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Are Apple TV screensavers real?

Los Angeles International Airport as seen in a very real Apple TV screensaver.
Los Angeles International Airport as seen in an Apple TV screensaver. Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

You’d be forgiven if you ask the following question upon seeing one of the high-resolution screensavers on Apple TV 4K:

Are Apple TV screensavers real? Or are they CGI?

It’s a fair question, and one we tend to ask ourselves every now and then when new videos — also known as Aerials given their perspective — roll out to the platform. If you’ve yet to see one, we’re talking about high-resolution imagery, shot at a high frame rate and then played back a bit slower, giving it kind of a slow-motion effect. The video appears optimized for high dynamic range (aka HDR).

In a word, they’re stunning.

It’s not often you use the word cinematography when it comes to screensavers. Those of us of a certain age can recall flying toasters or, later, a pretty realistic aquarium. Apple TV screensavers are more akin to the latter on steroids, and they’ve been ridiculously realistic for years.

Part of what may cause you to wonder whether Apple TV screensavers are fake is that high dynamic range. Oversimplified, it means that you’re seeing a greater range of color and better contrast. So something isn’t just red, it’s really red. Same for the rest of the spectrum. And that sort of thing really stands out against the darkness of night, or the blackness of space, or the deep blue sea.

The quality of the video itself matters a lot, too. And the short version is that using great equipment and shooting in 8K resolution — if not higher — and then scaling down to 4K leads to some incredible footage.

Screenshots of nine Apple TV screensavers, which very much are real.
Screenshots of Apple TV screensavers in no way do justice to their resolution or dynamic range of color. Screenshots

Some of the screensavers also lead to more dubiousness than others. Flying over Central Park in New York City, or downtown Los Angeles, or Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai — those are all known places with moving people and pieces. Same goes for even higher perspectives, like views from the International Space Station. Flying over Europe and Asia, or North America, we see familiar landmasses and landmarks.

Where things get a little more surreal is underwater. Cinematographer Roger Munns worked with the BBC’s Natural History Unit and in 2019 gave some serious detail into what went into shooting some of the underwater Apple TV screensavers.

“This was a unique project in terms of the challenges it presented to our team,” Munns wrote. “Trying to emulate the style of the aerial images, but with far less technology and grip and, most importantly, with moving animals rather than static landscapes, was extremely tough.”

Munns likened shooting with his Red DSMC2 Helium cameras at 8K resolution, underwater, with all the marine life to “stepping up to the tee and repeatedly trying to hit a hole-in-one until you either get one or it gets dark.” For anyone who’s never played golf — or even everyone who has — that’s  fairly improbable for a professional, and absolutely impossible for an amateur without some sort of divine intervention. Director and cinematographer Phil Holland goes into even more detail about shooting in 8K resolution, if you really want to get into the technical aspects.

So, yeah. Apple TV screensavers are real.

And consider that Munns is talking about some of the earlier Apple TV screensavers. They’ve gotten more incredible since then, insofar as there’s a scale for this sort of thing.

This sort of thing isn’t limited to Apple TV, either. On the official side of things, MacOS 14.0 Sonoma adds the same sort of screensavers directly to the operating system. And on the third-party side, Aerial Dream lets you add the Apple TV screensavers to some flavors of Google TV (Chromecast with Google TV doesn’t allow for it). There’s also an Aerial app that’ll extend what’s available on your Mac. And there’s a Chrome extension that’ll load them in a new tab of the Chrome browser.

The really cool part? Apple is adding more screensavers all the time. And, yes, they’re real.

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Phil Nickinson
Section Editor, Audio/Video
Phil spent the 2000s making newspapers with the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, the 2010s with Android Central and then the…
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