By Larry Jordan
Last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel sponsored by KeyCode Media and Sony on “The Future of Post: 4K and HDR.” We spent 90 minutes discussing whether it was time for editors and post facilities to start editing 4K and/or HDR images, and what changes these new formats would require.
The panel featured Michael Cioni, president, Light Iron; Mike Whipple, executive director of post, Sony Pictures Entertainment; and Bryan McMahan, senior digital colorist, Modern VideoFilm.
4K is the term used to describe image frame sizes that are close to 4,000×2,500 pixels. 4K actually has a variety of different aspect ratios – Michael Cioni listed six off the top of his head – along with a variation of 4K called Ultra HD (UHD).
HDR is the term used to describe High Dynamic Range video, which provides more grayscale values than traditional video. HDR is described as more “life-like,” and is especially notable because it provides richer blacks and more vibrant highlights.
HDR generally requires RAW files using a bit depth of 12-bits or greater. This means that file sizes will be much larger than standard HD video files. Also, for best results, HDR images should not use a compressed video codec. Additionally, footage needs to be captured during production as HDR, you can’t add it to footage after the fact during post.
Wide Color Gamut is the term used to describe video with greater color saturation than traditional video. Not “different” colors, but richer, more saturated colors.
In the shorthand of the panel, these formats were described as: more pixels, more gray-scales and more saturation. These new image standards are described in a SMPTE spec called “Rec. 2020.” This is similar in concept, but not in values, to the Rec. 709 spec we use for HD or Rec. 601 we used for SD.
As Cioni said: “People often speak of 4K or HDR or Wide Color Gamut. But it isn’t “or,” it’s “and.” The video we’ll be editing in the future will contain higher-resolution images and greater dynamic range and wider color gamut. Think of it as three legs of a tripod supporting the video of the future.”
New video technology often requires making adjustments to support it, however from the artist’s perspective, those adjustments are fairly minor. As McMahan described, there’s no difference from the creative perspective when grading 4K video vs. 2K or HD. There may be more pixels to work with, but the techniques he uses still work.
There is, however, a difference between color grading HDR video vs. “SDR” (or “Standard Dynamic Range” video as Cioni called it). McMahan said it took him a day or two to get comfortable with the new HDR format.
Once McMahan became comfortable with the format, he said it took him about the same amount of time to color grade an HDR master as an SDR master. In fact, “I think I can do HDR a little faster than SDR, because I have a broader palette to work with.”
The big difference with HDR, all three panelists stressed, was not the workflow, but getting a monitor that properly displays HDR video. Here, prices are not cheap. While no specific brands were suggested, a color-grade-capable HDR monitor is in the $30,000 price range.
Which brought up a key question for me: “Where’s the money?”
Of the three panelists, only Cioni is directly involved in client prospecting and billing. So he and I talked about how editors and post houses would make money in this new format.
Cioni charges a “little bit” more for editing 4K video and “more” for HDR. We didn’t get into specific pricing.
Then he surprised me by saying, “The money for HDR and 4K won’t come from broadcasters or cable. They are a long way from updating their infrastructure to support this technology because the upgrades are expensive and time consuming. The market is broadband companies — Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Microsoft and Apple — who are able to instantly deliver 4K media directly to the home via the Internet.”
This agrees with trends I’ve been seeing. Traditional broadcast audiences are declining for everything but live events, while audiences for Internet-based video delivery are skyrocketing. The money is still in the older distribution formats, but the audiences are on the web.
Can You See the Difference, and Does It Matter?
We had a long discussion on whether the typical audience can actually see the image improvements of 4K. While panel members felt that 4K is instantly perceptible, I am less sure. On the other hand, if editing 4K allows editors to get more work, I’m in favor of it whether anyone can see the difference or not.
Where the panel was all in agreement was that the differences in HDR were massively better than traditional HD video. As Bryan said: “Once you’ve seen a properly graded HDR image, going back to SDR looks flat and lifeless.”
At this point, Cioni made an interesting comment: “It is easy to make a 2K, even a 1080 version of a 4K master file. Those conversion transforms are well known and don’t damage the image. With HDR, there’s no easy way to convert from HDR to SDR. For those cases, you’ll need to create two different color grades of your material.”
If an editor is successfully editing 1080 video, they can probably step up to 4K without needing to buy much new gear. Clearly, 4K requires more storage space and a 4K video monitor if you need to see your images pixel accurately. But for most creative editing, seeing the image at full resolution is not necessary, which means that editors don’t need a 4K monitor to do the creative cut.
However, as Michael Whipple pointed out, it is important to see the image at full resolution at some point during the edit just to make sure shots are in focus. Viewing images in less than full resolution tends to hide focus problems.
HDR and Wide Color Gamut video requires vastly larger storage due to the size of the source files, plus video monitoring gear that allows display of the extended color range images.
The big gating factor, as McMahan pointed out, is that an HDR monitor suitable for color grading is about $30,000. Which means we need to find ways to charge more to cover the costs of the gear required.
I decided to put Cioni on the spot by asking: “We are currently shooting 4K, 5K, even 6K images. NHK in Japan is planning on airing 8K images next year and 16K was demonstrated at NAB last spring. Should we just wait for three months for all the resolution specs to change again?”
Michael replied: “I expect 4K to be a standard delivery format for the next 10 years. While resolutions we use in production will continue to increase, the resolution we deliver will remain constant for a while. This means that editorial houses can standardize on a 4K deliverable.”
“HDR will take longer to develop because we need to get HDR-capable TV sets into the home to drive demand. The interesting thing about HDR is that it looks great regardless of the resolution of the video. HD, even SD, looks much better when displayed using HDR.”
It was a fascinating discussion, which made me realize that both high-resolutions and HDR/Wide Color Gamut are in our future. Bu maybe not today, due to a lack of widespread software support and companies focused on streaming to the web.
But, the future evolves faster than we think and last night’s discussion gave me a good idea of where we are headed. Thanks to KeyCode for allowing me to be a part of this discussion.
A video of the complete panel is below.