Since winning the so-called format war, Blu-ray hasn’t exploded quite the way many thought it would. Don’t get me wrong, it’s currently the HD format of choice when it comes to audio/video quality, but it took a while for players to become affordable and for quality titles to hit store shelves. This holiday season will, no doubt, solidify many things for the budding format, but as we approach 2009 and beyond, my mind isn’t on 1080p or Blu-ray. It’s on the next frontier and something called 4K.
4K, for the uninitiated, refers to a digital cinema format (filmed or scanned) with a resolution of approximately 4,000 horizontal pixels. I say filmed or scanned because you can effectively digitize a 35mm or 70mm print in 4K for post-production, editing or even final output, just as you can film an entire movie in the digital realm at 4K resolution. However, when it comes to digitizing traditional film, it’s usually done at the 2K (2,000 horizontal pixels) level, since it’s more of a visual match. Therefore, if Blu-ray is claiming to bring the big screen experience home to you, the consumer, and it’s not even in the 2K space, what can one reasonably expect from a format four times the resolution of 35mm film? A very bright future filled with good and bad. Allow me to explain.
I am a filmmaker, having just finished the first feature-length film in the world shot digitally and finished entirely at the 4K level, a project called April Showers staring Tom Arnold and Kelly Blatz, which should be in theaters mid-2009. There has been a fair amount of press and speculation surrounding cinema 4K as of late, no doubt helped by the release of the now-infamous RED ONE camera designed and developed by the former heads of Oakley sunglasses. While the RED ONE is technically a 4K camera capable of capturing images at 4K level, it is far from the best camera on the market. While the RED’s price tag and slick marketing campaigns have made it an instant hit among independent filmmakers, its chipset leaves a lot to be desired in terms of color uniformity, dynamic range and reliability. For these reasons, among others, I turned to Dalsa Digital and their large but rock-solid Origin II camera package to shoot my second feature-length effort. There are a few other 4K cameras and companies, but Dalsa Digital has been an innovator in the field for over 25 years, designing and building true 4K-capable sensors for clients as high up on the food chain as NASA. The Mars Rover, the one that didn’t imbed itself on the face of the Red Planet, was equipped with Dalsa’s 4K sensor, providing stunning stills with unprecedented detail of the Martian landscape. Frankly, if the sensor could survive the rigors of space flight and the extremes of the Martian atmosphere, then it should do just fine on set in Omaha, Nebraska.
Filming at the 4K level is not quite a cheap alternative to shooting in 35mm, despite what some would want you to believe. Filming at even the 1080p level is costly when you truly break it down, but it does have its advantages. For starters, knowing that my final output would be a 4K digital file with the ability to effectively transfer to 35mm (and even 70mm) film for a theatrical release made the process all the more exciting, for I would always be down-converting from a higher resolution image, as opposed to trying to make fewer pixels look like more, as is the case with 1080p material. I also knew that down-converted 4K material would not only look phenomenal when compressed and transferred to Blu-ray, but would also effectively future-proof my film for the day when 4K became accessible to the general public. This is huge, because the process of re-mastering a film, be it SD to HD or HD to 2K, is very expensive and when it comes to independent cinema, money can mean the difference between a theatrical or meaningful release and dying on the bottom shelf at your local video store. Most of all, I chose 4K because of just how damn incredible it looks, for nothing can compare or prepare you for it.
So you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Great, I just spent a couple hundred dollars on a new Blu-ray player and thousands on a flat screen display and now they’re no good.” Not exactly. While 4K is the future, it’s not quite ready for prime time, unless you last name is Gates, Buffett or Jobs. 4K is gaining strength and will undoubtedly change the face of Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry, but like the introduction of HD and Blu-ray, that change will be gradual and most likely slow. There is currently no meaningful or accessible way in terms of convenience or cost to store and display native 4K content outside of a digital cinema theater. Heck, most digitally-equipped theaters in the country are capable of only displaying a 2K image. There are a handful of 4K displays, be they flat panel or projection, but they are hugely expensive and not really available to the mass consumer market. The Meridian 810 projector is the closest the general public has come to being able to acquire a true 4K projector, but its $180,000 price tag is sure to dissuade the Costco crowd. Provided you know the right dealer, Sony will sell you a theater-grade 4K projector, but the requirements for its daily operation are just not feasible for the home markets. On top of the displays being more or less technology showcases, though I’d argue they’re all speculation, since no one has true 4K source material, the sheer space and bandwidth needed to push a 4K image is astronomical. For example, the Meridian 810 takes four – that’s right, four – DVI cables from the video processor to the projector in order to view a 4K image. The Sony projectors require four to five separate video cards to do the same thing. So breathe easy, my budding HD and soon to be 4K enthusiast. Your investment in Blu-ray and all things HD is safe, but unlike emerging formats of the past, 4K can benefit consumers now as well as in the future, so long as consumers continue to demand better-looking and sounding entertainment from television and movie studios alike.
Andrew Robinson is the Managing Editor of Home Theater Review.com and an independent filmmaker living in Los Angeles, California. His film entitled, April Showers, is currently in the final phase of post-production and is preparing for its release. Andrew has many years experience in both the consumer electronics and entertainment industries having worked for clients ranging from ABC, CNN, TNT, HBO, Paramount, Universal and Disney. To find out more about April Showers and the 4K process go to www.AprilShowersMovie.com