National Theatre Prepares 4K 'Hamlet'

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet
Photo by Johan Persson

LONDON— In partnership with U.K. cinema operator Vue Entertainment and National Theatre Live, Sony Digital Cinema 4K is gearing up for the live 4K broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The Oct. 15 performance of at London’s Barbican theater will be transmitted live in 4K to Vue cinemas in the United Kingdom and other theaters worldwide, including the United States. This broadcast marks the first time that a theatrical production has been delivered live to multiple locations for simultaneous 4K projection.

Tickets for the 12-week engagement of “Hamlet” at the Barbican sold out in just a few minutes when they went on sale nearly a year ago, so anyone interested in seeing Cumberbatch question "to be, or not to be" will have to instead head to the cinema.

Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) and Hamlet (Cumberbatch)
Photo by Johan Persson

“If there’s an artistic medium that’s naturally suited to the immersive detail and realism of 4K, it’s got to be live theater,” said David McIntosh, vice president, Sony Digital Cinema 4K Solutions for Europe and the Americas. “Cinema projection in 4K delivers the best possible image quality, which enhances the event cinema experience so that the performance can be enjoyed whether you are in the live theater or watching in a cinema. 4K is the next step in event cinema production as it provides a truly immersive viewing opportunity.”

MultipleSony PMW-F55 4K cameras will be deployed for the “Hamlet” production. While the F55 in its live configuration is similar to any HD camera that would be used to capture and transmit a live broadcast, the F55 features a 4K sensor. Transmitted with 4K resolution at 50 frames per second, the live broadcast will deliver to cinemagoers a smooth, realistic reproduction of the action on stage.

“Detail is incredibly important when you’re re-creating the movement, energy and emotion of these wonderful performers in front of a cinema audience,” McIntosh said. “When content has been captured natively in 4K and is projected onto the big screen, you’re seeing that picture with absolutely no compromise.”

Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and Hamlet

Photo by Johan Persson

According to Norbert Paquet, strategic marketing manager of live production, Sony Professional Solutions Europe, “Sony is proud of its unmatched heritage in 4K live production. Now with simulcast production in HD and 4K a practical reality, as we’re demonstrating with the National Theatre, this opens up exciting new commercial opportunities for content creators everywhere.”

Mastering in UHD (3840 x 2160 resolution) and then creating a 4K DCP for cinema projection (4096 x 2160 via the addition of horizontal blanking) fully realizes the detail, contrast and color gamut captured by the camera. Capture and archive in both 4K and HD gives NT Live the flexibility to satisfy all anticipated distribution requirements.

Paquet adds that Sony’s F55 4K cameras are not new to the world of live production and event cinema, but they offer a unique proposition that can include bringing 4K screenings to Vue patrons. He said that the resulting 4K presentations can be compared to “the best seats in the house at the actual performance.”

Gertrude (Hille)
Photo by Johan Persson

He notes that every step of the production workflow will ensure that “Hamlet” looks as good as technically possible. For the Oct. 15 presentation, the Sony F55 cameras will be running in a live configuration. WithCA-4000 4K fiber transmission camera adapters attached to the docking interface of the F55s, the F55s are turned into 4K live system cameras. The CA-4000 will connect to aBPU-4000 Base Band Processor Unit in an OB truck using a standard SMPTE fiber connection. The BPU will then provide all of the 4K and HD outputs for the event.

Signals from each camera will be recorded to a Sony PWS-4400 server in the OB truck. With PWA-RCT1 Recording Control Software installed, a Windows PC will be able to trigger rec/stop/play/file transfer on the PWS-4400 so that it may be operated as a VTR. A Sony MVS-X series mixer will be producing both the 4K and HD shows.

The October live 4K broadcast of director Lyndsey Turner’s London staging of “Hamlet” will be the second event in the year-long partnership of National Theatre Live, Vue Entertainment and Sony. The first takes place on Sept. 17, when A National Theatre production of “The Beaux’ Stratagem” will be shot in 4K with Sony F55 cameras and delivered for encore screenings to Vue customers as a 4K DCP.

Benedict Cumberbatch and the Hamlet cast in rehearsal

Photo by Johan Persson

National Theatre Live is the National Theatre’s project to broadcast the best of British theater live from the London stage to cinemas across the United Kingtom and around the world. Satellites allow the productions to be broadcast live to cinemas throughout the United Kingdom as well as many European venues. Other venues view the broadcasts "as live" according to their time zone, or at a later date.

Sony has been experimenting with high-resolution transmission of live events for several years leading up to the pioneering 4K screenings this fall.

In February 2014, the National Theatre’s West End production of “War Horse” was transmitted live in 4K to a cinema in Chelsea, marking the first 4K live event cinema screening. Sony F55 cameras captured that performance at the New London Theatre on Drury Lane; the 4K video signal was then transmitted via live uplink to a dish at the Curzon Chelsea cinema and projected live with 4K resolution. After its live transmission, the performance was available to cinemas as a 4K DCP for encore screenings.

In another live cinema landmark, Sony and Vue Entertainment teamed to deliver two matches of 2014’s FIFA World Cup, streaming them live via satellite from Brazil. A July 4 quarter-final match and the July 13 final match were screened live in Sony 4K at Vue’s Westfield multiplex in London.

Photo by Johan Persson

On March 12 of this year, the National Theatre’s production of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” was recorded and screened to Vue customers in Sony 4K, though, like “The Beaux’ Stratagem,” not live.“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” was captured in 4K with six Sony F55 cameras and the recorded performance was distributed to Vue cinemas as a 4K DCP. Encoding for the 4K DCP was carried out by Soho Digital Cinema at 250 Mbps, the upper limit of the DCI standard, to preserve as much as possible of the camera’s extended gamut in the P3 color space that’s native to the Sony projectors installed in Vue theaters. The encoded master was replicated onto ruggedized hard drives for distribution to Vue’s cinemas. (Vue currently has 84 theaters in the U.K. and Ireland.)

“4K means loads of detail, but that’s not the whole story,” McIntosh said. “Sony 4K digital cinema projectors deliver images with an extremely high contrast ratio, which can evoke a feeling of immersive depth of perception. We’re hugely excited to be working with both the National Theatre and Vue Entertainment International on this project that promises to redefine the boundaries of event cinema with extraordinary new viewing experiences.”