December 30th, 2014
Earlier this week, Amazon Prime joined Netflix as the second major subscription streaming service in the US to jump into the 4K game, announcing the launch of its much-anticipated new 4K UHD streaming service. (Amazon also announced 4K availability in the UK for October.)
What does 4K streaming mean for independent filmmakers or film catalog rights holders?
Based on attendance at recent international film markets, our in-house international sales representative, Andy Schreiber, can attest to international digital platforms and TV broadcasters in countries such as UK, Germany, Korea, France and Japan, actively seeking 4K TV and digital content for their pipelines. And Rick Rieger, our head of home entertainment, is having active conversations with Amazon Prime (and other platforms) about 4K for streaming and download on their platforms. Until the pipeline is saturated with native 4K content, there are opportunities for certain HD mastered documentaries, independent features and episodic content to be upconverted for delivery to these platforms.
We’re not able to predict the long term viability of upconverted 4K, however, for now, there seems to be a content vacuum, which presents an opportunity for savvy film catalog holders with certain types of HD content.
This is not intended as a comprehensive technical exploration of the subject but will touch on the key benefits of 4K to a filmmaker and what you should keep in mind regarding how 4K streaming , as well as other forms of distribution, can impact past and future projects.
Before jumping into the meat of this article, let’s quickly cover some terminology.
There is “4K” and there is 4K ultra HD TV or “UHDTV”. While a lot of folks use these to mean the same thing, they really aren’t. Though the term 4K would seemingly indicate resolution consisting of 4,000 lines, in actuality, the typical workflow and delivery of this format is 3840 lines of resolution which is called Ultra HD (UHDTV). For this article (and simplicity’s sake), we’ll just refer to all of this as 4K.
So what is the resolution of 4K?
If you’re reading this article, I would assume you know that the primary reason for moving to 4K is increased image quality. (which, of course, should be obvious unless you were Googling “races shorter than 5Ks” and found this blog by mistake.)
In short, HD video consists (usually), of 1920 vertical lines of resolution (almost 2,000 or 2k) whereas 4K has almost 4,000 lines. Of course, the horizontal resolution is doubled as well, meaning that 4K represents 4 times as much picture information as HD.
What does this mean to me as a filmmaker?
Let’s address those two points separately.
Shooting in 4K
If you’re in the middle of a project and are thinking of switching to 4K mid-stream, for the love of everything dear to you, please don’t! It’s bad enough when well-meaning filmmakers switch cameras, frame rates or any other technical settings during the course of a project but switching from HD to 4K would be a whole other level of bad-idea. Please see our Post Production Survival blog post for more on the topic of mixed frame rates and other cautionary advice.
So, what about starting fresh with 4K footage? While the details of that decision are beyond the scope of this article, if having significantly larger files (which means significantly larger storage needs, and longer transfer and encoding times) in addition to more required processing power, doesn’t concern you, then go for it. You will be buying some future-proofing of your content, which may or may not be worth it to you. If in doubt about the practicality of that, maybe check with your friendly, neighborhood distributor for some advice.
If you want to learn more about shooting in 4K, the pros and cons of filming with professional equipment, such as the Blackmagic 4K camera, are discussed in many places including MovieMaker Magazine, whose 4K article can be found here.
Upconverting Projects to 4K
To create 4K out of HD media, it must go through a process called upconverting (sometimes also referred to as upscaling or uprezzing). This is accomplished by using one or more software and hardware solutions to create a new digital file meeting the higher resolution specifications. This can be a time consuming process that isn’t quite perfected yet, but can yield some satisfactory results. And since the aspect ratios for HD and 4K (well, actually for UHDTV) are the same, there aren’t the complications in this area as there are when converting standard definition content to HD.
To be clear, upconverting from HD to 4K can look pretty good BUT this process will not make your HD look any better than it originally was. In fact, the end result of this process is not actually true 4K content, but HD content that has been made to play within a 4K ‘wrapper’. The potential benefit to a filmmaker/content owner in upconverting HD programs to 4K would be to breathe new life into existing assets to feed the 4K pipeline. This includes broadcasters, and digital platforms like Amazon and Hulu who recently started offering 4K streaming to their customers.
In regards to #2 above, we have recently done some 4K upconvert testing and were extremely pleased with the results. We have submitted these tests to both domestic and international digital content providers and are awaiting their feedback. At the present time, it would seem that they are interested, and willing to accept upconverted material provided it otherwise meets their content and technical guidelines.
You may notice that this discussion of ‘4K’ doesn’t discuss its merits on technical or aesthetic perspectives, as those are best left to the rest of the internet to argue. This article is focused on the business possibilities of shooting in, or converting to, 4K in respect to monetizing your content.
4K is here and will be something we will all need to deal with until such time as it becomes ubiquitous (and until the discussion changes to 8K, etc.). While there may be some very compelling reasons to consider going 4K for new or past projects, just look before you leap into the abyss (even if it’s in super high resolution).
We are happy to share our experiences to-date in the world of 4K, so please contact us if you want more information. In the meantime, stay tuned as we continue to provide updates on our journey down the 4K road.
If you haven’t already, please enjoy VP of Post Production Todd Brown’s Post Production Survival Guide. You can also learn about Cinema Libre’s post production services here, or check out our page on how to finish your film for delivery.
Todd Brown is VP of Post Production and Business Development at Cinema Libre Studio. Reach him here: Send Mail or call 818-588-3033.