations of 35mm film. Some talk about their choices to publications like American Cinematographer and some don’t.

So for a modern film - I think a very reasonable case can be made that both theatrical projection and OLED black levels are correct. Filmmakers know both exist and have to prepare for both. So whichever looks better to you and brings you the best experience is what’s correct :)
 

Carlo_M

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After watching a lot of extras on current filmmaking (in the digital realm) I came to a similar conclusion Josh (and Robert Z with his knowledge about the equipment and mastering techniques pretty much confirmed it). It's kind of like the theatrical vs. near field sound mixes.

What's interesting is that for a disc, there can only be one black level, but that will display differently whether you have an OLED, an edge lit LED (and the size matters too, because a small edge-lit screen won't display as much of the weakness as a larger edge lit LED) and FALD (and how many dimming zones they have).

So while many of us laud the OLED "true blacks" maybe LED can claim that they have "more theatrical black levels":laugh:

But this is all academic in the end, as the debate has long been settled by the ultimate experts on black.
 

DaveF

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I don’t have anything smart to say :) But it’s interesting to see that in some regards, home theater is a better experience than commercial theater. Setting aside issues of bad audiences or expensive tickets, absolute image quality and dynamic range and color space can be better with even a budget home system.
Final note: I still love going to theaters and will continue to do so. Please don't mistake this for a "my home theater is better than going to an actual theater" post. My intent is to generate thought and discussion about something which owning an OLED TV has made me realize: that I preferred the black level performance on my OLED to even the best theatrical projection I've been to. And then the necessary corollary: with modern shot-on-digital and/or edited-on-digital films, is this actual the correct black level as opposed to what we see in theaters?
I think this is essential question every enthusiast (save the unlimited budget 1%) faces right now: What set of compromises make me happiest? Big screen? Super bright dynamic range? Black floor? Speaker placement? Hang-it-all and save my money for going to the cinema as much as I can?

:)
 
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Carlo_M

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Even though I wrote this wasn't a "my system is better than the theater" post, I will admit that after getting used to the C1 (and now the C2) it has basically put me off of going to the standard projection small(er) screen multiplex showings. The TCL Chinese, Regency Village, larger Dolby Cinema, and IMAX Laser presentations are still in my view worth the ticket money.

It was the aforementioned Fantastic Beasts experience, where I went with a friend to a standard AMC showing in a multiplex within a Westfield mall, where it wasn't just the black levels, but the dark area performance, where I began thinking "this is either a subpar projection or the movie was shot poorly for something so dark". Shadow details were really lost on the screen and I wondered if it was just shot this way. The whole picture was just underwhelming. And to be clear, I didn't come in to the theater thinking to do any sort of comparison. I am pretty sure it was the first movie I'd been to since buying my C1, so the surprise in PQ was totally unexpected.

I went to the show mostly for my friend, who is a huge fan of the franchise, but after that viewing I made sure to buy it once it got to UHD so I could see if it looked as bad at home. Not only was the UHD better in the blacks and dark areas, but also I had better contrast ratio to the standard showing To my surprise, once it hit HBO Max, even that compressed playback stream was closer to my UHD disc than the standard AMC showing.

All this aside, I'm still planning to see Avatar 2 in IMAX. I may even take the extra drive out to the valley to see it in true 1.43:1 IMAX (the TCL Chinese's dual laser IMAX is still at the 1.90:1 ratio). All the "prime location" seats are sold out well in advance so I may not be able to see it until later next week.

Update: there were no future IMAX dates at Universal after next Wednesday (not sure if that means they're putting a different movie on their IMAX screen or they just don't put more than a week's tickets in advance) so I pulled the trigger on Jan 3 for Avatar 2. According to some reddit threads, the Universal Citywalk IMAX supposedly goes to 1.43:1. I'm intimately familiar with the TCL IMAX so we'll see how the Uni City compares. Apparently they did not advertise HFR at Uni, while apparently the TCL showings have it. I'll be honest I found the HFR in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit disconcerting so I'm not sure I'll miss it.
 
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Worth

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…Apparently they did not advertise HFR at Uni, while apparently the TCL showings have it. I'll be honest I found the HFR in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit disconcerting so I'm not sure I'll miss it.
Unless you’re really curious to see what it looks like, I would not recommend seeing it in HFR, or more correctly, variable frame rate. It’s very distracting - like someone pressed the fast-forward button for certain shots.
 

Carlo_M

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Unless you’re really curious to see what it looks like, I would not recommend seeing it in HFR, or more correctly, variable frame rate. It’s very distracting - like someone pressed the fast-forward button for certain shots.
I read that in the Variety review as well (staying spoiler free, it was just the author saying some of it is in 48FPS while others are in 24FPS.

Do you know if the IMAX scenes were truly shot in 1.43:1 or is it the now-more-common-practice of 1.90:1?
 

Worth

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Do you know if the IMAX scenes were truly shot in 1.43:1 or is it the now-more-common-practice of 1.90:1?
I don’t know about the IMAX ratio. The screening I saw was in ‘scope on Cineplex’s premium AVX screen - there were still black bars on the top and and bottom.
 

Carlo_M

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Well it turns out that according to a reddit thread, Cameron didn't use the full 1.43:1 aspect ratio of IMAX so I guess I'll just be going to a new screen (for me). Apparently the most recent tentpole film that did open to the full IMAX ratio was Dune, and I missed that in the theaters.
 

Josh Steinberg

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I read that in the Variety review as well (staying spoiler free, it was just the author saying some of it is in 48FPS while others are in 24FPS.

Do you know if the IMAX scenes were truly shot in 1.43:1 or is it the now-more-common-practice of 1.90:1?

The IMAX version is 1.90:1 in theaters of that height or greater - some IMAX locations are more like 2.00:1 or 2.20:1 and it’ll be that ratio in those locations. No 1.43:1 sequences.

Outside of IMAX, the ratio is different. All 2D showings are meant to be 2.40:1. All non-IMAX showings in 3D are meant to be whichever ratio will fill more of the screen. If a theater’s screen is largest at 2.40:1, that’s what they’re meant to show. If a theater’s screen is largest at 1.85:1, then that’s what’s they’re meant to show. For the Avatar films, Cameron cares more about it taking up the most screen real estate possible than he does specific aspect ratio.

I wound up seeing it at a Regal RPX because in my area, that screen had the best combination of sound systems and projection systems available. My local IMAX has the older 2K xenon system. This RPX system had 4K laser projection with Dolby Atmos sound. I have no complaints about what I saw.

As an aside, Regal has been very quietly upgrading all of their multiplexes to 4K laser in every room (still a work in progress) and AMC just signed a deal to do the same (expected to take up to five years to roll out everywhere). In other words, theater projection is about to get a lot better for most people in most places.
 

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