Op/Ed: Why We Need More Pixels for Filmmaking

By Ben Schwarz

A few years ago, I had a girlfriend that was well known in the French cinema industry, so I was lucky to meet a few world-famous actors and trendy filmmakers. At the time, I was already deeply involved in everything UHD, so I would often whip out my phone to demonstrate HDR and high resolution. I never understood why that so often ended the conversation, and my interlocutor would turn away to find someone more interesting to talk to.

We broke up two years ago, and I’ve had time to think about it since.

Any filmmaker above 40 would have experienced the transition to digital production. Many of them would have had to make compromises. Early tools were cumbersome, trying to mimic the analog processes they replaced and not fully exploiting the new possibilities of the digital world. The resolution was, if anything, lower than what they were used to.

This process left a scar on many filmmakers: digitalization was painful and interfered with artistic intent.

No wonder then, when I’d show amazingly vivid videos where the whole of a 4K image was in perfect focus, they would be alarmed. So, the reaction would be “oh no, not another digital revolution,” or “I don’t want my images to be THAT realistic. I make movies, not nature documentaries.”

I acknowledge now that transitioning to digital affected the way art is portrayed throughout the workflow. But I failed to convince at the time that once in the digital realm, more can only be better. I hope I can be more successful here.

Focusing on selling the advantages of UHD, I failed to make a critical point: If your artistic intent requires a Tarkovsky-like grainy image with washed-out colors and 24 frames per second, all that can be digitally produced with ease from an 8K, WCG 120 fps video. Indeed, I failed to reassure them that once a scene has been captured with more pixels needed, it can be rendered with as few as wanted.

The attributes – beyond resolution – of a top-of-the-range 8K video include improved color, faster framerate, and next-generation audio, which we can keep for future posts.

Let’s focus here on the resolution.

When shooting digital video, using higher resolutions has the drawback of requiring newer, more expensive gear – that we report on here most weeks – and generating larger files, posing some workflow challenges. I’d like to go on, but those are the only downsides that come to mind. The advantages, however, fit into at least four categories:

  • When shooting in a higher resolution than the target resolution, filmmakers can reframe, even create camera movements in post-production. Indeed, an 8K video can be thought of as being made up of four 4K videos or 16 HD videos. Filmmakers wanting to render in 8K can already shoot in 12k to benefit from reframing.
  • When the final viewing experience preserves the higher resolution, a new way of filming becomes available. Sports was once only available in standard definition (SD), and field action was always close-up. Shots with more than one or two players onscreen were rare because, in such cases, you could no longer see any detail. The extra resolution that HD brought twenty years ago meant that one could have longer shots with half a dozen players on screen and even short ones of half a pitch. Zoom forwards to 8K, and a world of new possibilities opens up. Two years ago, France TV demonstrated a live 8K stream from the French Tennis Open. A single fixed shot of the whole court gave a new experience, as I described at the time here.
  • Improved quality of lower-resolution files created from high-resolution rushes. Indeed, even if you do not need to take advantage of the reframing possibilities, merely encoding a file from a higher resolution master creates a higher quality result. The encoder is simply presented with much more information and can make more informed decisions as to what information is significant in the image.
  • Our final point here is about making your content more future-proof. Indeed, the advent of higher resolutions is only a matter of when not if. Film content from a mere decade ago, produced in SD, will soon only be used for historical archives, just like the newsreels from the last world war.