If there’s a single topic that’s been impossible to avoid over the last few years, it’s 4K. Just as the industry obsession with stereoscopic 3D was starting to fizzle out, in came a new obsession. It’s out with extra dimensions and in with extra pixels.
And while the fickleness in which an entire industry can instantaneously swap allegiance from one hot new thing to another may ring alarm bells, several years into the big 4K push, there are more than several reasons to believe it’s here to stay.
4K Ultra HD screens
The variety and price range of 4K Ultra HD TVs (the consumer branding for 4K) and the marketing push being given to 4K Ultra HD is an indication that TV manufacturers are beginning to back the format in a big way. It’s worth noting the resolution of 4K Ultra HD is 3,840 x 2,160, which isn’t quite the full 4K resolution of 4,096 x 2,160. Whether this very slight downgrading of resolution makes any discernable difference to the image quality is highly debatable.
55” 4K Ultra HD TVs are already available for as little as £699, admittedly from a Chinese brand you’ve never heard of, but even the likes of Samsung offer a 40” 4K Ultra HD TV for £729 that displays 4K images and up-scales HD to 4K.
Ok, so these TVs aren’t exactly appealing to a mass audience as yet, with forecasts for the USA indicating only around 450,000 4K Ultra HD TVs will ship there this year. Nevertheless, predictions are shipments of 4K Ultra HD TVs will begin to gain momentum over the next year or so.
One of the reasons 4K Ultra HD screens haven’t been flying off the shelves is there’s currently very little to watch in 4K and what there is isn’t easy to get hold of. Getting 4K content into the home isn’t going to happen via traditional broadcasting any time soon, so streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video are presently the main providers of 4K programming.
Netflix has announced all its originated content, including series two of House of Cards and its beauty series Moving Art, will be shot, posted and (when demanded by the end user) streamed in 4K. It’s also offering (at least in the USA) all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad in 4K, which it’s re-mastered from the original film negatives.
Likewise, Amazon is also commissioning original content in 4K for its Prime Instant Video service. Furthermore, it’s announced a partnership with content providers including Warner Bros., Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox and Discovery to provide additional 4K content.
There’s also 4K content on YouTube, which isn’t immediately apparent to the end user. It’s selectable via YouTube’s easily missed quality settings option on the menu bar of 4K clips.
Meanwhile, Sony has brought out one of the few physical 4K Ultra HD players, although it’s only available in the States. It provides users with the option to download, stream and store films and TV programming from Sony’s Video Unlimited 4K library of around 200 titles.
The box also offers access to 4K content via Netflix. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear there are any plans to bring either the box or Sony’s Video Unlimited 4K library over to the UK.
Certainly, the limited availability of 4K content, and the fact it’s only viewable on expensive TV screens, means 4K Ultra HD is far from a mainstream proposition at present. Added to this, the bandwidth required to successfully stream 4K is largely prohibitive for much of the UK. Netflix recommends a constant stream of at least 20-25Mbps to be able to seamlessly stream 4K, which is considerably faster than the UK average broadband speed of 17.8Mbps.
Despite appearances, mainstream broadcasters aren’t resting on their laurels when it comes to 4K, but the legacy infrastructure they have to deal with means there’s a lot of development work required before 4K can be broadcast over traditional platforms.
Substantial efforts are in fact being made to find effective ways to utilise and tweak existing infrastructure to be able to broadcast 4K over the air, cable and satellite.
Sky has already tested 4K transmissions over satellite and proved it’s possible, but has shied away from committing to broadcasting anything in 4K so far. The BBC has also successfully experimented with 4K Ultra HD broadcasts during big sporting events, including Wimbledon, the Olympics, the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games.
Meanwhile, the Steering Board of the Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB), which is an industry-led consortium made up of over 200 broadcasters (including the BBC, Sky and BT), has introduced DVB-UHDTV, a broadcasting specification for 4K Ultra HD.
This creates a standard for which 4K Ultra HD could be transmitted over the air and on satellite across Europe, based on the same HEVC compression used by the likes of Netflix. It should provide a good starting point to move things forward.
The 4K Ultra HD floodgates may well open up over the next year or so, with reports suggesting there will be 300 Ultra HD TV channels globally within the next 10 years. There are already dedicated 4K Ultra HD channels in South Korea and France, proving it’s technically possible to introduce such services in 2014.
Other 4K broadcasts
The huge resolution of 4K images makes it the ideal format for cinema and for big screen displays at trade shows, consumer events, shopping outlets, art galleries, the IMAX and so on.
Back in 2011, the Showcase Cinema chain updated more than 270 cinema screens in the UK with Sony Digital Cinema 4K projection systems, and the following year Vue upgraded all its UK and Ireland cinemas (a total of 650 screens) with the same technology. “Sony 4K projection enables viewers to sit close to the screen and be completely immersed in an apparently seamless and continuous, incredibly detailed picture,” explains the Showcase website.
The growing popularity of event cinema, where music, theatre and sporting events are transmitted live to cinema screens across the country, is another area where 4K could have a positive impact. There have already been successful experiments with live 4K cinema broadcasts of events in the UK, including the theatrical production of War Horse and a Saracens Rugby match.
The 4K Ultra HD spec
Currently, 4K Ultra HD screens only have to offer 4K Ultra HD resolution to be classed as 4K Ultra HD. This is all well and good but the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) for one believes focusing exclusively on higher resolution and ignoring other aspects (such as frame rate, dynamic range, colour gamut and audio quality) in the technical spec of 4K Ultra HD isn’t going to be enough for consumers to notice a significant leap in quality over HD.
It’s currently lobbying for the introduction of a Phase 2 update to the DVB’s UHDTV spec to incorporate what it describes as these “enhanced parameters for better pixels”.
Similar issues abound as with the move from SD to HD when it comes to production. The amount of data captured when shooting in 4K is immense and requires a great deal more and a great deal faster storage, along with much more time-consuming back-ups and much more powerful (and therefore much more expensive) equipment to playback and monitor 4K content.
The amount of data you have to take through post production is therefore much greater, which again has cost implications. It’s also quite challenging for post houses to quickly move 4K data around and speedily edit, online and grade 4K content. And very few post houses have so far invested in 4K screens to view the content.
Shooting 4K also brings with it similar adaptations to make-up, set design and costumes that were required when production moved from SD to HD, with the detailed images revealing things that previously went unseen.
However, perhaps surprisingly, 4K cameras don’t always command a huge investment over HD cameras, with the likes of Blackmagic, AJA, Sony and Panasonic all offering very affordable 4K models, although most require an external recorder to store 4K rushes, which adds to the cost and is another piece of kit to have to worry about.
So, until there’s a good reason to shoot in 4K beyond simply future proofing your content, you’re pretty unlikely to do so just yet.
In the meantime, 4K can be derived from 35mm film archives, providing a straightforward means for content owners to speedily collate together sizeable libraries of 4K material. To tap into this demand, Blackmagic has brought out a sleek-looking, very affordable scanner (costing around US$29k) specifically designed to make 4K scans of 35mm film negatives.
How much longer?
Speculation as to how long it’ll take before 4K Ultra HD is a mainstream technology is anyone’s guess, although Televisual’s recent Production Technology survey estimated between five and six years. Once all barriers to broadcasting content to a mass market have been demolished, there’s good reason to believe consumers will embrace the potential leaps in image quality provided by the increase in resolution and other potential benefits of 4K.
So while a substantial number of 4K Ultra HD TV screens are predicted to be sold in key Asian markets including China and South Korea over the coming year, the same can’t be said for the rest of the world. Shipments of screens in the UK aren’t likely to be in particularly high demand until broadband speeds get faster and traditional broadcasters truly join in the 4K race. Consumers may also need to be convinced the technology is here to stay before committing to any purchase, after witnessing how quickly stereoscopic 3D fell out of favour and how soon HD TVs appear to have been replaced by something bigger and better.
No matter what some post production software makers claim, very few machines can handle full 4K natively in a way that allows the editor full creative freedom and the speed to get on with it.
Neel Potgieter, DoP
Carefully planned storage management helps cope with the increased volume of media, and modern grading and editing systems perform much more smoothly with 4K images. 4K ‘robs’ us of some of the gains made by the natural progression of computing power, though.
Richard Wilding, general manger/technology, Molinare
High-end computers can handle 4K quite well, but monitoring is another matter. We usually only monitor in the resolution in which we are delivering, so for us HD monitors are still acceptable at the moment. We are watching the ‘professional’ 4K monitors with interest though and will invest when the time is right.
Derek Moore, md, Coffee and TV
I do believe 4K/Ultra-HD is the future. Unlike 3D this feels like it is here to stay, although it already feels like it’s just a stepping stone to 8K.
Tom Arnold, head of technical operations, Evolutions Bristol
The public at present has a relatively low awareness of all things 4K, however, recent marketing around the World Cup in Brazil has probably had a positive effect.
Richard Mills, chief technical officer, ONSIGHT
For consumers to enjoy the benefits of 4K, they will need to invest in new viewing technology. This kind of expenditure is dependent on a healthy economy which also determines the industry’s ability to invest in the technical infrastructure and training required by production and post production for the standard to prosper.
Jess Nottage, technical director, Clear Cut Pictures
I see Ultra-HD as about three years away from being mainstream, although I don’t think it will be dominant even then in the home. The cost of screens and possibly scepticism on the part of consumers will slow things down.
Jez Lewis, director, Bungalow Town Productions
Most people still watch SD on their HD TV. Do we really need 4K/UHD pixels in our living rooms to enjoy EastEnders? And I’m now convinced it’s not how many pixels you have, it’s the quality of those pixels.
Bill Scanlon, producer
As pipelines develop and more powerful graphics cards become available, I can see 4K becoming commonplace in vfx. Pushing the frame rates up to 60fps or 120fps will also become the norm.
Kerri Aungle, head of data lab, MPC
The bigger the screen, the greater the need for increased resolution. When TV went from SD to HD, the early screens were small and the difference unremarkable. When screens increased to 42” and 50” the ‘need’ for HD became greater. With a 70” UHD TV, the difference between 4K and HD will be marked.
David Klafkowski, joint-md, The Farm Group
The first 4K work we produced ‘end to end’, we shot 16TB of data in two weeks. That was all double backed up. Data rate was a joke and managing that kind of quantity of drives alone is a serious headache.
Nick Francis, creative director, Casual Films
In my view there are two major barriers to 4K uptake – too little bang for the buck and too big a push by TV set manufacturers to sell something to profit their bottom line without delivering adequate viewer benefits.
Milan Krsljanin, director business development, Arri
When you get to see full 4K resolution, there is no doubt about its huge potential. When HD was first introduced, it wasn’t considered sustainable due to the high production costs it incurred, but it has now become an industry standard in much the same way that 4K will for the right projects.
Anthony Geffen, CEO, Atlantic Productions
Every part of the image has to be impeccable. Focus is imperative and noise is even more important. Of course the hair, make-up, set design, costumes, etc need to be correct, but I don’t think anyone scrimped on the time to prepare these things in the past.
Duncan Malcolm, director of 2D, Glassworks
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