Workflow: Industry Pros Face the Challenges
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Debra Kaufman : Workflow: Industry Pros Face the Challenges
Is 4K the latest over-hyped fad to come from the consumer electronics marketplace? Or is it a dominant force that will replace HD, just as HD did Standard Definition? A group of experts from various parts of the industry convened to discuss the issues, from acquisition through post and distribution. The use of 4K to shoot and distribute theatrical releases was much less controversial than 4K TV, which many think will first be distributed via IP networks. Although our experts disagreed on many points -- including whether 4K is even necessary -- they all agreed that the pitfalls of 4K TV are many. Here are some of their questions and conclusions.
Much has been made over the fact that we have 4K cameras that have proven themselves in production: in Creative COW, we covered BSC/ASC cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's experience with the Sony F65 on After Earth, and cinematographer Claudio Miranda, ASC also used the Sony F65 to shoot a 4K Oblivion. A visit to NAB this year showed plenty of 4K workflows -- with shipping and prototype gear.
How easy will it be to move from HD to 4K? What are the pain points and is there a way to get past them? How will 4K change how we work and do business? Do we even need 4K?
These and other questions were considered by a panel of experts convened by the Hollywood Post Alliance's SCRG (Sales Career Resource Group). Moderated by Phil Squyres, Senior Vice President, Sony Pictures Television, the panel included Curtis Clark, ASC; Terence Curren, President, AlphaDogs; Timothy Huber, Managing Partner, Theory Consulting; Steven Kang, Sr. Engineer, Content Partner Ops, Netflix; and Clyde Smith, SVP New Technology, Fox Network Engineering and Operations
The panelists in front from left to right: Timothy Huber, Clyde Smith, Steve Kang (Netflix), Curtis Clark, Terry Curren. Behind stand the executive board members.
Squyres noted that the panel was chosen with an eye towards people with "skin in the game." "We have a cinematographer, a network engineering expert, a consultant that guides clients through options, a post production principal and an engineer from a more recent player in content distribution who has to figure out how to get 4K content in the home," he said, reporting that the conversation would focus on 4K TV but also touch on any other topics that came up relevant to 4K acquisition, post and distribution.
Huber -- who consults with Douglas Trumbull on his current UFOTOG project -- describes his interests relevant to 4K production and post. "With 4K, we need more compute power, why not the cloud," he said. "We're also interested in creating tools to create semantic tagging for layers, file features to increase control in managing the production and provide that same level of granularity to a consumer searching for content." He, as other panelists, believe that 4K will first be delivered over IP networks.
As Fox SVP of New Technology, Smith said the broadcaster is concerned that, by the time they convert their immense infrastructure to 4K, they'll need to start working on an evolution to 8K. "Nobody paid for HD," he said. "Who will pay for 4K?" He reported that the fun part of his job is playing in the lab filled with "all kinds of 4K display devices." "It's back to the 1980s with HD," he said. "Capabilities are all over the place. But we do so many hours of sports, we have to think about 4K; we did 17 football games last season in 4K."
Netflix is very interested in 4K, said Kang. "We're learning a lot of things about 4K and we see differentiating factors between IP and cable," he said. He was also in agreement with Huber's assessment about 4K delivery. "Most likely 4K will be delivered first via IP rather than cable."
From the vantage point of a filmmaker, Clark says that 4K acquisition adds significantly to the creative canvas -- and not just because of resolution. "Two other components have a synergistic relationship -- wide gamut of color with expanded bit depth," he said. "We talk about digital as if it's interchangeable with video, but I'd like to think we're moving beyond parameters we associate with video. Motion imaging is the trendier way to describe it and I think it's tremendously important. There is a super additive that enables greater definition of scene tones, fantastically nuanced color definition -- all these things together are taking us to a another realm that we need to look at very seriously."
Not everyone is a fan of 4K. Curren -- who says he is not skeptical of 4K acquisition of theatrical distribution -- doesn't feel the same way about 4K broadcast TV. "I'd like to pierce the reality distortion field that TV set manufacturers are trying to shove down our throats," he said. "When we start looking at what involves building infrastructure for 4K it's easier to rename it 4X -- four times more bandwidth, storage, hit on CPUS/GPUs, and rendering time."
He noted that many post houses and software manufacturers spent time and money investing in 3D tools and "have gotten nothing back." "As an owner of a facility, how am I going to pay for 4K?" he continued. "What monitor do I use? The tools I need aren't there. Why should we all have to rebuild our facilities to deliver product that no one can see?"
Smith tried to temper Curren's objections, noting that most of the population now sees at 20/10 or better and that his experiments with people viewing 30 to 60 cycles per degree reveals that "they can perceive it at a greater distance than before." But he also pointed out that stores are doing an abysmal job of presenting 4K TVs. "I think there will be a market for it when you don't have to sit that close," he said. "There's a 32-inch 4K TV set on the market for $700, but these tiny sets will do nothing for us." Netflix's Kang also jumped to 4K's defense, saying that the analogy to 3D wasn't relevant. "People can't watch 3D without glasses, also very little 3D content," he said. "The Ultra HD spec refers to Rec 2020, which more than doubles the color space of Rec 709. That and 16-bit depth means the colors will be that much more realistic and vivid than HD's Rec 709. It's like looking out the window and an amazing thing for consumers."
Kang did admit, however, that there is a 10 to 15 percent increase in cost for post houses to process 4K compared to 2K. Curren jumped on that, asking if there was any producer in the room willing to pay 10 to 15 percent more. No one raised a hand. Sony Pictures Television's Squyres noted that this was the same conversation everyone had with the transition from Standard Def to High Def. "We're trying to offset costs on our campus," he said. "The cost of storage is going down. After using 4K on pilots, I've been telling our producers that it appears from our early experience that shooting 4K is more like shooting film negative."
Clark related his early resistance to digital cameras, but praised the new generation of Sony cameras, the F55 and F65 in particular. "One of the first things I learned is its fantastic ability to define incredible detail in the shadows and highlights," he said. "With the F55 and F65, I didn't have to use filters to control the sharpening and there was very nuanced color reproduction. We now have digital cameras that perform like film cameras."
Huber's experience in consulting with productions to create a 4K workflow is that the amount of storage required has been a sticking point for many. "In Doug Trumbull's lab, we're attempting 120 fps at 4K, so we're creating a massive amount of data," he said. "How do we store this inexpensively? Traditional SAN architecture that uses RAID falls apart at 520 TBs." Instead, he pointed to 'object storage', which, he says, is "far more efficient at storing data durably." Huber noted, "With object storage, you can have an archive with form characteristics that allow you to play back in real time, with durability. We need to modify all the applications we use in post to this new protocol. That's the first part of my mission; we're working to have a gateway to the applications within the post facility. Second part of my mission is a distributed protocol in the cloud. It's an evangelizing process; in a couple of years, this will be integrated."
He also said that, with regard to networking, fatter pipes are becoming the norm. "Forty GB networks are becoming more prevalent and we're seeing 100 GB and even 400 GB networks," he said. "There will be 1 GB connectivity in Seattle to the home for $80/month. So it's just a matter of putting things together. By the time you see widespread consumer adoption of these new 4K panels, the situation won't be so bad."
Kang believes that, for the consumer, 4K TV comes down to price. Netflix has done some testing of the technology. "As Moore's law is in effect and price of bandwidth goes down and service is improved to the home, [distribution of 4K] won't be an issue," he said. "That hurdle is already solved. It's a matter of getting the market saturated, which is a matter of time."
He noted that one problem Netflix has is a variety of video source files, none of which have been QCed. "Looking at 4K, JPEG 2000 is one of the most common archival formats at the studios, but there is variance within JPEG 2000," he said. "We have to support all those flavors; just because you can decode one doesn't mean you can decode the others. We went further upstream and asked for the image sequence the JPEG 2000 has been derived from, because we know they're master level and have been QCed. That way we can at least guarantee that we're receiving our files from the best master possible. And it protects us for the future as well; we can re-encode from these masters without having to have to redeliver and create a new set of files."
Moderator Squyres is pictured off to the left in front of the podium.
Fox's Smith talked about the use of extracting HD clips from 4K images, to track sidelines and end zones in sports games. "In some cases, it's overturned the game call," he said. "If you look at a 4K image and extract an HD and compare that side-by-side with an HD image, you'll see how different it is. The majority of our audience will be watching in HD for some time, but if you want to be convinced about the limitations of HD, see those side-by-side [images]. That's why we've been using extraction quite a bit. But we're not yet able to put 4K equipment in a truck and do a full 4K broadcast. The way to distribute it isn't there. But it is a promise for the future."
Clark noted that one important piece of 4K gear is already available to him as a cinematographer. "Having a Sony OLED monitor is a fantastic tool for me," he said. "It's 24-inches, not 32-inches, but it's perfectly serviceable. I need the accuracy and range of that monitor rather than something that's bigger but not as accurate." Curren also praised the OLED monitor, noting that it is "the first to replace the CRT...finally." "But I rely on my scope," he said. "No matter how accurate the monitor is, if there is no standard, your perception adjusts. You can't completely trust what you see on the monitor. If I second-guess myself on the monitor, I can look at the scope -- and there is nothing like that in 4K yet."
Can we expect to see a 4K standard? "This is one of the things I miss about tape," said Curren. "Because it was so expensive to manufacture the tape machines, they didn't change rapidly. Now, I can take a file, play it on three different pieces of software and get three different images. Anybody can write a codec in his garage, and that's the biggest problem we have to handle."
No one makes 4K look simpler than the companies selling the giant Ultra HD TVs. But for those behind the scenes, only the acquisition of 4K is a relative slam-dunk. The path to theatrical distribution may be the smoothest route to 4K. But whether you're bullish or bearish on the future of 4K TV distribution -- via IP or broadcast signal -- it's clear to everyone that there's plenty of work ahead that must be done before this becomes a reality.