"The Long Night" — the third episode in the final season of HBO's Game of Thrones — was a remarkable piece of television. Hate the resolution all you want (and I'll argue that you're wrong), but the sheer scale of the Battle of Winterfell is a sight to behold. Yes, even with all the computer work that goes on in post-production. Think back to when Braveheart was released back in the 1995. This was right up there, just scaled up to 2019 standards.
The problem is, it was damned hard to watch because of the high dynamic range of the whole thing. Night is dark, of course. (It's also full of terrors.) But fire is bright. Those two extremes are difficult enough to film, and televisions have varying degrees of ability to recreate that dynamic range properly. If you've bought a TV in the past year or two, though, you've undoubtedly heard about HDR — high dynamic range and how sets today are specifically designed for it. Darks are darker, lights are lighter, and everything in between looks great.
But there are all sorts of variables at work when it comes to watching video. And a big one for those of us who rely on streaming maybe is one we don't talk about enough. And that's compression.
Compression theoretically is perfect for dark scenes — except for when you need to see inside those dark scenes.
There's an excellent technical explainer at TechCrunch that you should read if you're so inclined. But the simple version is this: Compression takes a look at all the pixels in a piece of data and says "Which ones do I actually need to show every time, and which ones can I just sort of approximate next to something similar?" When it's done well, you don't notice. It's what allows a JPEG photo to be much smaller than, well, all kinds of other file types.
Compression most often is noticeable on dark video. And that makes sense, if you think about it. How many different shades of dark do you really need to get the job done? Black is black.
The problem for an episode like "The Long Night" is that there was a lot going on inside the dark. And even if you have a good television and a good streaming box and a good internet connection, you're still (always, really) at the mercy of the source content. If the stream you're being fed is highly compressed, you're going to be watching a highly compressed stream. Full stop. Higher resolution and bitrate won't fix that. (And we're still not really streaming much past 1080p yet anyway.) Faster data speeds alone won't fix that. That said, higher resolution, bitrate and data speeds are always a good thing to have because they'll allow a provider to push more data with less compression. (Or it'll let them push even more data at the same compression.)
This isn't new phenomenon, of course. My wife noticed the compression in YouTube TV as soon as we switched to it. (Whether it's better or worse than the other streaming services is another matter.) It's always been a thing, and it'll remain a thing until such time as the technology allows the streaming services to more economically serve up more data. And compression isn't limited to streaming video, either. The cable providers also have plenty of compression. Pipes, after all, are pipes.
All this is yet another reminder of a number of things. Streaming video isn't necessarily always better. Optical media — where all that data is a on a disk spinning at high speed, already in your home — still can have a place in this world. It's worth checking out other streaming services to see if something else fits your needs better.
But compression itself isn't going anywhere any time soon.
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