Ultra HD Cameras Are Ready for Their Close-Up

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After the failure of 3D stereoscopic production systems to make much headway in the TV industry, it is tempting to dismiss all the hype surrounding 4K, or Ultra HD technologies. After all, few consumers own 4K sets, which can cost around $25,000, and an industry- wide standard has not been established for the format, which would require most broadcast infrastructures to be significantly rebuilt.

Despite those stumbling blocks, however, Ultra HD/4K production gear is being embraced by a growing number of producers in the sports, network series and theatrical film sectors.

In the theatrical arena, Alec Shapiro, president of Sony Electronics’ Professional Solutions of America division, notes that Sony’s F65 camera was used to make the new Tom Cruise film, Oblivion, and After Earth starring Will Smith. “There are another six or seven films coming in the summer and fall that used the F65 since it was introduced a year ago,” Shapiro says.

Ultra HD cameras have also made their way into sports as a way to offer much-improved replays. Fox Sports uses the Sony F65 camera for NFL and NASCAR, and CBS Sports is deploying the For-A FT One 4K camera to get crisper NFL coverage.

Sony is working with Telegenic in the U.K. to build Europe’s first 4K truck, which will house equipment from both Sony and Miranda.

In TV production, Alex Buono, director of photography at the Saturday Night Live film unit, reports they have used the Canon EOS C500 to shoot some short sequences in 4K. SNL is also exploring the possibility of 4K masters for archives.

These early steps are particularly notable because they highlight a number of differences between the 3D craze and the move toward Ultra HD production. While 3D provided producers of theatrical films with higher box-office revenue, the format struggled in the TV arena, where new production workflows were required and revenue never covered the increased costs.

In contrast, the use of 4K technologies can, in certain cases, already offer some clear advantages over HD production. In film and TV series, for example, Ultra HD cameras could create a better master file for post-production and archives. The studios are also used to handling the format because 4K or 8K files are already being used in most theatrical film post productions, and the move to 4K requires few changes from existing workflows.

“We haven’t had any real issues with production or workflow,” says Phil Squyres, senior VP of technical operations at Sony Pictures Television, which has shot two series in 4K and has three pilots in Ultra HD in the works.

These developments have already produced relatively healthy demand for 4K gear. Shapiro notes that Sony has sold more than 2,000 units of its F55 and F5 cameras since they were released in February and has installed about 15,000 4K projectors in cinemas around the world.

To capitalize on that demand, NAB also saw the introduction of many new 4K products, with ATEME, Elemental, Ericsson, Harmonic, Miranda, Panasonic, Snell, Sony and others unveiling models that support 4K productions.

Vision Research demonstrated a new PhantomFlex 4K camera that broke new ground in frame rates for slow-motion video.

Hurdles Remain

Prices for 4K cameras are also falling, and manufacturers such as Canon and Fujinon are introducing more 4K lenses, though these lenses still cost three or four times as much as HD glass.

Thom Calabro, director of marketing and product development for Fujifilm North America, notes that the tolerances and specifications of the Fujinon 4K lenses need to be much tighter because of the higher resolution. Fujinon 4K lenses were used in the production of Life of Pi and Oblivion.

Those challenges will only increase as other manufacturers explore 8K technologies. Sean Moran, VP of sales for broadcast and professional products for Hitachi Kokusai Electric America, says Hitachi is working on both 4K and 8K cameras and created the 8K cameras being used by Japanese broadcaster NHK in its Hi-Vision demo at the NAB show.

Skeptics remain, however. “Right now, 4K is way overhyped,” contends Marc Shipman-Mueller, product manager for camera systems at Arri, which at NAB demonstrated how well feeds from its widely used Alexa camera could be “up-resed”—the process of increasing the resolution of a video, in this case boosting it to 4K. “What is more important than resolution is good image quality,” he says. “Once you have that, you can up-res to 4K and that makes the Alexa a futureproof camera.”

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