The Science of Color

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Wed, 10/07/2020 - 12:23 -- Nick Dager

Depending on the display technology, the current quantitative tools for evaluating color accuracy may not be reflective of what [a person] actually perceives on screen with real contentCatherine Meininger is a color scientist at Portrait Displays in Edmonds, Washington. She graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Motion Picture Science. “I’ve always had an interest in audio and video post-production and thought for the longest time that my career was going to be video editing,” she told me in a conversation via email. “However, while attending college, I discovered an industry where I could use my skills in math and science alongside my creative interests, and ended up finding a career that pleased both the left and right sides of my brain. I still practice audio and video editing on the side, but my main passions now lie in color science and psychophysics.” She is also already a longtime member of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and is a SMPTE volunteer and two-time presenter at the associations' annual Fall conference.

Digital Cinema Report: Portrait Displays supports both content creators and distributors. What does that support include?

Catherine Meininger: Portrait Displays works to address a core concept in the world of content creation: maintaining the creator’s intent. Content creators work extremely hard to bring their specific vision to life, and Portrait Displays supports maintaining that vision all the way from the displays they use to make their decisions on to the screens that their audiences will engage with. Our Calman color calibration software is one way Portrait Displays supports this effort and is widely recognized by the most respected color professionals in Hollywood and beyond. In addition to Calman, Portrait Displays also works closely with display and device manufacturers to provide color calibration and display control solutions for their own products to ensure that color presents beautifully on their screens and devices.

DCR: Describe your role at Portrait Displays.

CM: As a color scientist, I am a part of the research and development department of Portrait Displays. I mainly work on researching color calibration methodology and developing tools and applications that support and implement that research. I also provide support for any general color science-related questions.

DCR: What have been some of your most interesting projects to date?

CM: My main focus at Portrait Displays has been to investigate color calibration methodologies, which is a constantly on-going project for a company that makes color calibration software. As display technology advances and manufacturers become more creative in their solutions to produce specific behaviors, such as high dynamic range, we also have to become more creative in our approach towards making those behaviors change the way we want them to. This in particular has been a key topic in at least two recent projects of mine and is the source of inspiration for another project coming up.

Catherine Meininger is a color scientist at Portrait Displays in Edmonds, Washington. She graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Motion Picture Science.One topic that is of particular interest to our R&D department is the quantitative versus subjective assessment of color calibration. Depending on the display technology, the current quantitative tools for evaluating color accuracy may not be reflective of what [a person] actually perceives on screen with real content. For instance, the evaluation of color accuracy of standard dynamic range versus HDR has revealed flaws in the current industry standard quantitative methodology. We presented a paper at the 2019 SMPTE Annual Technical Conference discussing this issue and continue to investigate this topic more in our R&D projects.

DCR: I’m fascinated by the developments that are happening around the world in color science these days. As you see it, what is the relationship between color science and psychophysics?

CM: Color science and psychophysics are tightly coupled, and one could consider color science as being a subfield within the topic of psychophysics. Psychophysics is the study of the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they evoke. Color science focuses around the specific relationship between physical stimuli and the human sensation of vision as it relates to color perception.

DCR: Would you agree that one of the biggest challenges with all video displays is color consistency from device to device? If so, how are you and Portrait Displays addressing that issue?

CM: Absolutely, especially with modern display technology. A few decades ago, there wasn’t a lot of variety in what types of displays people were using. Cathode-ray tube technology was common and widespread, and behaved in one manner that was well understood. Today, with HDR and wide-color gamut technology pushing the boundaries of current display performance, we have so many different types of display technology including liquid crystal displays, light-emitting diode displays, organic light-emitting diode displays, quantum dot displays and more, with so many different implementation approaches to achieve the same end visual result. This, of course, can easily lead to visual differences from device to device.

Portrait Displays works to provide color calibration solutions for all of these different display types through our Calman software and ensures consistency in color critical environments. We work closely with display manufacturers to stay on top of new and upcoming technology so that when the latest devices hit the market, content creators and consumers have the tools they need to feel confident in their display’s color performance.

DCR: You graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology. When I think of Rochester, I think of Kodak and all the work that company has done for so long in color science. How involved, if at all, was Kodak with your studies at RIT?

CM: The relationship between Kodak and RIT is very strong, especially so for the MPS program. The core curriculum for the MPS program (and the program itself) was designed by David Long, director of the RIT MAGIC Center, and Ricardo Figueroa, interim school co-director of the School of Film and Animation, who were both previous Kodak employees. There were multiple times throughout the course of our education where we would visit Kodak and The Eastman Museum or receive instruction from other Kodak experts on a wide range of topics relating to the film industry. Having Kodak with all of its history and knowledgeable experts within the city limits provided an invaluable resource for MPS students.

The Portrait Displays Calman color calibration system.DCR: I understand that early on you were very interested in audio and video post-production. What about that experience led you to focus on color science?

CM: My interest in audio and video post-production is what led me to the RIT School of Film and Animation. When I was accepted into the school, I was actually a part of the fine arts program—I have long had a passion for editing audio and video and was going to school in support of becoming an editor of some sort. I ended up switching majors after I was accepted because I was intrigued by the MPS program’s addition of math and science classes, which I could get a head start on from my previously earned credits from high school, and had little desire to take the more filmmaking-centered classes like directing.

When I started the MPS curriculum, I was amazed at all of the science and technology that goes on behind the scenes of movies and television. It was a wonderful fusion of my childhood hobbies and challenging topics from my math and science classes. What were just tools to me before (i.e. cameras, displays, editing software), I now knew how they worked. I understood why doing certain things with those tools created the visual result they did. I could now use this information that I was learning to create even better edits and manipulations because I knew how to on such a fundamental level. It wasn’t until we started learning about the end of the imaging chain—the perception of those images—that I found something that excited me more than post-production work.

The ability to see is something that seems so simple to exist. We just open our eyes and there the world is. Most of us never stop to think how it is that vision is possible and recognize how complex of a system it is. About 20-30 percent of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to the sensation of vision. We are able to deduce so much critical information about our environment in such a short amount of time simply by being able to see it. What truly fascinated me though was when I realized how much of your vision is a result of your brain assuming and interpreting things, and how easy it can be to trick and manipulate your visual system to see or not see something. What you see in the world is simply a result of how your brain chooses to process light that has entered your eyes, just as cameras do when they capture light and create images for us to look at. And just as I had begun to learn how cameras worked, I also became interested in how our vision works. I decided to focus my studies around this topic, taking an immersion in psychology to better understand the psychophysics side and using my free electives to take more specific color science-related courses.

DCR: You were an active member of RIT's SMPTE Student Chapter and served as president of the organization your senior year. Why did you become a SMPTE member and how did you benefit from your membership?

CM: I became a SMPTE member so that I could have the opportunity to connect with industry professionals and gain access to the educational resources that the organization provided. I believe that there is huge value in having a place where people who have similar interests can share their thoughts, ideas, and work to better advance our industry as a whole. Additionally, I find that the best way to strengthen your skills in something is to completely immerse yourself in that world. SMPTE provides all of this for media professionals, technologists, and engineers, and has been a great home for someone like me.

SMPTE has also helped give me a strong start to my career, especially since I became a member when I was a student. I was fortunate to be a recipient of the Louis F. Wolf Memorial Scholarship in 2017 and an honorable mention for the Student Paper Award in 2018 for my thesis in chromatic noise perception. I have presented twice at the SMPTE Annual Technical Conference, once in 2018 and again in 2019. These opportunities have helped prepare me to be a better industry professional and gain more confidence in myself and work.