New screens for old: is 4K OK for storytelling?

Media industry folks used to joke that you could choose a winning new video platform if you just followed the porn industry’s lead — from VHS to DVD’s to 1080p. But if you really want to follow the big money, you only need to look to the (somewhat) more respectable professional sports media machine. My first “ah hah” moment on a big screen HDTV was when I surfed to an NFL game and glimpsed detail I never thought possible beyond attending the actual game (which I’ve never done).

And now 4k — four times the pixels of HDTV — is upon us. I felt like chuckling into my sleeve at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) when I saw Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic making such a big deal out of this new technology hoping to revive moribund TV sales. But at what price? Well if you want to buy Samsung’s 85″ flagship, that’ll be $38,000 please.

Samsung showing off its 85" 4k $38k beauty at CES -- photo by Hanson Hosein
Samsung showing off its 85″ 4k $38k beauty at CES — Hanson Hosein

A CES-specific special issue of Variety pointed out that the “lack of 4K material remains a hurdle” and that camera technology may be an indication of where we’re headed. Let’s see, we have fewer than a dozen models of 4k cameras available at the retail level, even as Sony (current tagline “Make.Believe”) declared that it intends to “expand 4K production into TV drama and commercials and to make it the industry standard.” along with re-releasing library titles remastered on 4K Blu-Ray, and providing a 4K video distribution service via download. I’m sure we’re all looking forward to purchasing our video entertainment all over again.

But back to pro sports…here’s an excerpt from The Verge as to how at the Super Bowl, “4k could literally be a game-changer” as CBS employed 6 high-res cameras for debatable calls:

Source: The Verge

“I watched the CBS crew go through this process with a particularly scrutinized play from Week 14. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck goes back to pass, and as he’s rolling out of the pocket is caught from behind by a defender. As he’s going down, he tries to throw to a receiver wide open about twelve yards down the field. But as is prone to happen when a 300-pound man is tackling you, Luck’s pass only goes about five yards — into the arms of a defender, who promptly runs it into the end zone for a touchdown.

The play was quickly reviewed, though, because Luck’s knee hit the ground at almost the exact moment he released the ball. The touchdown was upheld, though it underwent incredible scrutiny in the following weeks – blurry replays, everyone thought, showed he was down. Except for those who thought the blurry footage clearly showed he wasn’t.

Luck was down. Period. I know because I saw the footage in crystal clarity. I saw a CBS technician tap Luck’s knee on his touchscreen monitor, and then tap on his right hand — up on the TV popped an image of Luck’s knee, definitely down, zoomed to 300 percent and still plenty sharp. Just to prove his point, the operator skipped back a frame, and then forward, so I could see Luck’s pads ripple as his knee collided with the turf. With one tap, he then switched to Luck’s hand, the ball still firmly in his grip. He’s clearly down. Touchdown reversed.”

Great, more detail, more accuracy, more life-like. That seems to be especially appropriate for live-action sports. But can “sharp” be “too sharp” for other forms of storytelling?

I’m still wondering after watching The Hobbit on the big screen twice recently: once in 3D IMAX (film) the other in 3D “High Frame Rate” (HFR — digital). Not only did Director Peter Jackson shoot his return to Middle Earth in 4K on a Red Epic camera, but he doubled the number of frames that film normally employs (24 per second). Isn’t this all beginning to sound very Spinal Tap “goes to 11“-like?

Click here to watch The Hobbit trailer in 48fps HFR
Click here to watch The Hobbit trailer in 48fps HFR

I strongly recommend that you read Vince LaForet’s excellent The Hobbit: An Unexpected Masterclass in Why HFR fails, and a reaffirmation of what makes cinema magical. Name drop time: Vince won’t remember that we were both embedded on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.  He had his Canon digital SLR; I was armed with a standard definition workhorse of a camera, the Sony PD-150 (nothing fancy at 30 fps). Neither of us are luddites, and believe in pushing the boundaries of media technology. However, I think we would both agree that something was lost in The Hobbit’s loss of immersion thanks to TOO much detail:

“In my opinion, film is not necessarily about WHAT you see – but it’s almost more an exercise in what you DON’T or CAN’T see.   The best Directors and DPs show you only what is relevant to the story and never introduce a random shot or character if they can at all avoid it.   I’ve always preached that a director or photographer should INCLUDE elements in a frame or shots that add to the story, and EXCLUDE elements or shots that detract from it.

The reason the standard film projection rate of 24 frames per second works so well, is that it’s just a few frames faster than what the brain needs in order to be tricked into seeing what are effectively still images, appear to move on screen – it’s called the “Persistence of Vision Theory.”    In tandem with that important theory, the motion blur you get by shooting at 24 fps and (on a standard 180 degree shutter) at 1/48th of a second, is just as important in making something look “cinematic” as the lack of depth of field we get by using larger sensors, and bright lenses at large apertures.   This is precisely why one should shoot at 1/50th of a second on their HDSLRs and use ND or neutral density filters to makes sure they don’t have too much depth of field and can also ensure they aren’t forced into shooting at higher shutter speeds.”

As he points out, watching The Hobbit in 48fps is like actually being on the set of the movie. You see everything — the makeup, the prosthetics. It makes it very hard to suspend disbelief. I felt as if I were watching a video game. Vince watched all three versions of the film (2D, 3D, 3D HFR) and noticed that the audience were much more into the film during the 2D version; no one laughed while watching 48 frames per second. “Too close for comfort” could benefit sports, but how does it fare in storytelling?

These are important questions for those of us who need to make choices about their media-making technology. Our television show, Four Peaks is filmed in HD, but is still broadcast in SD on UWTV and Northwest Cable News. But it streams in HD, as does the “Teach Hanson” segments and supporting second-screen material (which you can watch here). We don’t have plans to switch to 4K anytime soon — frankly smart devices are becoming our primary screens — but who knows when industry standards may force us to do so. You can read more about my storytelling philosophy behind the show here.

In the meantime, you can watch me interview digital entrepreneur Brenda Spoonmore (who also launched years ago — see, a sports tie-in!) right here.