Although more commonly recognised for its audio exploits, Dolby’s cinema labs have also long played a key role in the advancement of video processing technology, especially through the development of Dolby Vision HDR for commercial cinema and home theatre.
HDR (High Dynamic Range) is arguably the most important TV technology of the last few years, shifting away from the idea that the only way to improve image quality is by adding more pixels, and instead making those pixels work harder to produce an image that has the potential to look more lifelike and have more impact.
So how does HDR do this? The human eye perceives detail from light and shade and when the dynamic range of an image is increased, the range of contrast and potential shades of colour also increases. This gives a picture a greater sense of genuine depth and authenticity as well as increasing visibility in both shadows and highlights.
But it's not just about seeing more detail in dark scenes. While it may seem like it's just a setting or feature, HDR is actually an entire process that encompasses capturing the images, post-production, distribution and, of course, your TV. It gives cinematographers and colourists more control in sculpting their images to help convey a story or mood, everything from hyperrealism to engage a viewer’s empathy, to surrealism to disorientate their senses.
Dolby Vision HDR goes a step further from regular HDR (HDR10) and adds dynamic metadata to the core image data that helps an end-user’s TV interpret the information. This metadata carries instructions for each scene that enables a Dolby Vision-capable display to portray the content as accurately as possible.
Each Dolby Vision TV implements this scene-by-scene information within the limitations of its brightness, contrast and colour performance. This can improve a consumer’s viewing experience by continually optimising the way their TV delivers HDR pictures and ultimately giving filmmakers more control over how their programming appears on TVs.
There’s plenty of excellent Dolby Vision content available; many 4K Ultra HD discs support it, as do streaming services, including Apple TV, Disney Plus and Netflix's premium tier. But if you’re in need of suggestions, we’ve compiled a list (which may contain spoilers) of some of our favourite examples of Dolby Vision movies that we think demonstrate the technology at its best and will let your TV, no matter what it is, shine.
Superhero films sometimes seem to fall into two categories: overly sincere and ludicrously tongue in cheek. DC Comics’ Aquaman somehow manages to be both and as a result its reception when it was released was divisive. The film covers the origin of Aquaman, who is born on dry land and thinks he's just regular guy Arthur Curry who happens to have a way with fish, until discovering that he is in fact half-human, half-Atlantean. And not just any old Atlantean, he's the heir to the subterranean throne of what was once the most advanced civilisation on Earth, now controlled by his megalomaniac half brother. To defeat his brother, Aquaman has to (among other things) retrieve the Trident of Atlan and embrace his destiny.
Whatever your opinions on laboured plots, awkward sub plots and a frankly excessive number of primary characters, there’s no denying that the film is stunning to watch. Even at its most bonkers and baroque, the technical prowess of the visuals ties together the locations and conceit of what would otherwise be an unwieldy story, employing vivid CGI, hyper unrealism and an unabashed sense of spectacle.
One of the film’s great feats is balancing a fantastical colour palette with intense undersea darkness. Black levels are appropriately deep at the bottom of the ocean but the image never becomes murky. And whether it's delicate shafts of light or the detailed debris around explosions, the underwater world feels as real and tangible as dry land.
But above ground looks pretty great too. In the night time dock side scene where Amber Heard's Mera tries to persuade Aquaman to come to Atlantis, the texture of the character's skin, hair and costumes are superbly tactile in the dark while the pops of neon-coloured lamps flicker away in the background.
The following moment, sub-titled ‘somewhere in the North Sea’, is one of many set pieces in the film where the image opens up to the 1.85:1 IMAX ratio, filling the entire screen, first with darkness as we focus in on David Kane's aggrieved expression sat on his Manta-Sub and then flooding it with light as the surrounding water froths with cyan, amethyst and co-ordinated Atlantean soldiers. Dolby Vision helps to create a vivid extravaganza of colour and mythology while tethering every shot with authenticity.
Set in 1970s Gotham City, Joker tells the story of delusional and troubled comedian Arthur Fleck who, having been cruelly dismissed by society, becomes a loner whose only real company is his ailing mother, with whom he lives and has to care for. The film is an evocative examination of his descent into psychosis, anti-vigilantism and crime through his flamboyant alter ego, the Joker.
The faded, cinematic spirit of New York in all its gritty, bankrupt glory is evoked in everything from the use of a vintage lens that creates a dreamy blooming effect on highlights, to the generally sombre, earthy colour palette and, let’s face it, any shot of a brown car.
But despite the rusty melancholia, throughout the film there are unapologetic pops of saturated colour. There's Arthur’s signature russet suit, mustard waistcoat and teal shirt combo; the sodium street lamps filling Gotham’s gutters with golden pools of light, and even the vivid cerulean blue of the early evening sky. Dolby Vision displays this anarchistic pallet with charismatic theatricality and lurid dissonance while retaining an affecting realism.
The city that never sleeps is depicted as full of light and dark, the subway often providing great examples of dirty detail beyond the short reach of the overhead fluorescent lights. But even the seeming simplicity of the opening dressing room scene presents plenty to appreciate. The depressing, dim space is lit by only a few bare vanity mirror lightbulbs, casting deep shadows, but Arthur's face stays perfectly visible as we are first introduced to him. Meanwhile, outside the windows, the grey daylight, unforgiving architecture of the city and constant traffic of the world passing by are pertinently clear.
Uncut Gems (2019)
Uncut Gems follows Howard (played by Adam Sandler), a jeweller in New York's frantically paced Diamond District, as he attempts to auction off a rare Ethiopian opal for a massive return.
The film opens with Howard getting a colonoscopy, and we quickly realise that’s a minor discomfort within the scheme of his life. He is maintaining a fake marriage to his wife while hiding his girlfriend from his children, and he’s $100,000 in debt to a particularly nasty loan shark. Selling the opal is his escape plan, but unfortunately the rock catches the eye of basketball player Kevin Garnett who wants to borrow it as a good luck charm for his next match, offering his valuable championship ring as collateral. Howard can’t refuse, and this sets off a chain of bad decisions, each more infuriating than the last.
It’s never stated, but Howard is addicted to gambling. As he continues to fall from one debt-laced predicament to another, each time using the source of his problems as the solution, there is a sense of a modern Greek Tragedy playing out.
Shot mainly in low light with a grainy film texture punctuated by saturated fluorescents and neon, Uncut Gems has a look of heightened realism, devoid of any steely New York gloss. The footage is often shot at extreme close up or as if from a security camera, adding to the general confusion and constant danger of Howard’s chaotic lifestyle that can at times be claustrophobic to watch.
But some moments also have their own distinct aesthetic. In the nightclub scene, the main light source is UV blacklight, which lets the filmmakers push the green and blue luminescent hues of the characters' clothing, subtly emphasising the colours found inside the opal from the film's opening shot. It's also impressive that despite the challenging darkness and the overpowering music of this key moment, the audience can still read the strains of Howard's relationship with his girlfriend from his facial expressions.
Even the scene where Howard is kidnapped from his daughter's recital and taken on a nocturnal joy ride manages to retain incredible detail, from Howard's look of anguish to the thick perspiration of his capturers, glistening in the flaring lights of passing cars.
Undoubtedly, Uncut Gems can feel overwhelming to watch, but after being so tightly enveloped in Howard’s heightened and exhausting world, the audience starts to root for this Willy Loman styled anti-hero to the point that it is genuinely shocking when he is finally faced with the consequences of his actions.
The latest in a long line of Disney animated features to tackle the family-friendly subject matter of death, Soul centres on middle-aged jazz musician Joe, who is still waiting for his big break while he teaches elementary school. After a golden opportunity arises, Joe meets an untimely end but manages to get waylaid in ‘the great before’, where souls are made before they come to Earth. There he meets '22', a soul without a purpose who isn't keen on becoming human.
Within the first 10 minutes of the film, we are treated to more diversity of colour, light and aesthetics than many films could even muster during their entire runtime. On earth, Joe's career-making audition takes place in a dark club full of dingy corners and scuffed walls with intense shadows created by the stage lighting. We are then thrust into the euphoria of glaring autumn sunlight catching the felt on his trusty fedora, bouncing off the metallic cars and backlighting the hair of a passing dog.
Joe's fall from a palpable and vivid New York into the deep blackness of limbo is perhaps one of the film’s most impressive moments. As an infinite staircase stretches out into the dark of the universe, the blackness is bewilderingly inky and expansive, while the sheen of the walkway and the graded edges of the souls display wonderful delicate textures.
As Joe frantically tries to avoid going to heaven, a white radiance begins to fill the screen. But the distinction between this aura, the dark space, the endless walkway and the other souls stays perfectly sharp before he falls again, this time into the florid, dense pastels of 'the great before'.
The animation style here is unconventional, and the plot pretty eccentric. Still, the panache of the delivery absorbs the viewer, keeping them on board for whatever comes next, be it a bohemian shaman criss-crossing the astral plane in a pirate ship or a talking cat.
Soul might have skipped a cinematic release and headed straight to the small screen, but it’s well worthy of a proper Dolby Vision display to do justice to its imaginative visuals.
With 1917, Sam Mendes achieved what may well be the zenith of single-take-style cinema. The film tracks the journey of two young British lance-corporals tasked to deliver a message across no-man’s-land to prevent another battalion from going over the top and falling into a German trap. The Oscar-winning cinematography cleverly and subtly engages with the viewer, who acutely shares in the real-time unfolding of the landscape, perils and futility of the soldiers' odyssey, creating a sense of first-person realism without it ever feeling like a gimmick.
The production design has been meticulously conceived and filmed (it was shot in part using prototypes of the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF camera, which costs around £70,000), benefiting greatly from its 4K rendering. The level of detail everywhere is exceptional, from the hot glowing bricks and dusty smoke of a village entirely ablaze to the horrific mundanity of the debris-littered battlefield and the various hues of mud encrusted on ragged uniforms and fly-ridden horses. Dolby Vision is used here to substantiate the incredible visuals and cinematography further, letting the viewer become immersed in the textural intricacy, while the high peak white levels are used with quiet spectacularity in the film’s many ultra-dark scenes.
One of these moments happens within the first 10 minutes of the film when the soldiers receive their mission from a haughty General Erinmore (played by Colin Firth) in a cocooned shelter illuminated only by a sepia-tinged oil lamp. Dolby Vision lends extra drama to Firth’s craggy face, the wrinkles on his forehead being the only feature that betrays any emotion or concern. Despite the monotone cast of the light, there’s plenty of minutiae to enjoy in the gleaming highlights on the General’s polished brass buttons and the scratchy aerial images of the Germans’ fortifications.
Firth melts in the inky shadows after he’s delegated the task, leaving only the wide eyes and expressions of disbelief on the two young men. We see the General once more as he quotes Kipling next to a delicate china teacup on his desk, but the viewer is immediately aware that the soldiers are now on their own.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Set 30 years after its predecessor, Mad Max: Fury Road acts as both a sequel and a reboot of the original series, with Tom Hardy stepping into the role of former cop Max Rockatansky, adrift in a world that's been engulfed by the desert and haunted by the memories of those he's failed to save. But rest assured, this isn’t just another desaturated post-apocalyptic movie.
What could have been a beige on beige-fest is instead a bold, relentless and visually dense film that never succumbs to using broad brush-strokes to evoke an epic scale, and Dolby Vision enhances those details, right down to the granularity of the baked, oxidised-looking sand.
The expanses of desert and sky are deeply saturated, creating a unifying palette of cyan and tangerine that’s incredibly intense – but rather than looking cartoonish, it grounds the story and binds the picture. Subtle may not be a word that often gets associated with this non-stop chase romp, but the nuanced variations in the established visual language (such as occasionally bleaching out the sky or the shifts of the clouds) continually keep the viewer engaged.
Meanwhile night scenes (actually shot in full light) use a solid creamy, dark blue hue that gradually fades up in brightness to mimic the human eye adjusting to darkness, while still retaining the same intricacies of the shading and clarity of storytelling as the day-time scenes.
With so much going on, the post production works in conjunction with the cinematography and the blistering Dolby Atmos sound design to carefully focus the attention of the viewer on important moments. Skin tones are rich and tactile, while eyes and expressions cut through the busy crowd scenes. There’s even clever shading employed to let key characters pop off the screen at just the right moments, such as in the final scene as Max and Furiosa make eye contact one last time before he disappears into the crowd.
Originally released in SDR, Mad Max: Fury Road has been mastered in both HDR10 on 4K Blu-ray and Dolby Vision for online streaming. The striking, immaculate visuals make it an ideal option for those who might want to compare formats.
Stephen King's It plays against horror tropes by taking place not in the shadows but instead in broad daylight, and it is all the more unsettling for it. Set in an average town in the 1980s, the film pits a gang of misfit kids against bafflingly charismatic killer clown Pennywise. The film’s primary aesthetic is one of sunny nostalgia that lures the viewer into a false sense of comfort before shocking them with extreme violence.
When the action does move to the darkness of the sewers that Pennywise frequents, Dolby Vision adds to the experience by making the space and the screen claustrophobically black, while still letting you see the demented details of the clown’s face. His sparkling eyes in particular are impressive, having been meticulously isolated in every shot by the film’s colourist Stephen Nakamura.
The massive contrast between the extremes of light and dark in this film is dramatically unnerving, but the use of shade to enrich lighter moments and brightness punctuating the dark ones prevents the shifts from becoming jarring and adds an uncomfortable realism to the proceedings.
The consistently detailed and intense grading means that deeply saturated colour pops can be deployed throughout the film to create hyper-real visuals that can be by turns startling – such as Pennywise's grotesque, cracked make-up and receding ginger mane – or alluring, as with the crimson balloons he uses to entice his victims. You'd be forgiven for wanting one too.
Roma proves, in our opinion, that you don’t need colour to appreciate the immersive potential of Dolby Vision. The startling photography of this film, just like its Dolby Atmos soundtrack, fluidly blurs the lines between realism and reality. Despite being in black and white, Roma is visually dense and bold while remaining sincere and specific.
Based on his childhood in Mexico City during the early 1970s, this is director Alfonso Cuarón’s most autobiographical film to date. So it must have been something of a blessing in disguise when his long-time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki (who won the Oscar for best cinematography on Cuarón’s blockbuster Gravity) was unavailable, forcing Cuarón to take on dual duties. His photography concept – slow, long tracking takes – give the audience an intimate window into each particular space, and to access the characters and story in a frank and potent way.
The film was shot in colour before being sculpted into an almost photo journalistic monochrome palette, which gives the viewer a sensation of being both an objective observer and a voyeur into someone else's private memories. Speaking about his decision to embrace an unashamedly modern detailed digital aesthetic to create something more like that which the human eye would see, Cuarón has said: “The amazing dynamic range and resolution, the crisp, grain-less quality, I wanted to be unapologetic”.
While it may look devoid of colour, the film is tonally rich, having been carefully mapped to highlight and dilute isolated areas of each frame and create a feeling of both clarity and recollection.
A wonderful example of this is in the film's emotional climax, as maid Cleodegaria Gutiérrez wades into the sea to save her employer's children, despite not knowing how to swim. The shot begins with solid beams of low evening sunlight cutting through the darkness of the wooden beach shacks as Cleo begins her walk to the water's edge, a solitary dark figure. When she returns to land and the family fall to the sand they are somehow both silhouetted against the light while also being visible for a poignant moment where she can finally speak openly to the family for the first time.