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4K is already playing at a theater near you, but you probably didn’t even notice

Anybody who walked through the show floor at CES this past January was bombarded with the latest 4K TV sets. The high-resolution technology isn’t exactly new, but its prevalence at the world’s largest gadget show signaled a coming of age for the format.

While critics maintain a high cost of entry and dearth of content keep it from wide household adoption, consumers have been watching 4K resolution, which crams in four times the number of pixels as Full HD, in theaters for several years now.

They might not have noticed it because comparatively speaking, 4K isn’t as heavily promoted or nearly as flashy as other cinematography magic we’ve come to love, such as Avatar in 3D or The Hobbit at high frame rates. Yet all these advances were enabled when theaters made the switch from film to digital and upgraded their projectors.

“4K has played a key part of digital cinema since its inception,” said Pete Lude, a 4K image consultant and former president of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. The Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI), made up of six studios, released its first set of guidelines for theaters, manufacturers, and distributors to conform to in 2005. Heated discourse ensued about whether to standardize 2K or 4K resolution, the latter of which began penetrating theaters in 2011.

“The DCI, after two or three years of enthusiastic debate, decided they wouldn’t need to make that call and would let the producers decide and let the market decide.”

With that, manufacturers went and built their own video servers, projectors, cameras, optics, and other equipment – some of them focused on 4K and others on the 2K standard. But, at the end of the day, will the regular moviegoer notice the enhancement in resolution? Should they even care?

The impact on viewers, creatives, theaters

For the moviegoer, higher resolution means vivid imagery that doesn’t degrade like film does after 70 or 80 runs through the projector.

“What it translates to the consumer is a better picture everywhere,” said Ted Schilowitz, spokesman (and employee No. 1) for RED.

When you think about high-resolution cameras and films, it’s hard to ignore RED. Tens of thousands of movies across the world have been shot on the company’s high-resolution cameras. The company is also moving beyond 4K, having recently upgraded its Dragon sensor to allow 6K video capture. Beginning at about $25,000 for a complete package, these are – at least in the film world – “extremely affordable tools for what they are,” Schilowitz said.


RED Epic Dragon

“High-resolution pictures are nothing new but they got lost for a little bit until our company came along,” he continued. “Modern technology applied to this industry has increased picture quality dramatically while lowering prices and making it more democratic for filmmakers, from the biggest to the smallest.” 

Bob Caniglia, Blackmagic’s senior regional manager for eastern North America, agrees. At the NAB Show in April, the company introduced a 4K digital film camera for about $4,000.

“In the past, the barrier to entry was high,” he said. “It’s the early days obviously, but there’s a pretty good adoption rate already.”

Yet the format poses a set of limitations for content creators and theater owners. Creatives, working with a post-production pipeline not optimized for 4K, add in visual effects at 1080 or 2K, a laborious and expensive process.

“Even if they do the movie in 4K and the effects in 2K, are you potentially getting the desired effect?” asked Curt Behlmer, chief technology officer at Technicolor Entertainment Services. “Of course, it depends on the director’s vision, the type of content that’s being created, and the intended audience.”

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

Theater owners meanwhile have to deal with challenges in distribution. Digital has a clear advantage over film in this area. Files are transferred through servers, and a digitally projected movie looks exactly as it should – whether it’s played for the first or hundredth time.

“It’s like the old days of record LPs,” Lude said about film. “They could sound terrific but are subject to dirt, scratches, and mechanical misalignment.”

A simplified supply chain means huge savings for studios, which was used to spending upward of $2 billion a year to release its movies in film. That cost included the production and shipment of 4,000 to 5,000 copies to theaters (replacing them when they were defective), insurance in case any of them were lost and recycling to recover silver and other elements from the film.

“There will be a few, like [Martin] Scorsese, [David] Fincher and [Christopher] Nolan, some very cream-of-the-crop directors who will stick with film,” said director and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Vincent Laforet, when he recently spoke to Digital Trends about his career. “And God bless them. But for the rest of us and the extreme vast majority of us, it’s all digital, and that’s why we should be focusing on making that look as good as possible.”

While “digital is far, far cheaper,” Lude says, the jump to 4K means an increase in time and costs.

Dave Duncan, business manager for Texas Instruments’ DLP Cinema, concurs. “It’s really expensive to increase the pipelines and process that amount of data in 4K end to end,” he added. 

Do viewers even notice?

There’s debate about whether 4K is even worth it. To measure the impact on the audience – whether it’s an 84-inch ultra HDTV or a 98-foot IMAX screen – the industry looks at the height of the screen relative to the distance from the viewer. The rule of thumb is that 4K is noticeable if one is sitting from a distance 1.5-times the screen height or closer. That’s typically the first few rows of a movie theater.

Some in the industry say this is technology consumers will demand, especially with the rise of high-resolution displays in consumer devices.

“This isn’t something coming in the future,” RED’s Schilowitz said. “It’s already happening day in and day out. If you use a current iPad, you’re looking at ultra high resolution – same with a 15-inch Macbook Pro with Retina screen. Our eyes and brains are getting attuned to ultra high resolution in our day-to-day life.”

Because the impact is subtle and limited to especially observant viewers sitting in the first few rows, the enhanced detail might be lost on them.

It also has to do with visual acuity, essentially boiling down to, as Lude asked, “How good is your eyesight?” However, he noted that as 4K sets at home grow larger and people sit closer to them, the difference will become more obvious. This, in turn, will prompt consumers to seek out higher-resolution showings. After all, one of the main reasons we continue to go to the movies is for that superior viewing experience.

For Brian Kelley, a film writer and self-described cinephile, the difference between 2K and 4K is negligible compared with film.

“When I’m sitting and watching a movie, the real impact is whether it’s on film or digital,” the movie buff said. “I would say that some of the remastered 4K screenings I’ve been to, they’ve definitely looked better than 2K in general, but nothing beats seeing something on film,” he added. “When something’s on film, there’s a layer between you and reality, and that layer is the film itself.”

Personally, he prefers to situate himself a bit further back. “I would never sit that close,” he said about the first few rows in a theater. “So I wouldn’t notice too much difference between 2K and 4K.”

Perhaps because of his bias, but RED’s Schilowitz disagrees: “All of my working colleagues and all of my friends – we demand it. We will not go to a theater that doesn’t have state-of-the-art projection or state-of-the-art screen or sound.”

Indeed, many of these advances mean a premium in ticket prices. To date, 4K by itself isn’t something theaters charge a premium on – unlike 3D, enhanced audio or even premium seats (Blackmagic’s Caniglia said his local theater recently added electric recliners).

Because the impact is subtle and limited to especially observant viewers sitting in the first few rows, the enhanced detail might be lost on them, Technicolor’s Behlmer said. Of course, as a color guy, he has his own bias, adding that “the human perception of imagery is more in tuned with dynamic range and color” than 4K.

Is 4K practical?

While some big theaters are known for featuring the latest cutting-edge technology, most of them don’t.

In the projector space, Sony had taken the lead in supporting 4K with its vertically integrated entertainment business, which spans content (studios) to hardware (projectors, cameras, TVs). Globally, its fleet of roughly 13,500 projectors is all 4K compliant.

Texas Instruments, meanwhile, has a market share of about 97,000 projectors that use its DLP chip; less than 10 percent support 4K.

“While certain parts of the industry are going with more 4K solutions, we went the opposite route with DCI-compliant projectors with 2K. It’s our biggest seller today,” Duncan said. “I don’t want to come off as a Luddite or anti-4K. This is all about value to the consumer and value to the exhibitor.”

But the point the execs interviewed for this story emphasized is that theater tech isn’t isolated to individual advances.

With the majority of studio content produced at 2K and even 1080, Duncan describes TI’s offerings as meeting the “industry’s worldwide requirements for quality, reliable and affordable for small art houses all around the world to the biggest theaters in the industry.”

In essence, TI’s strategy is exactly what the Digital Cinema Initiative had intended: to let the market decide. But Duncan noted: “We’re ready to take this up a notch when the industry is ready, whether it’s 4K, illumination sources that are laser-based, or something else.”

The de-emphasis on 4K is also coming from the creatives. Working with James Cameron on Avatar, Duncan said the company was given a priority list of movie technologies the filmmaker was eyeing.

“The first is light levels,” Duncan said. “He wants brighter images for 3D movies.” Next was to reduce motion artifacts with 24 frame-per-second movies. Lower on the list at No. 4 or 5 was 4K. “4K will certainly have its day,” Duncan noted. It just might not be in 2013.

But the point the execs interviewed for this story emphasized is that theater tech isn’t isolated to individual advances. Together, 4K, immersive audio, color space, bit depth, bright screens, high frame rates, and, yes, even comfortable seats all contribute to a superior viewing experience.

“Resolution is one aspect,” Behlmer said. “It will be a combination of enhancements that will be most impressive to an audience.”

(Main image via Ints Vikmanis/Shutterstock)

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