Why 4K is wrong

4K technology is another flash in the pan despite what equipment manufacturers tell us.
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Camera manufacturers stoke our egos with the thought that if we shoot 4K, we’ll be able to improve the overall quality of our production, expand our business, be more creative, use the footage forever and become a Hollywood filmmaker. Since 1998, the advertising buzz surrounding technologies such as 24p standard definition, 1080i HD, 1080p HD, 720p HD, 720p Variable Frame Rate, 1” imagers and the like have had compelling reasons that drove their success. However, some touted technologies such as the biggest marketing debacle in the past 15 years — 3-D TV — have not lived up to expectations, and 4K technology is another flash in the pan despite what equipment manufacturers tell us. The most oft-repeated promises for improvement are in the areas of quality, post, delivery and future proofing, but here is why that will not hold up. 

"Skyfall" was shot with an Arri Alexa (2.6K) and projected onto IMAX across theaters in the U.S. The movie was shot by living-legend Director of Photography Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. Deakins has been nominated for the Academy Award in Cinematography 10 times, and it is safe to assume that he would never compromise an image. The production company, in preparation for final distribution in IMAX, knew that the image had to be spectacular. And it was. Deakins, according to his interviews on the subject, was happy with the end result. He should have been; it won him his 10th Academy Award nomination for “Best Cinematography.”

Recently, a Denver Sony presentation for industry professionals demonstrated the difference between 1080p and 4K on a 110in LCD screen. No one attending could really tell the difference. There were a couple of “maybes,” but the overall conclusion was that any image differences were too close to detect.

The point being that if Roger Deakins finds 2.6K adequate for "Skyfall" in an IMAX presentation, and working camera operators cannot tell the difference between 4K and 1080p on a 110in top-quality Sony flat-screen monitor, the “quality” claim loses steam. 

A 4K image provides an editor with more digital information to manipulate in post. For a Hollywood motion picture and projects involving compositing, that may make sense. However, the majority of working production professionals are not working on Hollywood motion pictures or compositing intensive projects. Most of our production work ends up on the Internet or on television. Occasionally, we’ll see our work on a “big” screen, but for the most part, we have to settle for a 17in laptop or a 60in flat screen. That’s reality. If a 2.6K image is good enough for an 80ft IMAX screen, how can it be inadequate for a smaller screen? From a business perspective, why would I burden my post flow (and storage costs) with 4K when 1080p or 2K recorded in Log C is perfectly adequate for a DaVinci final color correction pass? 

Another touted advantage of 4K in post is that an editor can zoom in to an image to reframe it. It is common practice to light, compose and filter close-ups differently from medium or wide shots. So creating close-ups from wide shots that were never intended to be close-ups can be an aesthetic disaster.

Blu-ray is not 4K. Cable is not 4K. Satellite is not 4K. PCs are not 4K. Mac is not 4K. Over-the-air broadcast is not 4K. For 40-plus years, the FCC mandated a 480i television signal. In 1998, the FCC mandated that by 2006, the United States would go fully digital. (The date was later delayed to 2009.) Broadcasters have been slowly updating their digital wares and are still getting up to speed with FCC high-definition requirements. There is no mention by the FCC of a 4K broadcast requirement in the United States in the future and even if there were mention, it would likely be a decade down the road.

4K is great for Hollywood motion-picture production, 8K will be better for production and 100K even better after that. It makes sense for Hollywood to pursue the high end of footage acquisition because of the enormous money that’s being invested in motion picture work. I get that. 

"Star Wars," "The Godfather," "Silence of the Lambs" and other blockbuster movies are a part of our culture. As much as we would all like to think that what we are shooting is archive-worthy, right up there with our favorite cinematic experiences, the truth is a little different. Usually, footage has a life span of three to five years and then dates itself by wardrobe, changes in personnel, or other elements of clients’ organizations or whatever else gives a client the reason to shoot new footage. 4K cannot change any of that to age-proof footage.

Until a producer or client calls and asks specifically for a 4K camera, there appears to be no real reason to have one for most video production professionals. The limited merit does not justify the cost.

About the author: John Bourbonais is a cinematographer and owner of an Arri Alexa, three-ton grip truck and a production facility located in Colorado Springs, CO. His work and an overview of his company can be found at www.bsphd.com.