Offering more than four times the resolution of high definition, 4K is revolutionising how movies are shot and viewed. And to get the best experience, we should apparently be sitting twice as close.
Where better to test this theory than Hollywood? I’m at Sony Pictures, one of the six big film studios embracing this new era, for an extreme close-up. Sony differs slightly from its rivals because it not only produces 4K movies but makes all the equipment necessary to create and watch them – notably cameras and projectors.
Sitting a stone’s throw from where key scenes for Star Trek Into Darkness were filmed, I meet Chris Cookson, president of Sony Pictures Technologies. ‘With mechanical film projectors, a movie in the cinema was something you saw at the end of a long, skinny room,’ he says. ‘You sat at least five screen heights away and that’s where the picture looked most comfortable.
‘This had to do with the amount of information on the screen and what people’s vision conveys to them. A great deal of information on the original film negative never made it to the screen.
‘High definition attempted to recreate the experience of watching the original film print in the theatre. If you look at cinemas since, the screens have got much larger and, typically, they have stadium seating where you’re sitting only 1.5 screen heights away.’
He adds that the amount of information you perceive with your eyes is now much greater than when it was several screen heights away. ‘You’re now twice as close and you can see twice as much. The rationale in my mind for 4K is to try and rebalance the relationship between the eye of the cinema viewer and the picture on the screen because we have changed the physical relationship between the size of the screen and the people in their seats.’
If you hate sitting in the front rows of the cinema and are sceptical that a picture can look any clearer than in HD, you’ll be surprised. Witness 4K first-hand and the difference is immediate. Most impressive is the depth of the images, giving you the feeling you’re watching 3D but without the glasses – and the need for a sick bag.
As a result, the format is already gaining the momentum 3D has arguably failed to – with more than 20,000 cinema screens globally and 40 per cent of all screens in the US already 4K. However, film studios have cinema owners over a barrel when it comes to forcing them to switch.
Gary Johns, senior vice- president of Sony Digital Cinema, provides me with the history lesson. ‘The cost of a digital projector was about $150,000 (£100,000); outrageous for a cinema to pay that kind of money. But a film can cost up to $2,500 per print (£1,650) and a big release could require 7,000 or 8,000 prints, housed in heavy cans and shipped around the world on a short time frame, so very expensive.
Studios stood to save billions of dollars a year by switching to digital and putting a movie on a hard drive or sending it via satellite or fibre optic cable.
‘The studios agreed to help subsidise the cost of cinemas converting from film to digital. The studios said instead of cinemas paying per print, we’ll pay the difference in cost every time you play a movie digitally and that will go towards paying off the equipment. It’s the model being used almost everywhere in the world, with all major theatre chains.’
The six big Hollywood studios then got together and created the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) in March 2002. ‘There were a lot of lawyers involved,’ continues Johns, ‘but they basically decided on everything about digital cinema – remember, they’re the content owners and content is king.
You either play by the rules or you don’t get the movies and you don’t get paid. The digital cinema projection business was designed by the studios and then we were asked to make the projectors.’
Sony, Christie Digital Systems, Barco and NEC are the only manufacturers permitted by the Hollywood studios to make digital cinema projectors. They must adhere to strict specifications, including anti-piracy measures that can identify the exact cinema where a pirated copy was made simply by playing back the illegal version. While Sony committed to 4K from the off, its rivals chose 2K, before switching to 4K early last year.
‘I would never put down a format, but 35mm film quality is actually better than HD when it’s new,’ Johns adds. ‘4K is as good if not better than 35mm. Whether shooting in film or shooting digitally, 4K allows the viewer to see the movie as the film-maker intended it to be seen.’
Cameras from RED, Sony, Blackmagic and Canon mean movies are now increasingly being shot in the format and, crucially, making it all the way to the cinema fully 4K intact. They include The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and next week’s After Earth, starring Will Smith. Even boy band One Direction are getting the treatment in a new documentary from Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock that’s being shot in 4K 3D.
Studios are also licking their lips at the lucrative prospect of re-mastering classic titles – Lawrence Of Arabia recently underwent a painstaking three-year restoration to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Meanwhile, Taxi Driver and Ghostbusters have had similar treatment from 4K post-production specialists Colorworks.
Seeing really is believing with 4K. Next up? Summer 2013 to mark the dawn of 4K TV – and it won’t come cheap.
Sharp shot: 4k cameras RED Established by Oakley sunglasses founder Jim Jannard, RED’s Epic-M and Epic-X cameras were used to film The Hobbit trilogy.
Sony The CineAlta F5, F55 and F65 offer full 4K digital filming. A top-of-the-range F65 costs around $120,000 (£80,000).
Blackmagic The Australian company has produced a 4K camera costing $3,995 (£2,600), available this summer.
Canon The $30,000 (£20,000) EOS C500 is Canon’s first 4K digital cinema camera and was used alongside Sony’s F65 on the movie After Earth.
Senses overdrive: Smell-o-vision From colour to widescreen, surround-sound to stadium seating, HD to 3D and now 4K – cinema has continually broken the boundaries of how we watch movies, but one innovation didn’t catch on.
Smell-O-Vision was designed to release odours during a film so the viewer could sniff out what was happening. It made one ill-fated appearance during the 1960 release Scent Of Mystery, where 30 smells were sprayed at different times to the film’s soundtrack.
‘It didn’t smell as good as they thought it was going to,’ says Gary Johns from Sony Digital Cinema. ‘They had tubes with different smells and the film was meant to trigger those smells and reach the audience in each individual seat. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get them to release at the right time, so you smelt something different to what you were watching.’
Some presentations still use a form of Smell-O-Vision. 4D cinema, not to be confused with 4K, is more accustomed to theme parks than movie theatres, where you’re likely to get soaked by water, feel a freak gust of wind, or catch a whiff of what you’re watching. These elements are what provide the fourth dimension, rather than it having to do with anything extra on screen.
Legoland in Windsor, the London Eye and Drayton Manor in Staffordshire are among some of those with a 4D experience.