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4K Cinematography: 4K Your Way

By G. A. “Andy” Marken

4K-Storage-Px_GravityGravity: image courtesy of Warner Brothers 2013

Thanks to the brilliant work of Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonas with Gravity, television set companies showed off content befitting the beauty of their 4K UHD (ultra-high definition) screens at NAB this year. Folks seemed more interested in seeing the picture-perfect presentation up close and personal than they were in the movie’s 3D execution because everyone realizes that 3D is best used sparingly and they have pretty much reigned in their over-exuberance for the format.

The difference between 4K and HD content is apparent to even the most untrained eye, shooting/production equipment isn’t outrageously expensive, and studios and broadcasters know the new generation expects high-quality content. More importantly, there are more distribution options available to content owners and channels.

However, some have been quick to point out that the infrastructure for 4K hasn’t been built out (yet), there aren’t huge libraries of 4K content available (yet), and the gatekeepers (also known as cable folks) don’t have the pipes to handle the higher bandwidth content (yet).

High Quality, Low Cost

Independent studios and videographers have found they still can have optimum creative control without going deeply in debt. Economic 4K cameras ($400 -$10,000), such as those by Black Magic, AJA and Red, as well as very economical production and post-production systems are putting the technology into more professional hands – studios, independents and even businesses that focus on education, training, service/support.

Cirina Catania, pictured with her BlackMagic camera, donates her creative talent to build awareness of the challenges and successes of physically and mentally disabled military personnel reentering the world they left behind to serve their country.  

Cirina Catania is an indie who used three of Blackmagic’s newest cameras for her projects: the Wounded Veterans, Furnishing Hope, and the United States Veterans Educational Institute. She recently completed shooting a documentary in the desert/mountain areas of Nevada and said the cameras and Other World Computing (OWC) SSDs took a beating in the rugged terrain, even though she was careful. Every frame was captured and saved.

“Yes you can say 6G SSD is more expensive than a bigger hard drive,” she commented, “but most people who do this for a living say it’s cheap when you consider the cost of trying to go back and reshoot even a few scenes … if that’s even possible.”

Andrew Disney, director of the indie film Intramural that was featured at this year’s Tribeca/ESPN Film Festival, says his group rented the RED Epic because “it just delivered the dynamic 5K quality the crew wanted.” Disney explained that immediately after each day’s shoot, the content would be rushed to Kody Gibson (editor) and his team who would do the post on a wide array of OWC drives because RAW 5K “has a real appetite for storage” that can test the performance of systems and storage, but the combination of Gigabit Ethernet and Thunderbolt-interfaced hard drives can meet the needs for online editing.

Wait a minute!

There are gazillions of Petabytes (PBs) of content sitting in studio and station libraries/warehouses as well as in indie closets around the world. True, it isn’t 4K, but it wouldn’t take much work, much time, or a big bankroll to convert and repurpose all of that HD material to 4K for the Internet, cable/satellite and airwaves.

Organizations that maintain tight control on their quality image and reputation are using a more comprehensive conversion approach and working with services from production studios such as San Francisco-based 4K Studios. This entails using Ultra HD scanners for 35mm or 16mm film and making multiple digitization of each frame of the film at different light levels in red, green and blue, creating an HDR (high-dynamic-range) 4K image for every frame of the film. Next, editors repair the defects, such as scratches in the film, and compensate for the frame-by-frame variations in texture, color and lighting. This process has even been used to make dramatic improvements to films originally mastered in 4K.

A resolution solution

The key to cost-effectively producing cleaner, crisper results is using the right combination of resolution and contrast. Higher camera resolution and a narrower dynamic range of images simply decreases the image contrast, which cable firms say is necessary to attract and retain viewers.

European Broadcast Union (EBU) studies have shown that more pixels don’t necessarily deliver sharper images, which are a perceived value to people. In fact, the best combination of resolution and contrast can be produced by backing off camera resolution so a wider dynamic range of video content can be captured.

SMPTE fellow Mark Schubin calculates that increasing the data rate from 8-bit to 10-bit, or 10-bit to 12-bit, doesn’t produce better results when compared to a higher dynamic range. It calls for the use of a color gamut that is significantly larger than the current HD TV standard, Rec. 709.

It’s better to produce pristine imagery at the outset and then efficiently deliver the content to today’s 4K UHD TV sets, rather than doing what the cable companies want, moving all of the heavy processing down to the TV set.

Don’t Force It

A one-hour compressed 4K film is about 160GB and would take 7-1/2 hours to download on a 50 Mbit/s connection. However, by processing it using multiple codecs and advanced post methods, videos can be flawlessly streamed even over 6 Mbit/s pipes.

The streaming distribution solution has become so important that CBS is making more of its content available to people who stream their entertainment at a time that is convenient for them, rather than the broadcaster’s schedule. CBS has put about 50 percent of its content online because streaming allows “the elusive younger audience” that they want to access the network’s programming.

The devices and services also have opened the way for studios, indies and businesses/institutions to reach the larger new and specialty audiences. By converting their content, studios and content owners can quickly and economically breathe new life into their films and TV shows. All without having to wait for cable companies to up their services.

July 22, 2014