Exploring the Promise of 8K with The Explorers
Two weeks ago, we reported how TCL has teamed up with The Explorers to deliver 8K nature content to TCL 8K TVs (see article here). In this article, we discuss the potential for 8K as envisioned by Olivier Chiabodo, CEO of The Explorers. His first comment was there is not enough 8K content showing off great images. He thinks 8K offers the opportunity to reinvent audiovisual storytelling with a new vocabulary like wider angles. 8K resolution and HDR to bring a greater sense of 3D-like immersion. And great sound is also essential. Olivier understands the technology but wants to communicate with great images rather than technology.
According to Chiabodo, other nature and heritage SVoD platforms belong to networks. He believes The Explorers is the only genuinely independent service available anywhere, offering 8K nature content. The Explorers has three current founders and shareholders: Chiabodo, the majority shareholder, Jean-Pierre Morel, and Jean-Hugues Noël, who is still very active in reinventing production for 8K. The team is comprised of 60 people spread across the three primary functions, capture, Postproduction, platform and App development, plus support staff. The company has created excellent brand awareness without any external marketing budget, just a small internal team. Chiabo said the company is considering raising capital, but no firm decision has been taken yet, including accelerating beyond organic growth.
The pandemic has had a contrasting effect on the company. On the one hand, The Explorer’s Academy, an initiative to offer 8K production training and kitting, has been delayed. On the other, lockdowns have strengthened people’s desire for The Explorer’s content. When I pressed Olivier on the issue of sustainability and 8K, he told me a significant announcement is scheduled for Q1 2022. The Explorers is committed to documenting the state of the world’s ecosystem, especially vulnerable ones. As a result, they have been toying with the idea of creating a blockchain ecosystem to help preservation efforts, with NFTs to help sustain fragile ecosystems and landscapes.
The Explorers have contributed 8K nature content to the 8K Association. The company is active in China with a group called UWA (ex CUVA), an ultra-high-definition display alliance with Huawei as its Chairmen. The Chinese market is seeing a solid government push toward 8K, with The Explorers the only Western participant, for now. CUVA has 10 Work Groups covering the whole 8K industrial chain. Some Work Groups have relationships with the government and can play a role in some official initiated activities. Other Work Groups are working on standards. According to Chiabodo, outside expertise is welcome.
With six years of 8K shooting at 50p, the company has learned, sometimes the hard way, how to produce quality 8K footage. So far, the only cameras that have been up to the task, in all situations, have been from RED. Olivier told me that his team is eager to trial the new Sony 8KVenice. The new RED Warrior is currently being tested in the United Arab Emirates desert in 8K 120p. The 8K camera body is essential, but you need to learn to use filters and lenses. Choosing the right lens is critical.
The fact that 8K kit has been prohibitively expensive and the speed with which the technology evolves have led the Explorers to rent all their equipment from Telline. I asked about some of the most recent, much more affordable 8K kits that other “explorers” could be setting themselves up with. Olivier agreed there are cheaper options out there, and he wants his team to first try out these lower-budget kits, such as Nikon’s Z9. If they prove themselves, an intrepid explorer could kit up for less than $15K, including a lens or two and a new MacBook M1. In line with our recent reporting at the 8K Monitor, Olivier confirmed that the latest MacBooks are game-changers for The Explorers, enabling several shortcuts to their production workflow. The Explorers also use Mac screens for color grading.
The Explorers’ encoding pipeline is assembled in-house with open-source components and currently encodes with HEVC and AV1. The platform is available in 17 languages, with five audio tracks on the video content, and The Explorers has created original content on several occasions to launch new flagship phones. Two-and-a-half to three hours of new 8K HDR content is finalized every month, using Dolby Vision and Atmos. 5.1 surround sound for the Chinese market. Postproduction still needs some creativity, however, e.g., using RAW files.
When I asked Chiabodo about what he needs to create 8K more efficiently, he noted one remaining pain point: backup and storage of 100s of TB. Most bugs have been ironed out on the encoding/transcoding front, but the process still takes way too long.