Improved d-cinema format is ready, but do auds care?

Is 4K the future of movies, or a wrongheaded dead end?

There is plenty of energy on both sides of the debate. Some bizzers are pushing hard for the super-high-resolution digital format, while others say the extra pixels don’t solve the real problems with today’s moving images.

At stake are far-reaching decisions about the next generation of movie production and post technology.

The debate over 4K centers on two points: Is 4K really an improvement? And even if it is, do auds care?

Skeptics of 4K argue today’s 2K digital-cinema projectors can give a result just as good by upping the frame rate beyond the current standard of 24 frames per second. Hollywood’s top directors have joined the tussle, led by Christopher Nolan in the 4K camp, and James Cameron advocating for the existing 2K format, but at higher frame rates.

For those getting used to high-def and d-cinema terms, 4K is the next-generation, super-high-definition digital cinema format that quadruples the number of pixels on the movie screen.

2K digital cinema has 1080 lines, with 2048 pixels on each line. 4K has twice as many lines, 2160, and twice as many pixels per line, 4096, so it has four times as many pixels in all.

‘Born in fear’?

Sounds great, no? But in a 2008 interview with Variety, Cameron described 4K as “a concept born in fear.”

“When the studios were looking at converting to digital cinemas, they were afraid of change and searched for reasons not to do it,” Cameron said. “One reason they hit upon was that if people were buying HD monitors for the home … and (if) that was virtually the same as the 2K standard being proposed, then why would people go to the cinema?”

Full high-definition TV, as found on 1080p TVs and Blu-ray players, has 1080 lines with 1920 pixels on each line. That’s only slightly less than the 1080 x 2048 of 2K d-cinema.

Christie senior project manager Brian Claypool doesn’t quite use the word “fear,” but he does offer a more diplomatic phrasing of Cameron’s basic idea.

“We did 4K, basically, to respond to a perception of need in the marketplace that audiences would prefer 4K.”

Claypool admits he feels most audience members ultimately can’t tell the difference between 2K and 4K. “Audiences go to the movies to enjoy the movies; they’re not there to count pixels,” he said.

Moreover, according to Cameron, more pixels doesn’t necessarily mean a better experience. The issue is strobing, or “judder” — the blurring that occurs whenever the camera moves fast horizontally, or something moves fast horizontally across the screen.

He argues that perceived resolution isn’t just how many pixels, but frame rate as well. (To put it in mathematical terms, he says perceived resolution = pixels x replacement rate).

“A 2K image at 48 frames per second,” he says, “looks as sharp as a 4K image at 24 frames per second — with one fundamental difference: The 4K/24 image will judder miserably during a panning shot, and the 2K/48 won’t.

“Higher pixel counts only preserve motion artifacts like strobing with greater fidelity.”

Surfing the Wave

Cameron, of course, has been an evangelist for 3D, and today’s d-cinema projectors can either do 4K or 3D but not both at once. The computers inside the projectors can’t pump data fast enough to handle that many pixels for both eyes.

(Nolan, in contrast to Cameron, has eschewed 3D in favor of the largescreen Imax format, which Cameron has said he dislikes.)

Right now 4K is riding the 3D wave into multiplexes, just as 3D rode the digital wave. But there’s no extra revenue for 4K, no proposal for a 4K upcharge. Sony’s solution: a “3D on 4K” projector system that can be used for either format. In effect, Sony’s pitch is “Buy 3D and get 4K for free.”

Sony Digital Cinema already has struck a deal with leading exhibs AMC and Regal to roll out some 4,500 and 5,000 4K-capable screens, respectively, using that technology, within the next four years. Approximately one-third of those have been installed to date, according to Sony reps.

Andrew Stucker, senior national account manager for Sony Digital, describes the success of 3D as the catalyst for a heightened 4K d-cinema rollout industrywide, saying, “Its impact on 4K has been tremendous.”

Sony isn’t the only company betting on 4K projection; Christie Digital and Barco have made significant headway with the format. To date, Christie has supported industry screenings in 4K, with worldwide availability starting in March, while Barco recently announced it will launch its first 4K projector sometime next year.

Stucker says Sony took three years to fully develop its 4K systems and is now approaching 5,000 4K screens worldwide, with the majority in the U.S.

“Our dedication was always to 4K,” Stucker noted. “That dedication was prompted by the idea that we wanted moviegoers to be able to see the difference from home entertainment.”

Future-proofing with 4K content

But if the idea is simply to be better than homevideo, 4K’s days in theaters are already numbered. Prototype 4K flatscreen TVs were on the floor earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show. 4K TVs have the potential to deliver images with clarity and brightness far beyond anything today’s d-cinema projectors can provide. Arguably, producing content at 4K today only future-proofs it for the homevideo formats of a decade from now.

What’s more, even today’s flatscreens have refresh rates that dwarf the 24 fps standard for movies, so TV is answering Cameron’s cries for smoother motion (in both 2D and 3D), while cinemas are not.

Stucker said: “Movie makers are starting to understand that their art form can be seen in 4K, and studios have a reason to start distributing in 4K.” Nevertheless, 4K content remains scarce.

Rendering 4K computer graphics, i.e., visual effects and animation, is significantly more expensive and time consuming — no small consideration at a time when budgets and schedules are strained.

As a result, while some movies have been mastered at 4K, and there are at least 3,000 4K-capable screens in the U.S. alone, the number of 4K releases to date remains minimal. Only a handful of pics have been rendered as a 4K package, including some 2010 titles like “Burlesque,” “Eat Pray Love,” “Inception” and “The Karate Kid.”

“It’s gaining ground, but right now the biggest negative is that there’s not a lot of content for it,” says Claypool. “Over time, I think we’ll see more and more.”

Stucker, who says he thinks auds can tell the difference between formats, describes the lack of 4K education, both on the consumer and filmmaker sides, as the format’s biggest hurdle. Moviegoers educated about 4K, Stucker argued, will “understand that 4K does make a difference.”

Claypool agrees. “As we go along, I think audiences will become more sophisticated,” he said.

Among studios, Sony and Warner Bros. have been strong proponents of 4K. (See “Revived Classics,” above) As proof of Warners’ 4K commitment, the studio announced earlier this year that it would provide financial backing for domestic exhibitors deploying Sony’s 4K digital projectors. Sony Digital also inked similar deals with the other majors.

Stucker admits studio support is key to furthering the format.

“The exciting thing now is that 4K is being recognized by every component of the industry,” he added. “Now the studios have a reason to start distributing in 4K, and the decision point really is at the moment of distribution.”

Still, with no revenue stream in the offing from 4K, it remains a format without a compelling selling point — if money is the main consideration.

As one systems provider put it: “Everyone’s making good money off of 3D just as it is now.”

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