I have conflicting thoughts about 4K for production and distribution. At one level I’m convinced it’s being pushed on us by equipment manufacturers when there is no real demand: at another I know from experience that there are some non-obvious advantages to 4K. But one thing is clear: the push to 4K is not about a push to improved quality.
As I articulately point out in this interview I did with Rick Young just before the Supermeet at IBC in Amsterdam, if the push was really to have better quality in the production chain that would translate to improved viewing quality in the home, we’d be focusing on greater bit depth per color channel, and full color bandwidth. Instead we have such silliness at 4K with 4:2:0 color at 8 bits!
A true focus on quality would use the extra bits we apparently have (in order to do 4K) not for extra resolution (which there is little to no demand for) but to improve bit depth and color channel detail. Before we create a single 4K camera, we should have 2K/1920 at a minimum of 4:2:2 and 10 bits per channel. If we cared about quality that is.
On the other hand, if you only care about selling new gear, particularly new display panels (because the Japanese display manufacturers are doing poorly financially) then 4K is an easy “sell”, because simple minds equate “bigger” with “better”. We see this already in HD, where 720P has been demonstrated year after year (at IBC) to deliver better images into the home than 1080P of the same material, because of the additional compression required for 1080P. (1080P in a master suite will show the additional quality.) 4K is going to require even more compression, with more blocking and poorer quality color gradients, even with the improved efficiency of H.265.
H.265 is considered to be twice as efficient as H.264, but 4K is 4x the bandwidth, so we’re still stuck with only half the required distribution bandwidth. Even 4K proponent Panasonic had a slide on display at IBC showing their (optimistic) prediction of 4.2% penetration into home for 4K in 2018!
4K for the home is as dead in the water as 3D always was. With 3D it was/is easy to dismiss it. To be honest I’m not a believer in 3D and I think it’s a distraction from the film. Whatever future 3D has in the cinema its future in the home is non-existent.
But 4K for production… Mostly unnecessary and a distraction. Focus on bit depth and color channel for quality through the production channel. Mostly unnecessary does not mean there are no redeeming features.
Yes, there’s the “easy to reframe for HD” argument, which I’ll happily shoot down with the counter argument that the time to get the framing right is in production. That’s the actual job of the Director and DOP. Encouraging sloppiness, and lack of advance thinking, is not a good argument for 4K!
Then there’s the “future proof” argument. For what? Cinema releases have had 2K Digital Intermediates for at least the last five years. (A couple of 4K DI release, but over 95% are 2K.) Has there been an audience push for “more resolution”? Of course not, because people will go see a story shot in DV and blown up to the cinema screen if the story and characters are compelling. (As they have done in the past.) Maybe if you think your project is likely to get an IMAX release there’s an argument for 4K for future proofing, but again, it’s pretty much a bogus argument.
So why am I not adamantly against 4K like I was 3D? Very early in my career I learnt the value of “oversampling at the source”. Even if the destination is a 640 x 360 web video, higher resolution source will create perceptually sharper final image. If that’s what you want. Remember that for most of my career, “video” has always had to have resolution/sharpness reduced to make it more “filmic”.
So, shoot 4K if you must, but don’t fool yourself it’s really about quality. It’s really about gear lust. Don’t be a gear-slut: focus on story, lighting, sound, camera and character. These are the things the audience cares about.
There is another context that “4K” is being used as shorthand for “digital film production” where acquiring at 4K makes sense if there’s any expectation for a long life for the production. This use of the term implies fairly specific workflows at the higher end of digital production for feature films and television series.
All that to explain why Intelligent Assistance is participating in the Larry Jordan’s “PowerUp: 4K & FCPX” seminar on January 14 in Burbank. Discount code “INTELLIGENT” to save 20%! https://www.larryjordan.biz/seminarorderform.php. This seminar was originally scheduled for November, but the focus on 4K in the MacPro and FCP X comments, makes moving it back beyond the release of the next version of FCP X prudent.