Will the future of filmmaking leave you behind?
Resolution has been a contentious topic the last two decades. Any mention of Ks and you’re bound to trigger a knee jerk reaction or hear 10 different opinions from 10 different people. That in itself is not a bad thing. But is it time to set differences aside to get ahead of the 8K curve that’s inevitably coming? And to a certain extent, it's already here.
As creators, it’s important to educate each other about the significance of high resolution workflows now, so when 8K broadcast and televisions do become mainstream, content won’t lag behind. It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.
Now, good content is always going to start with a compelling script. Any camera spec, whether that be sensor size, gamut, color, or resolution, is never going to fix a terrible story.
Historically, the leap from standard definition to high definition was perhaps the biggest change. Then came HD to 4K which was smaller, but in terms of image sharpness, was a vast improvement. Soon it will be 4K to 8K, and so on.
Right now there’s a bottleneck of opinions when it comes to resolution at 4K and above. Some say that they (or their clients) just don’t need anything higher than a certain resolution. Others suggest that the human eye can only perceive a certain amount of resolution. Others say there are diminishing returns with resolution passed a certain point, or that audiences will not be able to notice the difference. Some blurt out that broadcast is still 720 or that they are flat tired of hearing about pixel counters.
No matter what side of the fence you’re on, the industry that develops the products and technology isn't going to wait. They are going to move forward. Many are publicly traded companies that, in part, innovate and advance because they need to move numbers on a stock exchange. They are not simply going to stop and say, well this is good enough. We had a great run. Hopefully everyone is cool with that. Now go enjoy because that’s all we are ever going to create.
And mind you, this is not only about resolution. Wider color spaces, smaller codecs, faster media, better dynamic range, a faster cloud…improving them all can greatly benefit workflows and how stories will be told.
Plus, this isn’t about choosing one over the other. It’s not about saying, “Well, I’d rather have a higher bit depth or better compressed RAW than higher resolution.” While most unequivocally prefer a wider color gamut and a higher bit depth above all, how did resolution become the punching bag.
A lot of it had to do with the marketing that went behind consumer and professional products. 4K became such a buzzword it was easy to have a deep-seated aversion. But now that 4K is over a decade old, there is a better understanding of it. 4K is widely accepted and even a mandate. There’s a reason why you don’t hear anyone complaining about a camera’s dynamic range being too wide. Or the color space being too large. Or that a file size didn’t take up enough space. Because that would be asinine.
Now, 8K is going through the same turbulence 4K went through years ago.
HDTV broadcast in the United States came in the late 1990s. Imagine being the person who was against it. Who thought it was unnecessary. And there were those who did. 4K is going through a similar reaction. “Why 4K when broadcast is only HD?” “My client only needs 2K, so that’s all I’m going to shoot.” While both are reasonable points, it creates inertia. Only considering what’s in front of you halts growth. And as mentioned earlier, the companies making the tools filmmakers use are not going to wait around.
What others think about high resolution workflow
In a conversation with the 8K Association, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, who’s behind David Fincher’s Mindhunters says, “The audience goes to the theater for an escape. They want the experience of being wowed, and we have an obligation to give that to them. As the audience gets used to watching 4K images at home, we have to chase that a little bit so when they go to the cinema experience, we are obligated to give them the highest quality image we can. And 8K capture is one way to do that.”
Messerschmidt prefers another aspect in the capture pipeline to be the tipping point. “For me, I prefer the optics to be the bottleneck and not the resolution of the sensor. The highest resolution and sharpest sensor possible is great for me because that’s where I see the optics fall apart. I feel like in that instance, I can make a more measured choice in terms of what I’m trying to give the audience visually.”
Michael Cioni of Frame.io has another perspective about why people put up a wall up against 8K. “One of the arguments people feed me is they hold up a phone and say why would I need 8K if people are going to watch on their phone or their TV? The problem with that argument is that it makes absolutely no sense.”
Cioni says the music industry is a good example as to why. “If the music industry was like the video industry, they would capture and record songs in MP3. If everyone is going to listen to it with Airpods, which are not very good qualitatively, then why record anything better than that.”
Cioni mentions that the music industry understands that if you start with more you end with more. “When people make the 8K argument about resolution and clarity, what they are forgetting is that even if you are going to watch it on a phone or mobile device, the ability to start with more means the result is going to look as good as it possible can.”
Dan Duran of RED, suggests to consider Friends, Star Trek, or X-Files. “They all shot on 35mm film when the standard at the time was standard definition. Did they need to do it? No, because no one was visually seeing a full 35mm, but when you bring it down, it looks great. And it’s future proof. Those shows have all been remastered and have that flexibility.”
Though Duran is connected to RED, the camera manufacturer behind the Helium 8K S35 and Monstro 8K VV, other companies like Phantom and Canon, are developing 8K as a tool for filmmakers. And that’s all resolution is. A tool you can choose or not choose to use. It’s been reported ARRI is also developing a new S35 camera. If it doesn’t offer a resolution higher than 4K or some type of oversampling, it would be surprising.
Oversampling is one of the benefits and it's nothing new. Broadcast TV has been shooting in 35mm and sending it out at 640px well before 4K. Oversampling improves the image quality. Cioni agrees. “One benefit to the oversampling argument is the ability to maintain high quality when things actually go down to scale.”
Cioni says, “When you take an image, and you cut it in half, basically the theory is, every time you cut an image in half it’s the equivalent of minus three dB of gain. Or essentially one stop of gain resolution. The reason this is significant is because as you reduce an image to 50% or even more, there’s a noise reduction. And that simply means you can actually push your images further at the source because you know they are going to resolve when they are supersamples.”
What Cioni suggests is that there’s an advantage at higher resolutions when it comes to exposure. If you’re shooting at 8K, and planning to deliver in 4K, you can push the low light because there will be a reduction in the noise level as you go from 8K to 4K.
The benefits of ovesampling are well documented. It's the reason why an IMAX image in HD and S35 image at HD doesn’t look the same. The IMAX image oversamples at a much higher rate and is going to look better.
Outside of film, you can find examples all over the internet. Marques Brownlee, better known as MKBHD, reviews tech on his YouTube channel. Besides understanding the importance of lighting, he shoots at higher resolutions than necessary – which improves the overall quality of the images.
Bruce Markoe at IMAX says that not every filmmaker understands the benefits of oversampling. “We see it often at IMAX when filmmakers come in and review their movies for the first time on a larger screen. That image starts to reveal the problems.”
Markoe says it’s easier to point those things out in prep. “They may want a want a lens that is slightly vintage or diffused in terms of its look. Then they see it on a larger screen and realize it’s not as sharp as they want it to be. Then they’ll make a more informed decision about how the quality of the image capture is really important on the front end.”
And oversampling isn’t the only benefit. Future proofing is another, especially those in studio and network environments. Cioni brings up a real world example in the Apollo 11 documentary from director Todd Douglas Miller.
Apollo 11 launched in 1969, and its journey on the ground was documented in 70mm. The doc is a found footage story, and it was rescanned with higher resolution in mind. “The very first shot, I almost fell out of my chair. It looked like a visual effect cause it was clearly vintage but the quality was modern,” says Cioni.
Now, does every project need to future proofed? No. Plus, there is nostalgia to watching older formats like 8mm, Super 16, and others. But isn’t format also an artistic choice? A tool to tell the visual story? It makes you wonder why some filmmakers closing the door to the thought of higher resolutions altogether.
On the broadcast side, Messerschmidt says some producers view the minimum delivery as dogma. “They will think that’s our capture spec. That’s our workflow spec. So if the network or broadcast is expecting nothing above 3.2K, there is no reason to shoot anything above 3.2K, because they are not thinking about future proofing. Or not thinking about oversampling. Or scaling in the DI. They are not thinking about HDR finish or high res delivery for theatrical release.”
In the first season of Mindhunters, the cinematographer shot 6K on the RED and the second season, he started exploring the Helium sensor and capturing in 8K. “We did tests and looked at raising the RAW compression rate from 4:1 in 6K to 8:1 in 8K,” says Messerschmidt. “We did comparative tests at various resolutions, and not only did we find a significant increase in quality both in color, fidelity, and noise reduction, but no change in file size as the result of the compression shift. It was a no-brainer and there was no additional costs for production in terms of the archival as it was identical space requirements.”
Duran mentions another valid point. “Just because you have an 8K canvas to work with doesn’t mean you have to use all 8K. You can set frame guides inside. You have the ability to pan and scan the image. You don’t’ have to worry about losing any resolution when you stabilize. It frees up more creative controls.”
8K can also be transcoded into 4K or other formats. You can easily go from 8K to 2K, but going from 2K to 8K is nearly impossible without the dupe ratio problems it presents. Higher resolutions give you the opportunity to go back and transcode into a different master file.
Cioni agrees that people still wince when they hear 8K. “They did the same with 4K. People were like ‘oh why?’ And now it’s completely accepted. Once people start understanding how to use it, and take advantage of it, it changes their minds. We are obligated to provide the best quality we can. That is part of the transaction we engage in when we make content and have audiences watch it. Hitting the lowest common denominator or average denominator is totally flawed logic.”
How can you start embracing change
It takes an open mind. It’s easy to be skeptical when you are asked to make changes to your pipeline. It’s not going to happen overnight, but the change to 8K is going to happen. It’s wrong to think that future generations will be watching HD broadcast television. History shows the opposite. It leap-frogged from black and white to color and from standard def to high def. Why would it stop there?
It’s the same with film. Theater projectors are evolving from 4K to 8K projectors. The IMAX camera is a 15 perf 65mm negative. Everything at IMAX is scanned at 8K and played back in 4K on IMAX projectors. Markoe says you can see the difference. “The oversampling from the capture medium all the way through is apparent. And even when you keep going down to HD, you will see that increase in resolution.”
So what’s next?
It's understandable not everyone will need to work in 8K or beyond. It's most likely very few people will for a long time. Resolution is a tool filmmakers can use that shouldn't be disregarded. Maybe instead of closing the door on 8K and beyond, for whatever reasons you may have, leave that door cracked open.
When a client says they want to shoot 1080. That’s fine. But maybe share with them the advantages of shooting higher resolution formats. Then maybe on the next project that client will adopt. Instead of saying I don’t need 8K. How about helping lay the groundwork for the future generations that will? If a producer says that the broadcast spec is 2K and that’s all that’s needed. Sure. Go for it. But suggest to them the advantages of shooting higher resolution.
The biggest caveat in all is cost. The decision makers at the top will have to initiate those changes. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already proposed 4K UHD to become the next broadcast standard. Studios and networks will have to decide if they want to invest now or let the next generation do the heavy lifting.
Hardware, GPUs, and other technology have come a long way. The jump from 4K to 8K is going to be much easier. You can get a laptop that plays back 8K for under $1,500. The biggest transition from video to 4K was the physical tape. The physical asset people didn’t want to give up. Learning that files can be recorded to media cards and switched out was a new technology that took people getting used to. Now that it’s in place another other advancements, technological trends are moving faster.
Markoe says it boils down to trying "to create a mezzanine master file." "There will be issues with costs, or it taking longer, but the more we start doing it, and the more we get used to the workflow as both content creators and postproduction facilities, the quicker we will benefit from the efficiency."
As creators, it's important to not limit the conversation solely to resolution. Express the importance of color science, bit depth, better RAW, or a pipeline that can be advantageous for your work. As much as filmmakers enjoy talking about the past, and the who’s who of its history, maybe it’s time to start looking at the future and embracing it. It's not going to wait for you.