Given all the talk about 4K, should you shoot your next production in the format? Programme makers who have gone down the 4K route give their advice

4K offers startlingly clear, high-resolution images, and is slowly but surely growing in popularity amongst the production community.

It’s still a minority pursuit for most in television production, however, as so few broadcasters have the capacity to broadcast in 4K.

Traditional broadcasters like the BBC have experimented with 4K broadcasts during big sporting events, but lack the infrastructure to deliver full data heavy 4K programming. 

Sky has trialled a number of 4K productions, and recently shot the Ryder Cup in 4K as part of an on-going trial.

But for now, most 4K content has to be streamed via broadband – from online outfits such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.

All this means that very little content is being commissioned in 4K in the UK.

Given that many consumers are still watching SD content on their TVs, let alone HD, it’s likely to be a long time yet before 4K goes mainstream.

Future proofing your archive

So why is anybody shooting in 4K? Future proofing their archive is one of the key reasons that programme makers cite when asked why they are shooting in 4K. 

“Technology changes so fast you want to future proof what you are doing, and obviously you want to be acquiring in the highest res possible,” says Brad Bestelink, producer, director and cinematographer at Natural History Film Unit Botswana / Icon Films.

“The idea is that in five years time when we want to rerun one of our films, and the channels and technology have caught up and they want to deliver in 4K, we can go back to the source of that project and can regenerate the entire project in 4K.”

Indeed, very few programme makers who have filmed in 4K have ever delivered a final master to a broadcaster in 4K. Instead their material is down-converted to HD. “We do all our acquisition in 4K but have never actually delivered in 4K,” confirms Bestelink, who recently made two Natural World programmes in 4K for the BBC2 strand: Africa’s Giant Killers and Fishing Leopards.

The best genres to shoot in 4K
Given the extra costs and technical challenges of shooting in 4K (of which more below), experts say that only very few kinds of TV shows are worth filming in 4K for now.

The strongest uptake has been for projects which can expect to have a long shelf life and are looking for superior picture quality, such as TV drama, films, natural history and music programming. Sport is also experimenting with 4K. Many commercials, given their short form nature, relatively high budgets and the possibility of a cinema run, are also shot in 4K now. Many high-end corporate projects are also opting to shoot in 4K.

However, 4K isn’t necessarily the best option for projects that generate lots of rushes, such as reality, documentary series and entertainment – the mainstays of much of TV production. Because 4K records at a higher resolution than HD, it will produce more data. This, of course, means more overhead in terms of storage, management and download times. 

Typically, a 4K camera will produce about 225-650 gigabytes of data an hour, or up to nearly a terabyte an hour in the case of 4K Raw on some cameras. The price of storage is falling year on year, so it is possible to work with this amount of data on location with plenty of drives, as well as a good MacBook Pro or an iMac with Thunderbolt and Raid storage. Even so, this adds to the cost and complexity of production and post production.

For someone used to shooting a reality show with lots of PDs shooting on multiple cameras, 4K “is probably going to be a mountain to climb”, says Richard Mills, chief technology officer at Onsight, which has worked on 4K projects including Conquest of the Skies for Sky and The Queen’s Garden for ITV.

He says producers need to think very carefully before embarking on 4K, asking “will it slow my production down or will it provide a genuine advantage?”

Karen Meehan, head of production at indie Off the Fence, says producers have to factor in hiring a digital imaging technician (DIT) on location to manage the sheer quantity of media that 4K shooting throws up. She adds that an AP could be trained to do this role. But this could impact on the welfare of the crew on a shoot. “You have got to bear in mind that if you are shooting all day, then someone may have to spend all night making sure everything is properly backed up.”

Choosing the right camera

Programme makers also have to carefully weigh up the choice of camera, and be sure that it can perform adequately for what they want to achieve. Is the camera reliable and easy to use or is it a prototype and untried? When shooting, will it be possible to see the picture on a 4K monitor? 

Mills says it is important to have someone on set who is familiar with the pitfalls of a particular camera. “They all have them. All the manufacturers keep on changing the menu structures, changing the firmware, adding improvements. So you have got to make sure everyone is up to speed.”

Concerns about 4K shooting have to be put in perspective though. In reality, there is little that is essentially different from HD shooting, says Bestelink.  “It’s just like if you move from, say, a Varicam to a Sony to something else. You learn the quirks and ups and downs of each rig. It’s not rocket science.”

In terms of 4K or above cameras, the Red Epic and Red Dragon as well as the Sony F55 are popular at the high-end. More affordable cameras like the Sony FS7, the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K and Ursa, as well as the AJA Cion are making headway.  Popular 4K DSLRs include the Sony A7S and Panasonic GH4. 4K cameras are becoming increasingly affordable, says Ian Bradshaw, technical director at Title Role Productions. “Now you can buy a 4K camera (body only) for between £5-10k. Sony’s FS7 has caused a stir in the industry, as has the Blackmagic Ursa with very affordable pricing.”

However, 4K experts stress that it is vital to test them – and test again – before embarking on a 4K shoot. A bit like the shift from SD to HD, 4K can be unforgiving to first time users. Says Mills: “Focusing has got to be accurate, because if you are a bit out of focus you will notice it on a 4K screen. So have the best tools around in terms of being able to monitor it. Monitor in 4K or at least have ability to zoom the picture so you can see critical focus.”

4K can also look very sharp; viewers say it can be too digital and over realistic. DoPs, as a result, are choosing their lenses very carefully – both to provide resolution but also to take the perceived harshness off the pictures.

Cooke and vintage lenses are proving very popular with 4K filmmakers for this reason, helping to provide a softer, less clinical look to shots. 

Testing through to post production

Perhaps the key consideration when shooting 4K for the first time, though, is to run a test through to post production. “It’s important to check that what you are intending to do will pass through the system and come out with the results you want,” says Mills.

Producers have to ensure that their post house can handle 4K, and that they will not be charged huge amounts for data storage in the facility. 

To avoid potentially expensive 4K storage costs and to speed up editing times, the majority of 4K productions down-res to HD for their offline. However, final post production for a programme set to be broadcast in 4K has to done in 4K. Just before final post, the proxy file will be conformed back to full 4K. It means a facility needs to have adequate 4K monitoring. Grading and any correction work, reframing or compositing has to be done in 4K to ensure the picture quality is not eroded.

Once again, it’s important to stress that post should be pretty straightforward. “It is incredibly simple to do 4K in post now,” says Richard Moss, md of Cardiff post house Gorilla and who sits on Creative Skillset’s TV Council.

Moss adds that post houses should only charge a slight uplift for working in 4K, with most of the excess due to the ingest process and long term storage of material. 

At a time of ever tightening budgets, this shouldn’t be overlooked – particularly as a 4K production will already add to the bottom line in terms of more expensive cameras, on location storage and data management.

This goes back to the initial point raised by many 4K programme makers: given the extra costs and time involved, it’s worth being completely sure that your show needs to be filmed in 4K when so few broadcasters are playing out the format. 

Televisual is the media sponsor of the 4K theatre at this month’s Broadcast Video Expo (BVE), staging sessions each day on 4K production. Come and see us there (24-26 February).

Tim Dams

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