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Netflix’s spooky 12-minute film noir only makes sense to engineers and developers

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Obsession
Glass

Netflix released a eerie original film noir this month called Meridian that combines a classic detective tale with bizarre visuals, loud special effects, and creepy imagery. The 12-minute film got 1.5 stars and a few reviews on Netflix. But it wasn’t made for casual viewers. It was released for developers and engineers.

Director Curtis Clark likely had artistic reasons for adding the film’s strange effects. But those elements are primarily there because they tend to trip up video codecs, or software that compresses and decompresses digital video, and other elements of the streaming pipeline.

Netflix is giving away the project for free on Xiph.org, which houses a collection of test media, so hardware manufacturers, codec developers, and even competitors like Amazon can experiment with it, Variety reported. They can test the performance of their algorithms and the way streams look on different devices using the footage, which is listed under the Creative Commons 4.0 license. It’s part of how Netflix is pushing Hollywood to think more like Silicon Valley.

“It’s a weird story wrapped up in a bunch of engineering requirements,” Chris Fetner, Netflix’s director for content partner operations, told the publication.

Take, for example, the opening scene in which Captain Mac Foster of the Los Angeles Police Department discusses a string of missing persons cases with one of his detectives, played by Reid Scott from HBO’s Veep. The lighting may give off a typical film noir feel, but the range of shadows and light make the shot difficult to encode, or compress into different versions that can be played on TVs, desktop, tablets, mobile phones, and other devices.

The cigar smoke in the frame is also challenging to encode. Smoke, flame, and water are notorious codec breakers, said Matt Smith at Brightcove, which provides online video tools and services. He published a blog post on Meridian yesterday.

When a video frame is encoded, each pixel in the frame is represented as a square, Smith explained in an interview with Quartz. If the background in a shot is solid black and doesn’t change from frame to frame then the video codec doesn’t have to do anything to those pixels. But, when objects move or light is introduced, it takes a lot of computational power to encode each frame. You could end up with something called macroblocking, which is when objects or areas of a video image appear as small squares and lose their detail.

The lighting in the following scene also messes with the light balance in the shot.

And this rock, which couples patterns in the rock face with varying levels of light and brightness, is a good test for video complexity and compression, Smith said.

This trippy shot near the end of the short film combines all of these elements—a stained glass window with a range of light and brightness, the reflection rippling in the water below, and the film noir effect on the cliff—in one “whopper of a scene,” Smith said.

The film has top notch specs, so developers and engineers are working with highest quality Netflix streaming currently offers. It was shot in 4K HDR video with 60 frames per second with a peak brightness level of 4000 nits and Dolby Atmos audio, Variety reported.

Netflix has released other tools that can be used by the industry. It has more than 150 open-source projects and a handy streaming speed index that can be used to shame internet-service providers into offering faster service.

Like the speed index, the Meridian test footage could also potentially benefit Netflix in the long run. It allows hardware manufacturers, software developers, and others to see how they can best work with Netflix streaming. The master files available on Xiph.org are in a format that Netflix wants its content partners to use—Interoperable Master Format (IMF)—and has instructions on how Netflix should alter the film for different regions. (The company operates in 190 countries around the world, and alters its programming with subtitles and other elements for different markets.)

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