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The Future Of Digital Cinema Cameras & Why The Resolution Race Is Over (For Now At Least!)

So much has changed over the past decade in the world of digital cinema, especially in regards to the huge increases in resolution that we have seen over the last few years. It feels like just yesterday that many of us were shooting on the Panasonic DVX100 or a Canon XL1 – completely satisfied, and in many cases thrilled with the quality we were getting from those cameras which of course were only shooting 480p on miniDV tapes. But then HD came along. And we all wanted to replace our DVX’s with HVX’s or similar HD cameras, because the jump in resolution from standard definition to high definition was just too much too pass up. But after the hype of HD died off , it didn’t take long for us DP’s, shooters, and producers to start looking for the next best thing…

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Enter the DSLR (or specifically the Canon 5D MKII), an affordable full HD camera with a large sensor and the ability to use interchangeable lenses. While the 5D (and any other video DSLR) have always had their shortcomings, they were probably the best thing to ever happen to the lower budget cinema market for the simple fact that they reminded us that getting a cinematic image isn’t all about resolution. We started focusing more on lenses that would allow us to play more with the DOF, lighting techniques that were more traditional, and camera movement that strayed from the plain old tripod or handheld look. Yes, these cameras lacked lots of functions like timecode, audio functionality, and many other key features, but the fact is that they let us shoot in a way that was much closer to traditional film/cinema cameras than we had ever been used to with camcorders like the DVX.

It didn’t take long of course for the next big jump in resolution to come along though, and this time it came in the form of 4K. RED was amongst the first to deliver a 4K digital cinema camera, but as we all know that technology eventually trickled down to prosumer and consumer level formats. As of today you can buy a camera like the GH4 for under $2000 which shoots beautiful 4K images, you can shoot 4K on some cell phones, and there are more and more 4K cameras popping up ever month. There is a lot of good about 4K and it is undeniably the way of the future as far as both acquisition and delivery go, but I do think that right now we are in a period of time that is quite similar to the early HD days, before the boom of DSLRs. I say this because there is such a high premium being put on resolution right now, by both manufacturers and consumers, that 4K in itself is the key selling feature, above and beyond other crucial features like high dynamic range for instance.

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So where are things going from here?

Well, it really is the year of 4K. Next week is NAB and I’m sure we will see more new 4K cameras than we know what to do with – which is great, because it means it will pave the way for camera manufacturers to start focusing on other important components, not just resolution. Yes, there will be some companies (like RED, Sony, or Kinefinity) that will continue to push even higher resolution cameras (6K, 8K, and beyond), but I truly do think that they will be the exception, not the rule. The reason being, for cinematic projects 4K is literally more than enough – in fact in many cases it is too much.

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Part of achieving a cinematic image requires a certain softness or forgiveness to the footage, and when you shoot at 4K or higher, you often need to soften the image (either in camera with a filter, or in post) to achieve a more filmic look. I am all for camera companies developing 6K or 8K cameras, but the truth is that I wouldn’t choose to shoot on a camera with a resolution that high for narrative work. If I were shooting a nature documentary, or any other project that was supposed to look hyper-realistic, I would jump at the idea of using an 8K camera. But for narrative work, where you want your talent to actually look good on camera, and you want your viewer to feel immersed in the world you’re creating for them, 4K is plenty.

I’m certainly not the only one that feels this way either – in fact I would say that the majority of narrative DP’s concur that 4K resolution already poses challenges as a result of it’s extremely high resolution, which is part of the reason why I think 4K is going to be here for a while. The resolution race can’t go on forever… In a way it reminds me of the 90’s when computer companies were racing to get the next fastest processor, and every year processor speeds were doubling or tripling. Eventually that died down, because they reached a ceiling, and the same will be true of digital cinema. And not just because DP’s want a more forgiving format for their narrative images, but also because it just isn’t practical at this point to deliver 4K content (let alone anything higher). To this day, broadcasters still struggle with delivering HD – most of which is broadcasted in 720p, so to even think about broadcasting 4K or above for them is still quite far off at this point, at least on a large scale. I would predict that online distributors like Netflix, who are already getting into the 4K game, will continue to be the best means of delivery for 4K content, but even so it will take quite some time before most consumers are actually even viewing 4K resolution properly at home.

What I believe will happen over the next couple of years is a shift in focus from both camera manufacturers and professionals – not unlike what we saw in the early video DSLR days. This will be the year of 4K, yes. But what about next year? Will the focus be elsewhere? Dynamic range perhaps? With companies like Blackmagic Design and Arri focusing so heavily on dynamic range (in some cases above all else, including resolution), hopefully others will follow suit and before next year’s NAB we will see more camera companies boasting crazy numbers in regards to dynamic range, amongst other key features like higher frame rates, and better low light sensitivity.

So with all of this said, am I against shooting 4K? Not at all. I love 4K and I am sure that any camera that I buy going forward will be 4k (or who knows, possibly higher), in resolution. But I do hope that this fascination with shooting 4K dies off sooner than later so we can focus on the other important elements of making a great motion picture, much like we did in the Canon 5D days, or for a better example – in the film days. 

For more on the subject, check out my previous article on Why Dynamic Range Is More Important Than Resolution For Achieving A Film Look.

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

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