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NAB 2015: Sony aims to make 4K mainstream

By Fred Ruckel

The NAB Show is just under a month away. “Viva Las Vegas,” as they say. This week I had the pleasure of attending Sony’s Pre-NAB press conference to discuss what Sony will bring to the show floor. This year their theme is “Beyond Definition” and, as usual, Sony will have its large booth featuring 11 sections and a central area for meetings.

Sony’s main focus for NAB 2015 is on making 4K mainstream. Sony introduced numerous technologies and methodologies to help people ease the transition into mainstream 4K. From cameras to editing and storage to archiving, Sony has something to offer at all levels. What wasn’t pushed at this press event was Ultra HD, which some have touted as a 4K format (although in reality, it actually isn’t). Sony made a point of stating multiple times, “We are true 4K, 4096, not 3840 (which is UHD). I think that makes a statement in itself. Sony has chosen to bypass this in-between resolution known as UHD, at least on a professional level. A solid statement and, as a post professional, one I wholeheartedly agree with. Applause to Sony on that decision.

Unlocking Upgrades
On the production front, Sony said they are not expecting to introduce any new high-end cameras before NAB. Instead, they have gone the route of unlocking upgrades within their current line. I know that may sound strange — selling unlock codes to enable features on a camera that you have already purchased — but there is good reason for it, and they are worth the price of admission so to speak.

On the whole, all current hardware can have software/firmware upgrades that open up to newer formats as they are invented. This minimizes the cost to the consumer, while offering the latest technology available, such as new 4K formats. It also enables them to provide the newest formats and codecs to be installed on your camera, making the most of your money. Think of it like future-proofing insurance.

Before you jump the gun and try to figure out a way to hack it, there are a few things to keep in mind. When Sony releases updates, there is a lot of engineering behind it. If you do a hack to enable higher resolution, they may forego making adjustments to fan speeds and cooling. As higher bandwidth and resolution generate more heat, you could easily damage a camera beyond repair. This would void the warranty and cost you a small fortune. So buy the upgrades.

Sony's F5

Sony’s F5

One of the new additions is the ProRes format on the F5 and F55. Currently it is 4:2:2, a coming firmware release (V6) will enable a long-awaited file format. I’m under NDA, so I cannot say what, but it is a vast improvement, especially when it comes to post production, color correction, keying and compositing. They have also added 50Mbps 4:2:2, HDCAM SR, Raw file, Avid DNxHD and a newer Sony format called XAVC (MPEG-4 with a better wrapper).

XAVC
A couple of years ago Sony created its own format that became a standard of sorts. The format, officially known as XAVC, is a method for ”wrapping” an MPEG-4 video. Post pros use a format called H.264, which has become the de facto standard for many file deliveries as it has great quality and maintains a small file size. H.264 is a version of MPEG-4 known as AVC, so Sony made its own version of the H.264 — XAVC. Yes, that was indeed a mouthful, but I had to explain the lineage before talking in depth about this format.

During the press conference they were playing the 4K XAVC files on a Sony 4K monitor. They were stunningly sharp and could handle fast movement and rapid color changes without falling apart and getting “chunky in the blacks.” We watched firework explosions, which is truthfully one of the hardest things you could ever put video compression and color reproduction to the test on. It passed with flying colors, no pun intended.

If what I saw was real (and not just vaporware), this is something to keep an eye on! I was thoroughly impressed. I would need to look at the files more closely to say with 100 percent certainty that what I saw was really apples to apples. If it is legit, this will likely take over as the standard unless, of course, someone else introduces a new format too, which is always a possibility in this business.

Sony’s XVAC format is only 240Mbps at 24p in 4K, 90Mbps in HD. That is extremely low considering the quality picture that I saw. For reference, uncompressed HD can be as high as 880Mbps with Sony SR-HQ format and 4K can top out at over a 1.5Gbps. While it is 4K, it has been squeezed down to make it move quickly over networks and shared storage; this makes it easier on a facility to share media in an editing environment. When shooting with the F55’s 4K Raw 16-bit format, the bandwidth is only half that of ProRes, making it easier to edit, even at finishing quality.

The BVM-X300

The BVM-X300

Viewing 4K
When it comes to viewing your 4K images, it is important to have a true mastering-quality monitor to make color decisions with. At NAB, Sony will have the BVM-X300 OLED screen. Over five years of development went into this release, and it covers a lot of what people have needed for a while. Direct viewing at full range without a conversion LUT is a nice feature to have. This screen allows for more accurate viewing of HDR imagery, which is seemingly becoming a growing trend — HDR = more bandwidth needed. Accurate black levels and contrast are part of this screen’s great dynamic range. The sticker shock might hurt, but any great monitor isn’t cheap. This bad boy comes in at only 32 inches and sells for a whopping $37,000.

SxS Memory Player
All this talk about image size and bandwidth almost makes us forget that we need somewhere to put all this data. Let’s face it — we live in a datacentric world and fast, reliable data is imperative to all our success. Sony is releasing the new PMW-PZ1, an SxS 4K memory player. What is SxS, you ask? It’s Sony’s own storage system. The video shown during the press conference was played from this device. It played back smoothly and was glitch-free.

The PMZ-PZ1

The PMZ-PZ1

It felt like a VTR to this old-school pro. It allows for XAVC Intra, Long, S-Long, MPEG HD 4:2:2 and MPEG HD. It’s a nice little device with a small form factor for portability, seems easy to use and will show your work nicely. It is touted for use in post, but I can’t speak on that functionality as we only did playback. It does have a nice feature that allows you to back up your data to an external USB drive, which is always a plus.

As always, Sony will bring a lot to the table this NAB. There were a few other new innovations shown at the conference but they weren’t as relevant from a post perspective (again, no pun intended), they simply covered other areas of Sony’s diverse product line.

And Now, A Rant
The push to go with a larger format such as 4K comes with compromises. I have noticed an industry trend which I am coining “The race to the bottom.” Basically all manufacturers want to make a large format like 4K go mainstream. With true 4K, the data rates are insanely high. So the “Race to the bottom” is really a race to see who can make 4K in the lightest possible way and with the least amount of compression artifacts.

Ironically, everyone is trying to find ways to hide all the compression issues with a better “wrapper,” as opposed to finding a better way to send full-quality 4K video. As a point of reference, the quality of D-1 (Rec-601), a format introduced back in 1982, is higher than the HD you view at home today. That was a format that is 33 years old and it far surpasses the quality currently in development today. How is that possible? That is what I mean when I say “race to the bottom.”

Whatever happened to truly uncompressed video? Image size has more than quadrupled, yet quality has diminished significantly. That is a story for another article.

Creative director Fred Ruckel provides production, motion graphics and post at his creative agency, RuckSack NY.

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