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May 8, 2023

When Only 8K Is Good Enough

Some scenes and events just have to be captured in as much detail and with as much quality as possible. That could be for any number of reasons – from the technical to the artistic or just because the event is historic.

One organization that often plans such events is NASA, whose launches have inspired and informed generations of scientists, technologists and creatives.

Up until 2004, all rocket launches in the US were arranged by NASA, but in 2004 new legislation opened up the possibility of private companies joining the space race. Up to then, the official capture on film or video was organized by NASA which used a series of contractors to capture and process content.

However, the change in the industry to allow commercial space launches also opened up an opportunity for a company to help launch companies to record and track their space vehicles. That was the genesis of the idea for FlightLine Films, which had previously worked on aerial photography and has since developed a range of specialist skills and equipment for the purpose. We caught up with Jay Nemeth of FlightLine to find out more about the company and its facilities for capture and tracking of space vehicles.

Not Just Space

FlightLine has since gone on to capture many events, not only space-related, but others where it can exploit its technology for live video capture in the highest quality. Other events have included concerts and live music festivals.

In the space realm, as well as launches, the firm has worked on other space projects including the famous Red Bull ‘jump from space’ by Felix Baumgartner. It has developed cameras and techniques for capturing content from cockpits and also areas such as the cryogenic fuel tanks to monitor the fuel propellant. The firm is currently working on cameras for 8K video capture on the surface of the moon.

FlightLine Goes Mobile with 8K

To maximize the quality, the firm now has an 8K-compatible mobile facility that can be taken to events and one such event was Felix & Paul Studios’ production of ‘Space Explorers: Artemis Ascending’, an immersive 8K livestream of the rocket launch of Artemis I, the first mission of NASA’s new lunar program. The mobile facility was upgraded from 4K to 8K in 2020 to cover the 2020 Pro Bowl. Artemis is NASA’s next lunar landing project. Although the launch was scheduled several times, weather made the launch difficult, eventually it took place on 16 November 2022, at 01:47:44 EST.

Positioning four 3D 360 cameras on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida closer than any human could ever get, Felix & Paul Studios captured the launch in 8K in collaboration with FlightLine and, which also produced a 360 degree 4K VR live stream for those that could view it in Horizon Venues on the Meta Quest headset. The images allowed viewers to look ahead at the rocket, behind them at the ocean or at the crowds in the NASA Press Site. As Nemeth said “Some of the images in 8K take your breath away”.

As well as being used for headsets, the capture of high quality 360 degree video is really useful for domes and planetariums that want to show the content. Several different formats of 8K were streamed to match the type of projection systems being used in the domes.

Delays Caused Complications

The delay to the launch caused even more complications than normal. As you would expect, all the equipment to capture the images has to be in place well before the launch itself. There is no opportunity to access the equipment that is inside the secure area. As Nemeth told us when we spoke to him about the project

“You can’t wipe the lens if it has dirt or water on it, so you take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place”.

The delay also meant that the launch was moved from a daytime slot to nighttime which posed further challenges. There’s no chance to rehearse for a ‘one-shot’ event like this – especially as other launches by NASA were from different launch pads and none were at night.

360-degree Capture

The 360 degree content was captured using Kandao Obsidian Pro cameras and overall, the truck used 12 8K recorders. Monitoring used a Dell 32″ 8K monitor, but Nemeth told us that it really needed a 65″ or larger monitor. However, the Dell monitor could accept 8K DVI and others couldn’t. Unfortunately HDMI2.1 for TVs is not common in the professional AV world. Other equipment is shown in the diagram below. Blackmagic Design were particularly helpful, we heard, but an AJA 8K Analyzer with QuadLInk SDI was also important.

The Live Truck has a lot of equipment which is listed here.

A challenge of using 4 4K SDI signals to support 8K is that some of the equipment strips out payload IDs and that means that you can’t recombine the images, although the standard was produced by SMPTE to allow this kind of configuration. It’s rarely easy, Nemeth told us.

We recently reported on the change by the Formula 1 motor sport organisation to globally centralized production to avoid having to ship its video control center around the world and helping towards its green targets. FlightLine also likes this approach and where possible likes to feed back content directly from cameras to its headquarters in Las Vegas for production.

The Bar for Capture Quality is High

We also recently reported comments by scientist and professional color grader Florian Friedrich about the importance of using 8K to allow the accurate representation of film grain and Nemeth made the same point to us that many of the early launches and indeed the space missions themselves were captured using special Hassleblad and PhotoSonics cameras loaded with 70mm film which gives very high quality. However, Nemeth pointed out, the grain structure of film is stochastic and not neatly arranged in a grid like a digital sensor.

You need a lot of resolution to ensure that such images are seen in optimum conditions. There is always a lot of discussion about the effective resolution of film cameras, but FlightLine equates UltraHD/4K to 35mm, with 8K equivalent to 70mm.

The company would like to get back higher bitrates, but in live streaming situations from spacecraft, the maximum bitrate is around 44Mbps so compression is essential. However, less compressed content is available with local storage for later viewing. At the Artemis launch, ideally FlightLine would have used around 200 Mbps for its 8K stream, but it was limited to around 100Mbps. Nemeth said that there were not many artifacts.

Finally, Nemeth told us that since the event there had been ‘lots of calls and projects’ to exploit the firm’s capabilities in 8K.

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