Fall 2017

Filmmaking in the 4K Age

Razor-sharp resolution and higher frame rates challenge directors to think out of the box

Illustrated by Daniel Hertzberg

Revolutions never come easy.

Convincing an audience to change its habits is hard enough, but coaxing directors and crews out of their safety zones can be even more difficult. So when it comes to new filmmaking technologies, whether it's 4K video or high frame rates, most of Hollywood is waiting to see how the efforts of film giants are accepted by audiences before it follows suit.

So far, it hasn't gone great. Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, shot in 4K, 3D and at 120 frames per second, drew a lukewarm response. And moviegoers largely balked at the 48 fps version of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. Now, many insiders are keeping a close eye on the performance of James Cameron's Avatar sequels, in which he says he will push high frame rates and 3D.

Directors who have worked with these new technologies concede the advantages and disadvantages are fairly equal at present, but as filmmakers get more comfortable with the advances, they say, the pros will quickly outweigh the cons.

"The bottom line is 4K is just the medium; it's a science," says Lee. "The art is in how you deal with it."

There's a lot to deal with. The tremendous amount of data collected when shooting in 4K can result in images that more closely resemble video than film. That same incredible detail can shine a spotlight on shortcomings.

Onscreen shadows can be exaggerated to the audience. Costumes need to be more authentic. And set design is more challenging, since viewers can see things that previously could be easily camouflaged.

"When we do The Upside Down in Stranger Things, a lot of that is practical [effects]," says series co-director Ross Duffer. "But if you walk around the set, there's a version of that that looks very plastic and fake. … You don't want to see too much. You want the imagination to fill it in for you."

The technologies also require CGI and VFX teams to work harder. While the past decade's breakthroughs in computer-generated images have been astonishing, some don't hold up well in a 4K world. (Similarly, shooting against a green screen can be more noticeable.)

As the effects world works on improving the quality of those CG images, directors warn that incorporating visual effects into 4K and HFR films today is more expensive—and VFX may need to be used judiciously.

The Duffer brothers shoot TV's Stranger Things in 4K (Photo: Netflix)

"The amount of information [the cameras gather] is difficult for visual effects," says Duffer. "They have to render two or three times as long, so it gets a lot more expensive. … And you don't want those CG images to be too high resolution, because they fall apart at a certain point. We're just not there yet."

4K and especially higher frame rates also force directors to change how they work with actors. While it's no secret that skin imperfections are enhanced onscreen with those technologies, other details, like makeup, are more visible as well. And directors have to be much more demanding of performers, as the enhanced visuals can make what normally would be an acceptable performance seem exaggerated or shallow.

"It has to feel more genuine and more complex," says Lee. "In acting, because you deal with strobes and lighting and storytelling, [actors] have a purpose and a drive. And most times, they have a task to show people how they feel. … But that's not how we do life. You're listening to someone and you're thinking about two or three other things. … We can detect another person's undertone and know whether they're lying because we're collecting details analyzing them. That can go into filmmaking."

While it's easy to focus on the hurdles that accompany technologies like 4K and high frame rates, there are certainly benefits as well. The cameras allow filmmakers to shoot with more natural lighting, such as candles and lamps (look no further than Steven Soderbergh's The Knick). And the overly sharp images some people complain about can be dealt with in post-production (which will become an even more important part of the filmmaking process as 4K/HFR work their way toward the mainstream).

The Duffer brothers shoot Stranger Things in 4K, then add grain on top of it to achieve the show's film-like effect, but while they say they were hesitant to work with a medium that has such high resolution, it has given them some unexpected perks as well.

"The thing that we like about it is we have a lot of extra image—vertically and horizontally—so when we're in post-production, there's a lot of flexibility," says Matt Duffer. "We have to move at such a speed that we don't always get the framing or the camera moves right, so the fact we're able to adjust and fix in post is incredible. It allows you to really stabilize the images if there's any sort of bumps or shakes in the camera movement."

While filmgoing audiences haven't universally embraced the added sharpness of these films, a 2015 study by researchers at York University, Sheridan College and Christie Digital found that viewers—especially younger ones—actually prefer higher frame rates. But audiences saw room for improvement, according to the study, with regard to the aforementioned issues of sets and makeup.

"Our viewers preferred higher-frame-rate content both in terms of realism and in terms of overall preference," said the researchers. "This seems counter to the criticism leveled against recent HFR films that the content was 'too real.' Our participants were predominantly young adults accustomed to higher frame rate experiences from games and HD video and perhaps preferred the more realistic imagery since they were accustomed to it. On the other hand, complaints of hyper-realism often seem to concern the fake nature of props and sets."

The study echoes Peter Jackson's thoughts on high frame rates—especially when it comes to 3D films.

"Twenty-four frames is not a perfect frame rate," he told the website Den of Geek in 2013. "It's an arbitrary frame rate which was born in 1927 when sound movies first started to come in. … But 24 frames isn't very good, especially with 3D, and especially with action, because it strobes. It flickers; every time you move the camera, it judders. When you're shooting in 3D, both eyes are getting hit with different degrees of these artifacts, which is what gives you eye strain; that's why you get headaches watching 3D movies. Forty-eight frames makes it much smoother."

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey shot at 48 fps, and Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which combined 120 fps, 4K and 3D, were both ahead of their time. (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) Mary Cybulski/Columbia Pictures)

Part of the challenge in moving these technologies to the mainstream has nothing to do with filmmakers and everything to do with theater owners. While 4K inroads in home entertainment appear to be advancing at a steady clip, with the recently announced Apple TV—which will screen Ultra HD movies—as just one example, exhibitors appear to be dragging their feet.

When Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk debuted, just two locations in the U.S.—ArcLight Hollywood's Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles and AMC Loews' Lincoln Square theater in New York City—were capable of showing it as Lee intended (in 4K and 3D, with 120fps). Only three other theaters in the world—in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei—had the technical capacity.

"What Warner Bros. discovered with The Hobbit was that the idea of attracting audiences on the technology was not successful; you attract an audience on the quality of story," says Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer at the National Association of Theatre Owners. "When you have a shift in technology that you haven't built up the understanding of it with the audience, you're going to have resistance. ... [But] if it filters out to the audience that you've got to see it this way, then you'll see a higher adoption."

For now, though, it's oversized recliners, not 4K and high frame rates, that are getting people back in theaters.

Advocates say they've urged theater chains to embrace the improvements necessary to showcase the technologies, as it creates a more captivating filmgoing experience—one that draws people away from their TVs and video-game consoles.

"That's what people want," says Lee. "They don't want to just watch something happen. They want to participate. So more immersive [films] will bring audiences to the theaters beyond the big tentpole superhero movies."

It sounds a bit like a chicken-and-egg situation, but Corcoran says it's more a series of back-and-forths.

"There will be filmmakers who push the technology because they feel that's the way they have to make the story," he says. "If the director has enough clout, the studios will support them and the studios will lean on the theater owners. If audiences come, you'll see more adoption. At its heart, this is always going to be about the story and compelling visuals on the screen."

Lee, though, says he believes that, like it or not, technologies like 3D, 4K and, ultimately, high frame rates, are going to be a big part of the future of film. And that will force everyone, in all aspects of the film business, to adapt.

"When color came up, you had to consider construction design," he says. "When sound came up, you had [to find] a new generation of actors. You just do something else. … You deal with [the challenges]. You negotiate with them. You take advantage of them. … Movies are only about 100 years old. I don't think everything should stop at 1971."

Five Misconceptions About Filming in 4K and HFR

When it comes to new filmmaking techniques, rumor can spread faster than fact. And it's easy to make suppositions on limited evidence. That can make some directors hesitant to try new technologies such as 4K and high frame rates (HFR). Here are five of the biggest misconceptions:

  1. Post-production takes longer: While post-production is more important than ever to achieve the desired finished look with 4K and HFR films, directors say there's really no noticeable time difference compared to 2K productions. The only exception comes with filmmakers who opt to change any grain they add from scene to scene or shot to shot.

  2. Audiences hate it: High frame rates haven't been universally embraced by audiences yet, but a 2015 study of viewer preferences found a "clear preference for higher frame rates (48fps and 60fps) when contrasted with a standard of 24fps." They especially enjoy the additional clarity when the scene is an action shot full of rapid movements.

  3. You're locked into the "soap opera" effect: That ultra-sharp, video-like effect of 4K and HFR can be remedied in post by adding filters and grains. It all comes down to the type of look you want in your film.

  4. It's a crutch for CGI: 4K is actually better for telling human stories, as computer-generated effects need to be rendered longer, which can increase production costs. Also, in many cases, the graphics can't hold up to the ultra-realism of the film's human stars and backgrounds.

  5. Restricts directors: Even directors who are on the fence about 4K visuals say the technology offers tremendous flexibility. The camera captures so much information that a medium shot can easily be converted into a close-up without having to reshoot the scene. And, if you're working on a television project rather than a cinematic one, you'll have extra horizontal and vertical image to work with in case your framing was off. —Chris Morris
The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.

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