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The Big Question: Why Post in 4K?

Panelists at CCW Say Costs, Benefits Must Be Weighed to Make Decisions

When does 4K make sense in post? Not as often as you might think, according to some speakers at last week's Production + Post Conference, held in conjunction with Content and Communications World at Javits Center in New York City. Post gurus said it's not always easy to make a budgetary case for 4K, with its dramatically increased demands for post-production bandwidth and storage capacity. High-profile features are often graded at 2K or, in the case of Dallas Buyers Club (pictured, top), in HD.

There was general agreement that 4K acquisition has gotten a solid foothold fairly quickly in production. One session was dedicated to Sony's 4K-capable F5 and F55 cameras, as panelists assessed their usability in a number of different applications. Matthew Schneider, director of technology for Technicolor/Postworks NY, said that while scripted TV and feature filmmakers were his first 4K customers, he was surprised to see a "vocal" interest in shooting 4K from reality TV producers.

Of the projects being posted in Postworks' more-than-100 editing rooms, Schneider said "a good number are shooting XAVC HD or, more recently, XAVC 4K," eyeing a final 16×9 HD frame extraction from the high-resolution original. Schneider said it's a way for those productions to differentiate themselves. "Any way they can get a leg up, it's the smart thing for them to do," he said.

Cinematographer Mauricio Rubinstein agreed that 4K had gotten a firm foothold in production, but noted the disconnect between the resolution at acquisition and at delivery. "A year ago, we were shooting Gossip Girl to tape," he said. "Now, we're shooting 4K to cards. And the first thing we do is downconvert to 2K, because there are no 4K broadcasts yet."

Because 4K means four times the data of 2K, post-production in 4K is necessarily more expensive and more time-consuming, the panelists noted. "16-bit raw 4K is 500 GB an hour," said Schneider. "Inevitably, every step of the process is going to take longer. But people still want their dailies the next day at 8 a.m."

In the interest of conserving time and money, decisions are made. And in the cost-to-benefit analysis, a 4K finish is likely to come out on the losing end. "Our hand has been forced," said Jeff Roth, the outgoing senior VP of post-production at Focus Features, noting that a DI is still "quite expensive" for lower-budget films. In a session titled "Why Do We Need 4K?," he said Focus has done only two 4K DIs, and both of those were for projects that originated on film. A 2K DI saves the project money, he said, at a time when everyone's budgets are getting crusched.

Further, 2K hasn't held the art of cinema back, Roth argued, noting that films shot in Super 16 or finished in HD have done "quite well" for Focus. He cited Wes Anderson's shot-in-16 Moonrise Kingdom as one example. "4K doesn't make the story any better, and it doesn't necessarily make the product any better," he said.

Another example is Dallas Buyers Club, which Roth said was shot in ProRes with the ARRI Alexa and then graded in HD. Because the filmmakers were going for a certain level of stylization, he noted, the extra latitude of a raw image wasn't necessary to dial in the right look. "It was the right tool to make that movie on a budget," he said.

Moderator Terry Brown, CTO of Post Factory New York, argued that filmmakers have been making masterpieces for years without requiring a 4K frame to tell their stories. The effective resolution of a 35mm camera negative is somewhere between 3K and 4K, he said, with limitations in resolving power owing in part to the physical nature of film and film cameras. "Film is always moving," he said, citing gate weave as one culprit. "Those vibrations are low-pass filters."

By the time film prints were sent out to theaters, the situation was even worse, Brown said, estimating the resolution of a release print at around 1K. "Cinematography is about lighting, composition, and more organic things that go into the image to tell that story," Brown concluded. "It's not about how many pixels you can resolve."

It's not a question that will be settled any time soon. Light Iron CEO Michael Cioni, a newcomer on the local scene, told Cinegear New York attendees in September that post has "an obligation" to put every pixel from the camera up on the screen. Look for the balancing act between quality and affordability to continue.

2 Comments

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  • Fisher

    finally!!! this is the first rational thing i’ve read about 4k. it’s great for fx plates and punch ins in post. otherwise, meh…

  • Anonymous

    If this panel had this discussion two or more years ago, I could understand the thinking here. Today it seems a bit puzzling. Here’s a consumer’s view:

    My home has two 4K Sony TV’s, each with their own 4K media players attached. Admittedly, we are a geeky, cutting edge family but as prices for sets fall, as they are already doing, this will become more common. SEN wants $30-$40 per 4K title (reminds me of LaserDisc prices!) and some of them frankly look like Blu-Ray would be enough. But even so, I can get Breaking Bad episodes in 4K for the same price as regular HD on iTunes and Amazon Video. 4K is here, in the living room, and 8K is coming. The new Mac Pro and Final Cut Pro 10.1 works with 4K easily, even with real-time effects. Fast Thunderbolt storage is reasonably priced so any boutique could be working in 4K now. I think the big boys need to take that seriously.