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NAB Diaries Day One: More people and bright screens

Where all the magic happens: The Las Vegas Convention Center. Pic:
4 minute read
Where all the magic happens: The Las Vegas Convention Center. Pic: Shutterstock

Phil Rhodes reports back from a busier Day One at NAB 2023 than many people were expecting.

Rumours about the 2023 NAB show being a smaller, less impressive event than we'd have built could be heard as early as the boarding process for the Boeing 777 at Gatwick Airport. Crammed to the gills with conventioneers, it wasn’t hard to strike up a related conversation with someone willing to predict a more modest show even than last year’s slightly contracted effort. Happily, though, more than one person was wrong.

The press liaison didn’t have numbers yet - they won’t for a day or so - but the floors seem filled to something like normal capacity. It’s hard to estimate just how full the new West Hall should look as it's only existed in the post pandemic context, but the Central Hall exhibits go almost all the way down to the back doors just as they did in pre-Covid times, and the crowds seem no thinner than usual. That’s no enormous surprise, frankly, considering attendance last year, directly in the wake of the pandemic, was still more than half the 2019 numbers. Most people seemed happy to consider that a pretty good show under the circumstances. Naysayers predicting the end of trade shows at the hands of social media seem to have been mistaken.

The show floor opened yesterday, but the weekend seems obstinate in its inclination to remain a period of press events and seminars, no matter how much the show organisers try to bring the timing forward one day. Press events are probably what most people expect them to be (your narrator absolutely can be bought, but not for the price of a chocolate muffin and a cup of coffee). The talks and seminars, meanwhile, are very variegated in tone and content.

HDR in cinema

The drier stuff is sometimes important - for instance, one of the bigger rooms has an upscale Barco projection system installed in it, and the only reason the company didn’t bring its even more capable laser-based projector is that it’s so powerful a laser device that it's not allowed to be used under any circumstances where an observer might be able to stare directly back down the beam into the lens. The subject of the associated presentation was high dynamic range in cinema, and while that’s very hard to demo in a room where nobody seems willing to turn the house lights all the way off, the sheer brightness of cinema projection is certainly something that’s sorely in need of addressing.

To put some numbers on it, traditional cinema screens are configured for a peak brightness of 48 candela per square metre (we’ll just say “nits” from now on), which is less than half the just-over-100 of standard TV displays. Most real world domestic TVs are much brighter than that, sometimes exceeding 300 nits. Oddly enough, 300 nits has also been established by SMPTE tests as the right target for future high dynamic range cinema, on the basis that more is just unpleasantly piercing. That does mean cinema HDR seems doomed to remain about as bright as home TVs, though the dark viewing environment of theatrical exhibition certainly has an impact on what it looks like.

As with so many high dynamic range systems, though, what makes it look really nice is not only high white levels, it’s dark black levels. That’s a tricky thing to achieve given the cinema screen is fundamentally a white object, and the SMPTE’s goals could easily be upset by someone in a white shirt sitting in the front row, reflecting light. The solution to this is probably what's being referred to as direct view or emissive displays, which means LED walls. There are significant concerns over affordability and maintainability, however. None of this is final and the standardisation process continues, but every sign points to cinema of the future looking really quite nice, at least once more than a few screens have implemented the technology.

Hands on sessions

That sort of thing is important and influential, of course, but what’s potentially more directly relevant to individuals are the conference tracks which cover both the technology and philosophy of film and television production. Many of them offer the sort of training that will be immediately familiar to anyone in the field, on software like Premiere and Resolve. What’s been sorely lacking in the past has been practical demonstration of some of the more hands-on camera craft techniques. That changed this year when the estimable Valentina Vee dragged a small truckload of C-stands and LED lights into one of the seminar rooms and gave a straightforward but effective lighting demo.

This sort of thing is enormously overdue. No matter how good cameras get, and assuming we’re interested in results which approximate commercial cinema and high-end television, exactly this sort of craft skill will remain crucial. There’s always concerns, with this sort of thing, that any demonstration given must inevitably be so specific to the circumstances of that demo as to be hard to apply to any other circumstances, but that seems a little reductive in the context of a basic (more or less) three-point lighting setup. Absolutely anyone who’s ever worked behind a camera can learn something from watching someone else set up a shot like that. Hats off, then, to Vee for proposing it and organising it, and to the NAB conference people for finding a way to get all that gear into one of the conference rooms without destroying the schedule for everyone else.

It’s hard to characterise this, the hundredth year of NAB shows (though not quite the hundredth show) in terms of an identifiable theme, as there so clearly was at last year’s show, which seemed almost obsessed with virtual production. Cloud facilities for storing, processing and modifying material seems to be very in vogue, and there’s quite a lot of AI discussed. We’ll leave a broader discussion of hardware until we’ve had an even better look around, but that lighting presentation sticks in the mind somehow. No matter what we do uncover lurking in the depths of hall tomorrow, no matter how fast and flexible the zoom is or how sharp the camera is, the craft skills will inevitably out.

Tags: Production NAB Show