January 28, 2017
Sundance 2017

7 Important Lessons All Filmmakers Should Learn About Shooting 4K

'Strong Island'
Sundance filmmakers discuss the benefits and limitations of shooting 4K in the current documentary landscape.

Shooting in 4K is almost a given in the narrative film world, but not so much when it comes to making documentaries. Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On DPs Ben Bloodwell and Bryan Donnell and Strong Island DP Alan Jacobsen sat down with IndieWire at the Sundance Canon Creative Studio to discuss working with 4K as a documentary cinematographer, from the role resolution plays in non-narrative filmmaking to the challenges of shooting 4K with a small crew. The lessons they provide apply not only to documentary filmmakers, but to all filmmakers.

You can watch the whole conversation here, and below are our top seven takeaways:

1. Pick the right camera for your project

Bloodwell described what it was like receiving the list of approved cameras for Hot Girls Wanted from Netflix, saying that it fit the bill for a larger scale project that requires 4K, but not for the requirements of the more intimate, verité look of their show. 

I swear, it must've been the camera list from like House of Cards—it's 4K, it's RAW. And we're looking at it—talking at the same time about the subject matter and talking about shooting in this way that's very photojournalistic and verité—it requires a very small crew and a small camera.

In the end, they were able to convince the executive producers to allow them to shoot on the Canon C300 Mark II, which is really important because, as Bloodwell explained, the camera can change the kind of project you're working on. There is no such thing as the perfect camera, just cameras that are better suited for different kinds of projects.

DPs Alan Jacobsen, Ben Bloodwell, and Bryan Donnell

2. You can always build up a small rig

Donnell made a great point when asked why he went with the C300 Mark II. He explained that small rigs like it can always be built up or stripped down if you need them to be. If your project requires it, you can add monitors, battery packs, and all of the add-ons you can imagine to create a massive Frankencamera setup, but if your goal is intimacy and efficiency, larger rigs are going to take some of those options away simply due to their size and requirements, like data storage. Keep in mind, as Jacobsen describes it, "how you enter the room" with your camera: Is it imposing? Is it subtle? Does it matter?

"That's one thing that hopefully never changes, that no matter how many pixels there are, the artistic intent is always respected."

3. 4K might be more efficient during shoots

Shooting in 4K isn't just about making beautifully crisp and clear images, it's also about being able to crop when you need to. This is a lesson Jacobsen stumbled upon while shooting Strong Island, a documentary that investigates the violent death of filmmaker Yance Ford's brother. He explains how he and his team decided to switch to 4K in the middle of shooting after realizing they could crop overhead shots of Ford placing old photographs, which made their workflow a hell of a lot faster since they didn't have to touch the camera rig between shots.

'Hot Girls Wanted'

4. Media management is key if you're shooting in 4K

If you're used to shooting in HD, 720 or 1080, media management might be something you do sporadically throughout the day as needed. However, 4K is a whole other animal and requires a dedicated plan for dealing with the deluge of data you'll be capturing. This is an important factor to keep in mind if you're an indie filmmaker who typically works on small crews, especially if you've never considered hiring a DIT to manage all the data coming in.

5. Find out which features matter most to your project

A camera that allows you to shoot in 4K is great. Resolution is a big creative factor to consider before choosing your camera, but it's not the only one. There are other, potentially more important features you should consider, like latitude, dynamic range, form factor, and sensor size, because even if you've got a camera that shoots beautiful 4K images, it won't do you much good if, say, there isn't enough light to capture it in. Thankfully, many of the newer 4K cameras that have come out in the last couple of years take these important specifications into consideration, but it's still imperative to measure the value of a camera based on the needs of your project, rather than its own list of features.

6. Times are always a-changin'

An interesting point brought up by the panel is that, though the current discussion centers around the merits and limitations of shooting in 4K, every point they made may become moot next year. This is because the technology is often advancing faster than any of us can move, so while we're all talking about the challenges of 4K data management, shooting in low light, and choosing between a camera with high resolution or a small form factor, the industry is hard at work creating a camera that will mitigate all of it.

7. There's more to cinematography than resolution

Perhaps one of the biggest worries any cinematographer has as they look into the future is, "Will my work eventually look dated?" It's a legitimate fear considering how much emphasis the film industry puts on resolution, but Bloodwell, Donnell, and Jacobsen all shared a similar sentiment: In the end, it's more about the artistic value of the work, rather than whether or not it was shot in 4K, 8K, or whatever K is coming down the pike. Jacobsen said it best: "That's one thing that hopefully never changes, that no matter how many pixels there are, the artistic intent is always respected. That's where we need to be."


For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.      

Your Comment

12 Comments

The last point is so true. I remember in the past when there was a huge divide between "film" and "video art". They were separate worlds. The film people cared most about image quality and production values and the video people cared about accessibility and unheard voices. Shooting a narrative drama on 29.97 fps interlace video was just not done.
At some point things changed. Audiences didn't care anymore about technical quality, they cared about the story and the message. It could be shot with some awful VHS camcorder and be shaky and out of focus but if it connected with them it mattered more than something that was boring shot in Imax.
So 4K, 8K... whatever, it's all fine. Some subjects need it but you have to remember that most people won't notice the difference between 1080 and 8K, they'll be following the characters as they flow through their story.

January 29, 2017 at 1:53AM

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Just add on their phones to your last sentence. ;)

January 29, 2017 at 10:48AM

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Not sure that "Shooting in 4K is almost a given in the narrative film world" considering what was used on this years Sundance selections http://www.indiewire.com/2017/01/sundance-2017-cameras-arri-canon-red-so...

January 29, 2017 at 4:30PM

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Everyone talks about cropping 4K footage. Please someone explain this Crop, Crop, Crop thing to me. Does that mean you shoot 4K and edit in HD timeline to be able to crop or you can crop 4K footage on 4K Timeline?

January 30, 2017 at 12:19PM

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Timothy Edzeani Doh
Filmmaker in Ghana
130

When people talk about this they typically mean that they crop into a 4k image to make hd or 2k sized extracts. It is a technique that allows for a single camera to act as if it's a multi camera setup. So you an import footage as 4k into a HD/2k timeline and repo it to get the framing you want to have.

Although people talk like this is an easy thing to do, I have seen a few directors very disappointed in trying it out. For this to work all of your footage needs to be shot with this technique in mind. So you need to shoot with sharp lenses, flat light across any of the areas you may want to crop into, and a VERY deep depth of field.

It's a frustrating situation when an image looks tack sharp on an editorial monitor, but on a screen or large monitor appears soft, or worse yet half soft, because of focus issues.

January 30, 2017 at 1:17PM

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Joseph Slomka
Color Scientist - Acquisition through archival
330

Beautiful. Many thanks for explaining this.

January 31, 2017 at 3:16AM

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Timothy Edzeani Doh
Filmmaker in Ghana
130

Yes, you have to nail focus if you're going to do this to simulate multiple cameras, but sometimes you're just subtly recomposing the shot. Maybe you need to get a boom off the screen, for example.

This can save your ass if you don't have any other options. I shot a live music video where I couldn't get the artist to understand the necessity for recording a sync track and then re-performing the song along with it to get multiple angles, and the B-camera footage was almost complete garbage. So I had to do dissolves between punched-in 4K footage and the full frame, and nobody noticed. It worked surprisingly well.

February 2, 2017 at 3:14PM

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David Gurney
DP
1523

It's just reframing by making a shot larger than the canvas. In Premiere, adjust Scale to > 100%. In FCP X, adjust Scale to > 100%, or Crop (in the Crop or Ken Burns modes, not Trim. The Ken Burns mode will let you introduce a pan or zoom to a shot rather than just reframing.)

Depending on the project, you can get away with a little reframing of 4K footage in a 4K project, or a lot of reframing of 4K footage in a 1080p project. It won't work for every shot, though, and the more you scale, the better your original shot has to be.

Shooting in a larger format than you plan to deliver gives you better detail and more options. I've certainly used it quite a bit (in non-narrative projects) and it's very useful. You can be a little lazier on set (framing wider than you normally would) and punch in when required in interviews, but don't rely on it to work miracles.

January 30, 2017 at 8:26PM, Edited January 30, 8:31PM

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Thanks for the explanation.

January 31, 2017 at 3:16AM, Edited January 31, 3:16AM

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Timothy Edzeani Doh
Filmmaker in Ghana
130

For the most part 4k shouldn't have much of an effect on product. In terms of images quality the difference between a 2k/HD image and a 4k image is a very subtle one until you get to extra large sized screens.

Steve Yedlin (A.S.C) has been going over starting to present on this ( an early article is here http://www.yedlin.net/BigK_2014.html) He has a demonstration of 2k all the way through (15 perf 65mm 13k) for 4k cinema finish. There is asmall image difference between the 2k and 4k and there is virtually no difference going above 4k(6k,8k,13k) for a normal narrative.

The best reason to go with a 4k on acquisition is because of a distribution requirement. But if you don't have that requirement, most projects will be better off to shoot on the highest quality 2k/HD camera that you can rent for the best looking projects.

January 30, 2017 at 1:32PM, Edited January 30, 1:32PM

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Joseph Slomka
Color Scientist - Acquisition through archival
330

I find that 4K for low-budget music video is an incredible advantage. Having that ability to crop is incredible. The only two reasons I use 4K with my Sony A7S 2 is for an artist performing and interviews. Having the ability to "fake" a second camera by just cropping in and turning your medium to a close up is incredible.

January 31, 2017 at 10:07AM

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Daymian S. Mejia
Filmmaker
132

Great article. I'm a Chicago based doc filmmaker and was in LA this weekend having a discussion with a friend who is very much going the traditional DP route. His perspective is based around Arri cameras and mine is based around smaller cameras, and I realized during the conversation that we are simply working in different but equal approaches to filmmaking. My priority is always making people feel comfortable, the value that it brings is that it gives this effect of going into a world you don't often get to see in films, very personal and almost voyeuristic, and that is always appealing to me. His priority is delivering the most polished, cinematic images possible. Different tools for different jobs, and thank goodness for that because if we weren't comfortable with this idea then every film would look and feel exactly the same! Diversity is beautiful

January 31, 2017 at 12:37PM

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