Got any plans tonight? If you’re toying whether to see in 2020 out at an organised fireworks display, or to stay in and watch the festivities from London, can we make a recommendation?
Go out. Not only will you likely have a better experience when the clock strikes midnight, but you’ll also be better able to see the majesty of the fireworks as they explode over your head.
As any seasoned TV watcher will tell you, firework displays don’t translate well to television. In fact, they look terrible. The colours are washed out, the concussive boom of the explosion is dulled into a ridiculous pop, and they have an uncanny knack of looking like CGI. “It’s a great torture test of the whole system,” says Jeff Yurek of Nanosys, a manufacturer of quantum dot television displays.
“There are two problems,” explains Tim Brooksbank, a veteran of the audio-visual industry who studies how television displays and transmission work. “The fundamental problem is the dynamic range,” says Brooksbank. Dynamic range is the ratio between the largest and smallest levels of colour, light and sound – as well as time – that recording, transmission and display equipment are expected to attain. Fireworks test all dynamic ranges to their limits. They’re bright, colourful, fast, loud explosions on a black background – which causes havoc with technology.
“Fireworks need a large dynamic range that exists in nature and – within reason – exists in our eyesight,” says Brooksbank. “But the whole system within television isn’t designed to cope with that range.” Take light, for instance. Until recently, digital stills and video cameras have struggled to take decent night time footage, because you’re asking a lens to capture intensely dark and intensely bright images in the same frame. So the source footage struggles to accurately represent the brightness and the full colour of a firework.
“They’re too colourful, they’re very bright, and they’re very contrasty,” explains Yurek. The chemical compounds most commonly used in fireworks emit wavelengths that aren’t within the physical possibility of being seen by many TVs.
Televisions have a “colour gamut” (the range of colours it can display) based on the available colours on the prior generation of televisions: cathode ray tube monitors. Those colours were based on phosphors that beamed light from the back of a set onto the glass screen. Even today, LED lights are based on those phosphors. But help may be at hand – right as we enter 2020, a new, better standard is on the horizon. Japanese broadcaster NHK has helped develop a new broadcasting standard, BT.2020, or Ultra High Definition. The “2020” in the name BT.2020 is the date by which NHK wanted the standard to be in place – in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
BT.2020’s colour gamut is far wider than any existing TV technology, able to capture more than 99 per cent of all the colours in the world as measured by a researcher called MR Pointer, who collected more than 4,000 objects found in nature during the 1970s to record their colours.
Nanosys, Yurek’s company, has developed quantum dots, which use nanotechnology to more accurately reproduce the BT.2020 colour standard. Quantum dot technology has been in TVs since 2013, and Samsung just announced it has shipped more than five million units in 2019 with the technology enabled. At CES many TVs displayed covered 80 percent of the BT.2020 colour gamut – “a significant achievement,” says Yurek. “This year we’ll see between 85 and 90 per cent of the coverage,” he reckons.
But colours aren’t the only challenge. Television cameras record at 50 frames every second in Europe. But fireworks explode and spread at a much faster rate. “In real life you’re seeing something that bursts into life very quickly and your eye and brain perceive it happening in real time,” says Brooksbank.
“Television doesn’t show you enough pictures in sequence to see how the brightness builds up.” A similar issue befalls wildlife documentaries – which is why footage of dragonflies or hummingbirds hovering are recorded using cameras that snap many more frames a second and are broadcast slowed down. But doing that for fireworks loses its effect: the thing that makes us “ooh” is the speed of the explosion.
That speed also scuppers the next stage of the process in beaming back footage to home screens: transmission. Digital television crams so many channels into narrow bandwidth that it relies on MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 compression to improve transmission speed and efficiency. Such compression looks for the changes in an image from one frame to another, transmitting and redrawing only the differences, rather than the entire frame every time. But fast-moving changes can struggle to be noticed by compression.
It is theoretically possible to improve the quality of images by reducing the number of channels crammed into the same broadcast range. But for TV companies who make their money selling adverts, it makes little sense to do so for such outliers.
According to Brooksbank, the average high-definition TV transmission at 50 frames a second requires 1.5 gigabits a second. After being deinterlaced, that becomes three gigabits a second. But increasing that to 1,000 frames a second – which could better capture the spread of fireworks – would increase the processing power 20 times. “Now you’ve gone from a TV that costs a few hundred pounds to one that costs a few tens of thousands,” he says.
Even on bog standard TVs nowadays, the system is actively working against making fireworks look their best. “Arguably, in terms of dynamic range, LCD TVs were a step backwards from the days of cathode ray tube televisions,” says Brooksbank. Newer OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens are an improvement, with roughly the same dynamic range as old-fashioned TVs, and also show something close to the full colour gamut we see with our eyes.
But the range of customisable options can sometimes hinder showing fireworks at their finest. “If you have a set with dynamic contrast, get it turned on because that will help you see the bright intensity of the fireworks against the background,” says Brooksbank. Dynamic contrast turns the darker elements darker and the brighter elements brighter as the image changes. However, while you’re fiddling in the advanced settings, make sure you’re also turning off one feature as you turn dynamic contrast on.
Many TVs have two features, often called MPEG noise reduction and transient noise reduction, or TNR. These are two systems designed to smooth out fast-moving changes in images brought about by compression, or by boosting up low-quality broadcast signals. But we don’t really have low-quality broadcast signals anymore, and you rarely see “noise” (blocky or snowy images) on TVs anymore. Keeping these on stops the display reacting to fast-moving changes in the image – which is exactly what fireworks are. Unless they’re turned off, the rapid burst of a firework could flag up a false positive as interference on the signal.
“The whole television system isn’t designed to deal with something moving so fast,” says Brooksbank. So rather than asking how to improve TVs, perhaps we should ask whether it’s possible to slow down fireworks. That’s unlikely to happen, so Brooksbank has another suggestion. “Why not get down your local pub and watch them in real life?”
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