To get a better handle on what to expect in terms of an increase in 4K field production, we should reflect on what’s already happened, especially in the past few years since the first viable 4K camera, the RED ONE, made its world debut. I spoke with some early 4K adopters about their experience with 4K. As it turned out, all were RED ONE buyers and users, including Cinematographer and Ocean Imaging Owner Frazier Nivens, who has shot 4K with RED cameras since early 2008. “Before RED ONE, I was shooting HD with cameras like the [Sony] CineAlta, which captured great imagery, but that often didn’t hold up in post,” notes Nivens. “With 4K footage, I never have that problem. The RAW 4K files I shoot and edit have mind-blowing sharpness and rich colors once they’re color graded, even if only with REDCINE-X.”
Those who began shooting 4K during the early days of the RED ONE recall when 4K was an uphill battle “We shot the first 4K film in Viet Nam with the RED ONE in late 2007,” Nivens recalls. “Back then, there were few tools for working with RAW 4K files. We used [Assimilate] Scratch to color grade the RAW files, and then imported them all into [Apple] ProRes [at 1080p] for editing. The results were fantastic but left many folks feeling that 4K was a pain because working with the RED files was such an involved process. In retrospect, it was challenging but worthwhile.”
Filmgoers responded well at the box office to the feature films being produced in Viet Nam in 4K. And, according to DI Technician Tonaci Tran, most of these film projects were shot in 4K with RED ONEs. “Before we started working with RED cameras, Viet Nam averaged three to four new features a year, but it has more than doubled since then,” says Tran. “Today over 90 percent of the features produced in Viet Nam are shot in 4K with RED cameras, like the RED ONE, EPIC and SCARLET.”
The quest for the best film quality (or imagery) created a drive for 4K acquisition by director of photography pioneers, like Cinematographer Dale Hildebrand, who’s based in Toronto, Canada. “I’ve been working in commercials and dramatic features for nearly 20 years,” says Hildebrand. “Until recently, we shot these mainly on film, until RED [Digital] made 4K possible without the high up-front costs of film. Capturing 4K gives you that rich film look plus more creative control of projects without all of the specialists needed to achieve it with film. It’s also enabled me to focus on quality instead of competing on price at the lower end.” Nevertheless, shooting 4K has enabled cost savings. “When you’re outputting HD, you can crop and reframe 4K shots for medium shots and even close-ups in HD,” explains Hildebrand. “It looks beautiful when done right. For example, I grabbed a perfect matched cut from a master shot of a bridge in Africa when we just didn’t have time to change lenses for a close shot. You could never do that with HD original like you can with a RED camera in 4K. Even with the [ARRI] ALEXA, the color is baked in so that you don’t have nearly the flexibility. With 4K you can crush the blacks and completely change or match the tone without aliasing and get two matched shots out of one. With all of its flexibility, 4K RAW is the only way to go now.”
Camera sensitivity is also critical when shooting 4K. “I have much more flexibility capturing 4K with the EPIC than with the original RED ONE,” says Nivens. “The ISO has more than doubled, so I don’t have to open the lens as much. [While] outdoors I’ll often use neutral-density filters or simply stop down the lens. Recently, I shot a play with my EPIC at ISO 1000 using only stage lighting, but still I didn’t have to open up [the lens] very much. There was absolutely no aliasing with the clothing and no artifacts.” Despite this perk, Nivens cautions that there’s still a need for ample lighting. “With the EPIC, you can get by with less lighting even at 4K and 5K, but you still need some PARs or HMIs,” he explains. This need may be changing now that both the EPIC and SCARLET offer the ultra-dynamic range mode HDRx, which extends the dynamic range from 12 to 13 stops to at least 18 stops. “With HDRx you can get by with much less light and reduce your depth of field,” says Nivens. This dovetails nicely with the various new low-power LED lighting kits, like Frezzi’s HyLights and Litepanel’s Sola ENG flight kit. Both draw a fraction of the wattage of traditional tungsten-quartz lights yet emit the equivalent of 100 watts [tungsten] per light.”
Not only have 4K cameras improved in the past few years, but so have the tools for working with 4K files, according to Tran. “RED RAW files have a reputation for being a challenge to handle,” says Tran. “As a DIT, my core role is often to simplify the workflow and make it go smoothly. Today with REDCINE, it is so much easier. With it, you can quickly and easily color grade RED RAW clips before placing them on the timeline and editing them at full resolution in [Adobe] Premiere with CS 5.5 and CS 6.0.” Today this can all be done on a laptop in Premiere Pro, whereas a few years ago it required high-powered workstations and multiple programs. “Soon we may be able to do much the same in Final Cut Pro as well on a Powerbook,” says Tran. However, it appears the larger file sizes of 4K and 5K imagery at low compression will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future, especially when previewing it. “Even though we can edit 4K on a laptop now, we have to preview it at a much lower quality,” Tran explains. “Even with RED ROCKET, you’re only viewing 4K at half quality Pro displays and pricing so that we can actually see our work in 4K. What I’m really hoping is that Apple leads the way with 4K iPads or with separate 4K iPad-style displays. RED may help too with monitors along the lines of its new 4K projector, [which is] priced under $10K.”
JVC is doing its part to blaze a trail toward affordable 4K acquisition with its GY-HMQ10, the smallest and cheapest 4K camera yet. Introduced at NAB 2012, it’s comparable in size and price to the company’s popular compact GY-HM100 HDV camcorder. The GY-HMQ10 camera lists for $5,500.
Canon introduced two new 4K cameras at NAB this year. The EOS-1D C is a bona fide DSLR that can record motion JPEG at 4K resolution (4096x2160) at frame rates from 24–60p with 8-bit 4:2:2 color sampling. The 4K JPEG can be recorded to CF cards or to an external recorder via HDMI. Available in early summer, the EOS-1D C camera lists for $15K. Not to be outdone, the Canon EOS C500 is a 4K version of the company’s C300 cinema camera. It’s capable of capturing 4K RAW at up to 60 fps and 4K half-RAW at 120 fps with its 8.85-megapixel, super 35mm CMOS sensor. The C500 will accept all Canon EF-mount lenses and lists for $30K with its availability slated for late 2012.
Perhaps the most anticipated 4K camera announced at NAB 2012 is the Sony NEX-FS700 with an Exmor super 35mm CMOS sensor that natively captures 1920x1080 60p video. With a future upgrade, the camera will capture 4K video, albeit compressed. It also doubles as a slow-motion camera capable of HD up to 240 fps and lower resolutions up to 960 fps. The 4K option should be ready in July but will require an external recorder.
Currently seeking a B camera to use with his RED EPIC, Hildebrand plans to check out the upcoming, more affordable options, like Blackmagic Design’s 2.5K digital cinema camera (priced under $3,000) and the 2K variable-speed Digital Bolex (for roughly $5,000). “I want to see the Blackmagic and Bolex cameras before investing double or more than that in a SCARLET-X,” says Hildebrand. Both cameras should be available before the end of 2012.
Regardless of the wide array of 4K cameras and monitors we’ll have to choose from in the coming year, our lighting options will only improve. Fast cameras like the EPIC will have many more lighting options, including three light kits comprised of lights originally designed for use as ultra-powerful sun guns. A prime example is the HyLight kit by Frezzi, comprising three or more HyLights equivalent to 100-watt daylight-corrected tungsten while only drawing 24 watts. They offer uniform spectrum, true-color, daylight-balanced LED lighting.
Litepanels is also packaging its popular, compact, Fresnel-style Sola ENG light into a portable three-light kit, which is ideal for use with the new breed of ultra-sensitive, large-sensor cameras, like those capable of 4K. “Cameras with higher sensitivity and more dynamic range allow filmmakers to make more use of ambient light in their scenes,” explains Chris Marchitelli, Litepanels’ global VP of marketing. “Depending on the intended look, this can mean using fewer or smaller lighting fixtures. Like the focusable three-light kit of Sola ENG Fresnels to create a nearly infinite number of looks and scenes.”