As most of you know by now I’m a fan and proponent of having your displays, be it HDTV or front projector, professionally calibrated by either a THX or ISF Certified technician. In all truthfulness, having your display professionally calibrated shouldn’t require complex reasoning. If you care at all about getting the most enjoyment from your investment in a new display, then professional calibration is one of, if not the only way to do so. Period. End of story.

So while I could make this post the shortest in this site’s history, I’m going to soldier on and share with you yet another reason why calibration is important. Having your display professionally calibrated not only ensures that you’re seeing your favorite movies as the filmmaker intended, it also ensures that you don’t come away from the experience feeling different. Wait, what!? Light, contrast and color do more than inform our brains of an image’s fidelity, it also helps to affect our mood. Light and color are tools that artists’ have wielded for years in order to engage the viewer. While a lot of what is credited to a  film’s “emotion” is often attributed to an actor’s performance, their dialog and the music -light and color play a huge role in our emotional take away. Arguably more so than even the performances themselves, for with the right lighting and color, even an emotional scene can be made to feel insincere.

Now some of you may be saying, “duh, it’s called cinematography idiot. Of course it’s important.” I agree, but here is where calibration comes into play. Without proper calibration, your display, not the filmmakers, may be working against your overall cinematic enjoyment/understanding by skewing your takeaway of the film in question. I’ll repeat that, it’s possible, via an un-calibrated display, that you could feel differently about a film, during and after, because of your display being “wrong.” A crazy thought and yet it’s easy to demonstrate.

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In this original frame, taken from the film X-Men First Class, Professor X, played by James McAvoy, is about to read the mind of some baddie. As seen in the film the scene does have a slight ominous vibe, for what Xavier is about to do has some moral ambiguity to it. That being said the filmmakers are careful not to “paint” Xavier in too negative a light -literally -while still pushing to maintain the drama of the moment.

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Now, most HDTVs and/or projectors out of the box are too bright. Many people refer to this as “torch mode” though it usually means the display is set in its “vivid” picture profile. While it’s easy to harp on vivid picture modes, keep in mind that even standard picture modes are often too bright -as simulated above. With merely the brightness altered (in this case plus 25% of reference) suddenly the image loses most, if not all of its drama. Moreover the moral ambiguity is somewhat lost and now, rather than walking the tightrope between good and evil, Xavier just appears to be making a funny face.

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Often times enthusiasts will attempt to correct brightness straightaway because they know most displays are too bright. One way in which folks do this is to watch anamorphic content with black bars top and bottom. Many will simply adjust their display’s brightness until the black bars seem, well, black. How black is anyone’s guess, though I’ve heard of a lot of folks turning down the brightness until the bars “disappear” into the surrounding frame or bezel of the display itself. Well this would result in an image not unlike what you see above. By merely decreasing the brightness by negative 25% off reference we’ve not only lost all of the brilliant detail in the background, we’ve squarely painted Xavier in the wrong. He’s straight up evil. And the emotion goes from tense to threatening.

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So far all we’ve done is look at subtle shifts in brightness. That’s it. What about color? Most displays, along with being too bright, are overly saturated, and either favor red or blue. Let’s go to red, and in this instance let us just shift the brighter frame’s overall color and saturation to favor red by 15%. Wow. Now Xavier goes from being in a period mansion to living in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Everything about this frame is wrong and thus so is your emotional take away. You may not be able to reconcile it straightaway, but over 90 to 120 minutes I doubt you would believe the film dramatic at all. Silly, sure. Dramatic? Not likely. Believe it or not, the frame seen here is a fairly accurate recreation of how modern HDTVs appear out of the box. Sure at first glance it looks vivid and colorful, as an HDTV should, but is it right now that we’ve seen what is called for in the scene? Not by a long shot.

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Lastly, let’s look at a frame that has been made “more accurate” by turning down the brightness on a panel that favors blue. Suddenly X-Men First Class isn’t a mutant origin story, but rather a rendition of Saw or some other nondescript horror film.

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It’s easy for me or anyone else to tell you to calibrate your displays. All it should take is a before and after shot to convince you. But I wanted to take a moment to show just how much even subtle variations in light and color can skew one’s emotional outlook of a film, even a film as relatively benign as X-Men First Class. Furthermore, when folks weigh whether or not to calibrate their displays, I’m not certain they take into consideration just how much their displays are working against them. Instead I feel they look more at the monetary costs associated with calibration. I cannot fault anyone for considering the financial ramifications for times are tough. But if you consider that most people own their displays for anywhere between 3 and 7 years the amortized cost of a calibration can boil down to as little as $6 per month -that is not a lot of money.

At the end of the day the only person who can decide whether or not calibration is right for you is you. Okay, you and your budget. But I hope this little demonstration has helped to give you a moment of pause. Maybe even to reconsider, if for no other reason than for the price of a latte you can rest easy knowing that you’re that much closer to the filmmaker or film’s intent. As always I thank you all so very much for reading. Until next time, take care and stay tuned…

Andrew