Sony Leads Push for Higher Clarity at 4K

How many Ks are OK for digital cinema?

2K has emerged as the commonly used resolution for feature postproduction, digital-cinema mastering, distribution, projection and restoration. But looking ahead, indications suggest that the resolutions used in the film industry might become far more varied.

The latest signal: last week's news that Sony intends to produce and distribute the majority of its movies in 4K resolution, which contains four times the amount of picture information found in a 2K file. Here's some background:

There are nearly 5,000 d-cinema projectors installed in theaters domestically -- the large majority being systems that play 2K. The bulk of d-cinema postproduction and mastering of new features therefore are accomplished in 2K, and with few exceptions, the files of the movies -- the digital equivalent of the film print -- are delivered to theaters in 2K.
The related area of d-film restoration of older films generally also is accomplished in the 2K resolution.

Execs at Hollywood-area postproduction houses report that the large majority of current demand is for 2K digital cinema services. EFILM -- which has been more bullish than most toward 4K -- said that 15%-20% of its work is currently 4K. Others point out that even when studios do show interest in 4K, the added costs and longer schedules involved in working with the format is a deterrent.

Sony Electronics offers the only 4K d-cinema projector on the market. It is installed in about 200 theaters in North America.

At press time, deployment of both 2K and 4K projection systems is expected to increase. Sony Electronics' Digital Cinema Solutions and Services' is now offering a 4K deployment plan, which includes virtual print fee deals with Fox and Paramount as well as SPE.

To date, a small number of films have been mastered and delivered in 4K to theaters, including Warner Bros. as well as Sony. It is this stage where SPE, with last week's announcement, aims to prompt change by increasing interest in 4K content.

4K production and especially post capabilities already have entered the market, and more is on the way. Sony Electronics has been vocal about its strategy to develop a complete 4K production and post toolset, including a 4K digital-cinematography camera.

Opinions vary on whether moviegoers will see a noticeable difference between 2K and 4K with today's projection systems. As a result, some pundits question whether it is practical or necessary to go higher than 2K.

But 4K has been gaining traction in film restoration and archiving circles, where the long-term benefit of storing the extra picture information is seen as a plus in order to accommodate whatever resolution and display needs emerge in the future.

In recent months, resolutions higher than 4K also have been making news, promising to further fracture the market.

Warner Bros. is restoring George Cukor's 1954 A Star Is Born in 6K resolution, which is 21⁄4 times as much information as a 4K file. Warners is using it as a test of working with and mastering in resolutions higher than 4K.

Japan's public broadcaster NHK is developing what it calls Super Hi-Vision, a proposed 8K resolution format, as a future generation of digital television. Recent demonstrations have dazzled audiences at trade shows, though NHK suggests that the format is a decade away from rollout.

Higher resolutions such as 6K and 8K generally are discussed as longer-term strategies. For the short term, a key factor in energizing a 4K market might be how much impact the influential Sony will have on production, distribution and exhibition requirements in a d-cinema market that is still young, and still relatively limited in size.

By Carolyn Giardina, The Hollywood Reporter