- The HCE Video Series
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE supporter of 4K, however recently I’ve been somewhat critical of the format and its impending release into our homes. I’m not being critical because I’ve changed my tune with respect to 4K, but instead because I know the value it brings to the viewer and I don’t want to see it watered down in order for the consumer electronics industry to have something new to sell. Unfortunately, that is what appears to be happening.
4K, for those of you who may be scratching your heads, refers to an audio/video standard set by a group that goes by the name of DCI. The standard was adopted to create a sort of level playfield for all the studios and theatrical exhibitors to adhere to in order to avoid things like “format wars” that we consumers often deal with -think Blu-ray versus HD DVD. Or Beta versus VHS. DCI 4K, or D-Cinema 4K, as it’s more commonly known, calls for a number of standards as it pertains to a digitally projected image; standards for number of pixels, compression, color space and more. These standards were adopted because they most closely resemble, match or even best, the perceived quality of analog 35mm film. While there are a number of other aspects to the D-Cinema standard, the four most important have to do with the number of pixels, color, color space and lastly compression that the image employs.
D-Cinema 4K calls for a resolution of around 4,000 pixels across by 2,000 pixels tall -specifically 4,096 x 2,160. I use the word around because not all aspect ratios will fit exactly into the 4,096 x 2,160 spec, so DCI does allow for some leeway. In terms of color, D-Cinema 4K calls for two things; first, 12-bit color and the ability to display the CIE 1931 XYZ color space -or the entire range of human perceivable color. Lastly, D-Cinema mandates that the image be compressed using the JPEG2000 compression codec, which is robust and not widely -if ever -used at the consumer level. So that’s the professional or D-Cinema standard in a nutshell, but what does it have to do with you the viewer or me as an indie filmmaker?
For starters 4K is coming home and rapidly, meaning in the next 18 to 24 months you can expect to see more affordable 4K displays and 4K compatible devices hitting store shelves. Right now there are several 4K displays available, however many, okay all, cost more than many mid-level automobiles. So while 4K is technically available to consumers, most of us, present company included, are going to have to wait. But it’s not simply a matter of waiting until prices drop, there are some discrepancies between consumer 4K and D-Cinema 4K. Discrepancies that weigh heavily on me and how I choose to move forward with Love In Training. For example, consumer 4K is being brought to market in the resolution known as Quad Full HD or QFHD. While still technically 4K, its pixel count isn’t quite to the standard of D-Cinema; dishing out 3,840 x 2,160 or four times the resolution of HD (1920 x 2 = 3,840, 1080 x 2 = 2,160). The reason for QFHD and not true D-Cinema 4K has to do with our acceptance (or dependence) on the 16:9 aspect ratio. QFHD not only fits, but scales proportionately to 16:9 where as D-Cinema 4K does not. So, QFHD will be our consumer 4K resolution. Next, because 4K images are larger we must use a more aggressive compression scheme to “shrink” file sizes down in order to make them more accessible in the home markets; this means using h.264 (or later h.265) compression, which is far more invasive than JPEG2000. Lastly, in terms of color, our current HD standard, including Blu-ray, calls for 8-bit color as opposed to D-Cinema’s 12-bit and it also mandates the use of the color space widely known as Rec. 709. Both 8-bit color and the Rec. 709 color space are drastically smaller thus easier to “move” in a consumer market. In other words, our consumer 4K future is looking a lot like our current HD one -save maybe resolution, which will be higher.
How that affects Love In Training is simple; filming and working in 4K is very, very expensive. Even with the advent of camera systems such as the RED and Sony’s soon to be updated 4K camcorders, the cost of doing business in 4K is dramatic. Now, Love In Training is a theatrical film, in that it WILL be shown in a theater. So, logic would insist that I film in a D-Cinema compliant format, aka 4K. However, the majority of viewers will no doubt view Love In Training in the home; in which case, even with 4K right around the corner, it doesn’t make sense to work in true 4K. If our consumer 4K standard is to be nothing more than a higher resolution version of our current HD world, then why adopt the added expense of working in a cinema format if no one outside of cinema will ever see it? This is the question many filmmakers have to ask themselves and is one I take very seriously. On one hand I like pushing the envelope and on the other I want to maximize my budget and bring you the best story I can without going broke trying to film it.
I’ve been fortunate enough in my film career to work with true, RAW, 4K images and workflows and let me tell you -they suck. Not to mention how disheartening it can be at times seeing that brilliant 4K footage knowing that you’re going to essentially “squeeze” the life out of it so that it will fit on a DVD or worse be able to be streamed via Netflix or the like. This why April Showers looks like -well -shit compared to the theatrical transfer. Even with consumers being able to buy 4K displays there’s still too much carry over from our existing HD world for me to justify working in 4K. Why work in 10 or 12 bit color if you’re just going to compress it down to 8-bit at the final stages of post production? Do you know how much hard disc space you can save by just capturing in 8-bit in the first place? The answer is a lot. There are DSLRs out there that when properly implemented can capture HD with virtually no compression, meaning full 1,920 x 1,080 resolution in 8-bit, Rec. 709 color for a couple grand versus tens of thousands you’ll spend, just at the camera level, to film in 4K. 8-bit, Rec. 709, well that’s two of the standards consumer 4K calls for. As for compression, it’s been rumored that consumer 4K will use h.264 or h.265 but bump Mbits per second up to 50 as opposed to the 24-30 we enjoy now on Blu-ray discs. 50 is good, it’s better than 24-30, but many of these less expensive cameras and even the expensive 4K ones capture in excess of 100 to 150Mbits per second -some go higher than that, even in HD. So regardless I’ll still have to compress the image dramatically.
Which leaves us only with resolution? Native 4K displays are automatically going to have to scale any lesser resolution to 4K in order to fill the entire field of view. If they didn’t you’d get a small image surrounded by a lot of dead space (aka black bars) on all four sides of your TV. Since there isn’t a lot of consumer available 4K content out there most of what people have seen from early consumer 4K demos has actually been scaled HD content. Their reaction? AMAZING! Now, true 4K displayed on a 4K monitor will look even better, but, at certain distances and on certain sized screens, the difference isn’t perceivable. Is that going to stop 4K from being available on 42 or 55-inch LED displays? No, but I’m being honest with you when I say, from a distance of say six feet you won’t be able to tell the difference on a screen that small. I’ve done tests in the past few months on screens in excess of 100-inches using both HD and 4K projectors, viewing both HD and 4K content and I’m telling you -at reasonable distances there is virtually no difference. Changes in resolution once you get to the HD/2K level, become harder and harder to discern from the next. In truth, what people are reacting to most is actually the image’s color and light output -two things that the eye DOES view as making something better or worse. The problem with that truth is, consumer 4K (at this time) is not going to bring anything new to the color equation than what we already have.
So, if 4K displays will scale HD to 4K and the rest of the HD standard is left intact, what’s the argument then for filming in 4K? At this juncture, knowing that many of you will no doubt watch Love In Training at home or on portable device, 4K doesn’t make a lot of sense. Furthermore, if you’re well heeled enough to afford a 4K display at this time, I argue that by filming Love In Training in the best HD possible at this time I’ll be giving you three quarters of the image you need with the last twenty five percent being taken care of on someone else’s dime -aka Sony, LG, JVC etc. Besides, if you’re like me and sit more than say 5 or 6 feet from your TV, I doubt you’d even notice that I didn’t film in 4K had I not told you ahead of time.
I still have a lot of tests to do but wanted to share my thoughts thus far. I know I got a little technical but it’s important that we understand new and emerging technologies if for no other reason than to keep a level head about it all so we don’t go broke trying to keep pace with things we maybe don’t need. As always, I thank you for your generosity, time and support! Until next time, take care and stay tuned…
UPDATE: The romantic comedy, Love In Training, referenced in this post has been put on hold indefinitely. I apologize for the confusion. For more information please read my announcement detailing the change.
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