WHY WE DON’T SHOOT IN 4K

There has been a lot of talk about 4K lately. It’s the next generation ‘ultra’ high resolution video format, touted loudly by TV and camera salesmen worldwide. One of our clients recently asked whether we should be shooting their work in 4K, as opposed to HD. In putting together my response to her, it occurred to me that it could be useful to place our stance regarding this on our blog, as it is something which is likely to come up again in the coming years.

I’ve divided it into two parts – considerations for audiences, followed by considerations for us as providers and our clients.

AUDIENCES:

1) Most people won’t be able to tell the difference

4K essentially means 4 times the resolution of HD. Does this make it 4 times ‘better’? It’s not quite that simple. According to the Imaging Science Foundation (the display standards industry) resolution is only 4th on the list of aspects which comprise image quality. More important are contrast ratio, color saturation and color accuracy. There are no inherent improvements in these areas offered by 4K – it simply supplies more pixels (3840 x 2160).

Based on the ability of the human eye to resolve visual information, it is possible to roughly estimate where 4K resolution would become apparent to a viewer (assuming they have 20/20 vision). On an 84 inch screen, you’d need to sit about 5 feet away from the screen to see the extra detail. For a 55 inch screen, the viewing distance would need to be 3 feet. The average viewing distance of audiences (at least in America) is 9 feet. So most people will not see any benefit (in ‘living room viewing’). When using a computer, the average viewing distance is 30 inches – so your computer monitor would need to be 25 inches (and 4K capable) to see any difference. Phones and tablets are boasting increasingly impressive ‘on paper’ screen resolutions, but of course the benefits of increased pixel density decreases with smaller screens.

All of the above also assumes that the 4K content in question is actually possible to view. Which leads us to our next problem…

2) Most people can’t access it

Despite the hype from TV manufacturers, there aren’t many ways to actually watch 4K. 4K Blu Ray players are starting to emerge, and are capable of playing UHD content (Ultra High Definition – the ‘consumer electronics’ name for 4K), but these are expected to form the same market as ‘first generation’ Blu Ray players/discs – home cinema enthusiasts. When it comes to watching physical media at home, despite the fact that 1920 x 1080 flatscreen HD TVs are now commonplace most people buy/rent DVDs (which have a native resolution of just 720 x 480), or watch Standard Definition TV broadcasts (720 x 576). Which leaves us with online streaming.

HD online streaming works fine for most people. 4K will present some challenges. Yes, Netflix is arriving but most people will not be able to watch any 4K content because you need a reliable 15-25 Mbps download speed to stream it – the current national average is 7 Mbps. The UK and US clock in at around 10Mbps on average. Even for those who are able to get a 4K stream, Netflix’s 4K content is still hampered by the relatively low bit rate (another factor in image quality when streaming) – the result is compromised colour depth and the ‘banding’ effect (essentially, abrupt changes between colour gradations which look ‘blocky’ and unnatural to the human eye). This isn’t to say that people sitting at optimum viewing distance wouldn’t perceive a 4K Netflix stream to look ‘better’ than a 1080p Netflix stream – it’s just that there aren’t many people who can even try it.

As well as our audience, it also presents problems for production companies and clients.

PRODUCTION COMPANIES / CLIENTS:

3) It stretches budgets

Post production isn’t only about selecting clips, correcting colour, choosing music etc. It’s also when files are managed, rendered and exported. Switching to 4K doesn’t just affect the camera you’re using, but has knock on implications for every single background element in the process – the memory cards, the hard drives, the computer and the software, to say nothing of the increased amounts of time involved in handling such huge amounts of data. Production companies such as ours are generally not making the step to 4K yet, as it involves a complete overhaul of equipment, and serious reassessment of post production time allocation. The nature of technology dictates that if and when 4K becomes the ‘standard’, it will be significantly cheaper than it is today to offer it to our clients, and swifter to handle.

My impression is that most production companies such as ours are reaching the same conclusion. The most common application for 4K at present is high end drama, Hollywood movies, some independent films and specialist operators (e.g. aerial footage).

Our estimates at this stage indicate that to move over to a fully 4K model, shooting every project in this format, would involve an investment of approximately $35,000.

By renting equipment, even on a very small project as a template (budget approx. $3,500), we estimate it would add approximately $1,500 in costs per job.

I would rather see that money go towards time on concept development, writing, on screen talent, locations and so on. These are the fundamental (but less ‘zeitgeisty’) ways to create a better video product. Good ideas and execution are more valuable than a stratospheric pixel count.

4) The benefits have very little to do with the final image

The main reason some filmmakers / video production professionals shoot in 4k has less to do with the quality of the final image as presented to the audience than it does the ability of the film maker to manipulate that image in post production. Without getting too technical every camera has a certain ‘dynamic range’ – that is to say how much detail it can pick up in both the shadows (or the darkest parts of an image) and the highlights (the brightest parts of an image).

Cameras or formats with a ‘wide dynamic range’ are able to retain more amounts of detail in both extremes. If you point a less capable camera at something lit by bright sunlight, it simply goes white and loses that information. Similarly, it will often render shadows as simply dark, grainy areas with no real detail.

4k collects more information about these areas of the image, and so you have more options in post production. If someone was to find that they accidentally under lit a whole scene, his ability to then ‘bring out the details’ in the shadows and correct the shot afterwards are increased if he has shot in 4k. Similarly, if he has misjudged the sunlight coming in from a window, and the whole right hand side of his interview subjects’ face is harshly overexposed and ‘burnt out’, he has a good chance of being able to ‘dial down’ the highlights and save the image. In the world of still photography, these image manipulation capabilities are well within reach for significantly lower costs (image resolutions of 5616 x 3,744 are commonplace). The obvious difference in the world of video is that we are dealing with 25 images every second, and all of the knock on implications for storage and processing.

Another example of the options that 4k brings is with narrative film/storytelling types of content. If an editor decides to change the mood of a scene, say to be more ‘mysterious’, he can grade the image to have more emphasis on the shadows, dial back the warmth of the colours and so on. All of this is possible with HD, but just less so. Again, it is an instance where the power of the 4k format is the way it remains visually flexible for longer in the production process – not so much with regard to the perceived quality of the final image.

Video production professionals will appreciate the way 4K can ‘save’ otherwise unusable footage, or allow them to create new meaning through image manipulation, but these are things the audience is rarely aware of. Lighting and composition are still the fundamental aspects of whether a shot is perceived to be ‘good’ or not. Any adjustments to mood and colours we do need to make are well within the reach of HD footage. Suggesting that our clients need 4K for any creative/aesthetic reasons would be misleading.

Conclusion

As a filmmaker, yes I am curious about the creative possibilities of 4K and will continue to monitor the situation. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we were shooting some projects in 4K in a few years time. In terms of our client work, the likelihood is that, even then, most people will be experiencing it at something far closer to HD as the online infrastructure will probably not support ubiquitous 4K streaming. HD has existed as a technology since the late 90s, yet we still encounter occasional problems with our audiences being unable to stream successfully. Delivering content via the web needs to be about ease of access. As a business, we need to find the sweet spot in terms of our own investments, our prices and services to the client, and of course audience experience. That sweet spot may come for 4K one day, or it may not.

There are plenty of video production companies out there who will extol the virtues of 4K – they are the same people who a few years ago were insisting that everything would now be shot and displayed in 3D. We have never seen ourselves as, or marketed ourselves as, a technology centered business. It’s far more important to us that our work is compelling and engaging, and that our clients have good experiences. Technology has very little to do with that.

For further information:

http://carltonbale.com/does-4k-resolution-matter/
http://philipbloom.net/2013/10/10/4kraw/
http://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/4k-vs-hd-can-audiences-tell-the-differnce/
http://www.mentorless.com/2014/04/14/shoot-4k-youre-indie-filmmaker/

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