LG 2018 TV Reviewers Workshop, Part 2: Mack Sennett Studios & Netflix

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Last week, LG invited several TV reviewers to a day-long workshop in Hollywood, CA. I recounted what we learned about the 2018 LG OLED and Super UHD LCD TVs here, but that wasn’t the end of the fun. LG had arranged tours of three Hollywood studios, which made for a fascinating afternoon.

Mack Sennett Studios

We started the day at Mack Sennett Studios, where the TV presentation was held. This is one of the oldest studios in Hollywood. It was built in 1916 to make silent movies, including the Keystone Kops series of shorts, in which a young Charlie Chaplin appeared. The current lobby has a wall from the original studio, as seen in the photo above.

After the TV presentation, we were escorted into the basement—actually, two levels of basement, a true rarity in Los Angeles! The creaky stairs are narrow and steep, and both levels are crammed full of old movie paraphernalia.

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Even though—or perhaps because—the creepy basement is 100 years old, it was used as the set for the title sequence of the first season of American Horror Story in 2011.

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The basement at Mack Sennett Studios is a rabbit warren with arrows on the floor to help prevent you from getting lost.

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As we were wandering around in the basement, our tour guide found an old lightbulb—still in its original box!—which was probably used to illuminate sets in the old days.

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Among the items stored in the basement are crates for old costumes, including those used in Gone With the Wind.

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After climbing out of the basement at Mack Sennett Studios, we headed over to Sunset Bronson Studios, which is now the home of Netflix. This is another historic site; the land was acquired by Sam and Jack Warner—two of the four original Warner Brothers—in 1919. The Jazz Singer, the world’s first “talkie,” was shot there in 1927, and many cartoons were animated there from 1933 to 1957 under the series names Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.

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The lobby of the Netflix building includes a giant LED wall that continually changes. I wouldn’t call it “microLED,” since I could easily see the individual pixels from a few feet away, but it was still impressive.

Our first stop in the Netflix offices was the lunch room on the 14th floor, where all the food and drinks are free for employees. They can relax on an outdoor deck that overlooks the entire Los Angeles basin.

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The day of our visit was picture perfect after a heavy rain the previous day. The downtown Los Angeles skyline was clear as a bell.

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The other side of the Netflix building affords a beautiful view of the Griffith Observatory, which stands majestically above some very expensive real estate.

Next, we visited several post-production and demo/evaluation rooms that are mostly named for Netflix-original sci-fi shows and movies. The Black Mirror room provides a reference environment with Munsell-gray walls, D65 lights, a commercial-sized array of surround and overhead speakers, and a Barco projector firing onto a Stewart screen with motorized masking. It’s much more than a typical home theater, with multiple side- and rear-surround speakers, but it’s much smaller than a commercial cinema.

The Mute room is a similar environment housing a hybrid system that includes consumer displays and speakers with professional source devices and files. Of course, there was an LG OLED TV in there when we arrived, along with a 7.1 MartinLogan speaker system, though the components are often swapped in and out. This room is used to evaluate the professional IMF (Interoperable Master Format) file of TV shows and movies on consumer equipment as an intermediate stage in the post-production process.

The most interesting room for videophiles was the Holodeck—not a Netflix show, but a cool name nonetheless. Here, engineers test imaging devices, from cameras to processors to displays, to make sure they are consistent and flexible.

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In the Holodeck, cameras are tested for resolution, color, and dynamic range among other performance characteristics. Here, a Red camera is pointed at a color chart in front of a FotoKem resolution chart that includes patterns up to 11K. Off to the side is a dynamic-range tester, seen in more detail in the next photo.

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The dSC Labs Xyla 21 dynamic-range test target presents a series of lighted strips that encompass a total of 20 f-stops (21 steps). This allows users to determine exactly how many f-stops any camera can capture.

Our next destination was the Audio Lab, which is used to investigate and test audio hardware and software as well as check the audio of various shows on a wide range of playback devices. The room had been completed—including a calibration by Dolby Labs—only three weeks before our visit. It has no parallel walls to minimize standing waves, and the sound system includes JBL 708P self-powered speakers around the engineer and 705P speakers mounted overhead. It’s a 9.1.6 configuration with front wides and a JBL S2S-EX 15″ ported subwoofer.

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In this photo, you can see the front LCR speakers and the front-left wide speaker (all JBL 708P) as well as the front-left overhead speaker (JBL 705P). You can also see a bit of the JBL S2S-EX 15″ ported subwoofer on the floor. The video display is an LG OLED (natch!).

We heard two demos: a 5.1 clip from Jessica Jones upmixed to Dolby Atmos and a native Atmos mix from Altered Carbon. As expected, the native Atmos mix was much more immersive. I thought it sounded quite good, but Tom Norton, Senior Editor of Sound and Vision, thought it sounded very harsh. I don’t know why our impressions were so different—very strange!

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When the clip from Altered Carbon was playing, the sound objects represented by yellow balls in the upper-left window were moving all over the place in the native Atmos mix. With Jessica Jones, the Atmos upmix from 5.1 was much more symmetrical.

Finally, we returned to the Black Mirror room, where two LG C7 OLED TVs were set up side by side. We saw two clips—from Bright and Altered Carbon—with the SDR version on one screen and the HDR version on the other screen. As you might imagine, the HDR version looked a lot better, with greater contrast and more detail in bright highlights such as explosions. No surprise there.

Our hosts pointed out that it always takes time for content creators to become comfortable with new tools. UHD, Atmos, and HDR all started out being used in a couple of shows with quick growth thereafter. Netflix original content currently includes about 1700 hours of 4K/UHD content and 300 hours of HDR material, and HDR is following a similar growth curve as 4K/UHD. In addition, there are currently 15 original titles with Dolby Atmos soundtracks, with more to come. However, the company does not plan to offer Atmos on titles from other sources.

Netflix original titles are mastered in Dolby Vision-capable rooms, and the peak luminance can be 1000, 2000, or 4000 nits. Most HDR titles are graded at 4000 nits on a Dolby Pulsar monitor. However, we were reminded that peak luminance—along with immersive audio—is scene-dependent; it should not be maxed out all the time. This is one element of the art of content creation.

During a Q&A session, we learned that HDR10+ is not on the Netflix roadmap; Dolby Vision works just fine, thank you very much. However, the company is looking at the new AV1 video codec from the Alliance for Open Media. Of course, Netflix already uses H.265/HEVC and VP9 for HDR content, but AV1 could offer even more efficiency, and it’s royalty-free.

Our final stop of the day was Technicolor, an adventure I’ll share in the third and final part of this extended report.

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