Is Batman Begins
Better in 4K?
As keynoter at the pre-NAB Digital Cinema Summit, Warner Bros. Entertainmentâ€™s CTO Christopher J. Cookson took the opportunity to give attendees a lecture on the advantages of 4K post-production pipelines. He trotted out some of the numbers weâ€™ve all heard before about screen heights and the limits of human vision that seem to suggest movie-theater viewers who typically sit at least three screen heights away from the front of the theater canâ€™t see resolution beyond 2K. But, he noted, todayâ€™s stadium-theater designs often have a depth of only about three screen heights. And he argued that viewers with 20/20 vision sitting halfway back in one of those theaters would be able to resolve detail roughly equivalent to 4096×2160 4K delivery.
Acknowledging a general perception that 4K is overkill, at least today, Cookson said the problem is that film prints are not good enough to resolve the extra detail from a 4K master. He said digital screenings of films from the Warner library â€“ and he named Batman Begins
and Cool Hand Luke
among them â€“ had indicated that you see more picture information from the camera negative in 4K than on a film print. In short, Cookson claimed that 4K post and projection are making movies look better than they have in the history of movies â€“ and of course that may represent another opportunity for the post industry, which has already made the leap to HD and 2K resolutions. â€œThereâ€™s life in the [35mm] standard to do it again,â€ he said, invoking 4K-enhanced WB titles like The Wizard of Oz
, Gone With the Wind
and The Adventures of Robin Hood
And then he threw down the gauntlet: â€œA 2K archive that mechanically replicates a DI at 2K locks the negative to an image not much better than what a 100-year-old technology can project. Itâ€™s as if the industry has entered a dark age of production where whatâ€™s put in the vault is less than what could have been created five years ago â€¦. We need to push the post industry to deploy 4K tools and infrastructure. We need to be aware of what we throw away, and the implications of the decisions we make.â€
Warner Bros. has long been beating the drum for 4K pipelines, and some audience members remain more than a little skeptical. Cookson urged the creation of 4K pipelines from scratch, rather than trying to â€œgraft it onto an HDTV pipeline.â€ (So much for 4K shortcuts.) And he argued that, if a studio amortizes the technology costs over many films, moving to 4K is â€œnot hugely more expensive on a per-picture basis.â€ Matt Tomlinson of Tippet Studio noted that 4K increases VFX rendering times â€œexponentially,â€ and Cookson agreed the rules are different for certain films. â€œBut people arenâ€™t understanding the trade-off,â€ he said. â€œTheyâ€™re saying, â€˜Youâ€™ll never see the difference, so donâ€™t worry about it.â€™â€
A few months ago, I saw a screening of Tears of the Black Tiger
, a postmodern Thai western (yes!) from 2000 that featured some very aggressive color manipulation. Iâ€™m told the film looks stunning on DVD, but the 35mm release print was a little dingy, with a lot of artifacting and even aliasing visible during the white-on-black end credits. Turns out the movie was finished on DigiBeta tape before being filmed out for theatrical release â€“ and the result is that Tears of the Black Tiger
will forever be limited, in theatrical screenings as well as on high-definition displays, by its DigiBeta origins. Obviously todayâ€™s DI features look a lot better than that — but is there a time coming when 2K will be the new DigiBeta?