For the second year in a row, 4k Ultra High Definition was all over the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This year, the manufacturers promise not only more 4k TVs, but (with the arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray) some actual 4k content to watch on them. There’s just one catch: Most of the movies you’ll watch in “4k” aren’t 4k at all.
Here’s the dirty secret about the industry’s move to 4k or higher displays: The majority of modern movies are either photographed digitally at 2k resolution or have a 2k Digital Intermediate. While it’s true that some movies are indeed starting to be photographed with 4k cameras (and movies shot on film may get scanned at 4k resolution), most of them still get downgraded to 2k for the post-production workflow. The higher pixel resolution of 4k requires a big increase in bandwidth resources that most post houses can’t handle. And, ultimately, most viewers can’t tell the difference between 2k and 4k anyway.
Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s look at some of the launch titles that have been announced for early release on the Ultra HD Blu-ray format this spring.
Here are the titles that Warner Home Video has announced:
‘The Lego Movie’ – Animated on a 2k DI
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ – Shot in 2k, with a 2k DI
‘Man of Steel’ – Shot on 35mm, with a 2k DI
‘Pacific Rim’ – Shot in 5k, but only a 2k DI
‘Pan’ – Shot in 3k, with a 2k DI
‘San Andreas’ – Shot in 3k, DI is not listed but probably 2k
Yes, every single film that Warner plans to release on the 4k Ultra HD format is a 2k movie.
The 20th Century Fox release titles are only marginally better:
‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ – Shot in 5k, with a 2k DI
‘Fantastic Four’ – Shot in 2k, with a 2k DI
‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ – Shot mostly in 2k, with a 2k DI
‘Life of Pi’ – Shot in 2k, with a 2k DI
‘The Martian’ – Shot in 5k, with a 2k DI
‘The Maze Runner’ – Shot mostly in 2k mixed with some 5k, with a 4k DI
‘Wild’ – Shot in 2k, with a 2k DI
‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ – Shot in 2k, with a 2k DI
That’s 13 launch titles from two major studios, and only a single movie was actually produced at 4k resolution (‘The Maze Runner’) – and even that one was mostly photographed in 2k. And these aren’t just old movies made before 4k was possible. Even major big-budget tentpole blockbusters from the past year were made in 2k. Many more will continue to be made in 2k this year and going forward too.
Only Sony appears to have a genuine commitment to making movies in 4k. Here are that studio’s Ultra HD Blu-ray launch titles:
‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ – Shot on 35mm, with a 4k DI
‘Chappie’ – Shot in 5k, with a 4k DI
‘Hancock’ – Shot on 35mm, with a 4k DI
‘Pineapple Express’ – Shot on 35mm, with a 2k DI
‘Salt’ – Shot on 35mm, with a 4k DI
‘The Smurfs 2’ – Shot in 4k, with a 4k DI
Forget About 3D with Ultra HD
In all the hype about Ultra HD, the manufacturers and home video studios have also been careful to downplay another issue that some viewers will find disappointing. If you happen to be a fan of 3D (and it seems that fewer and fewer people are these days), you’re completely out of luck. The Ultra HD format does not support 3D. I say again for emphasis: The Ultra HD format does not support 3D. At all. Period. End of discussion. It’s not in the spec. Nobody has any interest in adding it to the spec anytime soon. As far as Ultra HD is concerned, 3D is dead.
How can this be? Why would the new, super-advanced format drop a feature that’s already available on regular Blu-ray?
The first thing you need to understand is that there is no such thing as a 4k 3D movie at the present time. Not in theaters, not anywhere. All 3D movies are 2k. Yes, this includes that special overpriced screening of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ you just saw in super deluxe IMAX 3D Laser Projection from dual 4k projectors. Even that was upconverted from 2k. Nobody in Hollywood is making 3D movies at 4k. The resource requirements are too huge. Given that the public’s interest in 3D is waning, there’s been no big push in the industry to invest in 4k 3D. That being the case, the Ultra HD Alliance decided to dump it altogether.
If you enjoy 3D and want to continue watching movies in that format, you’re stuck with standard Blu-ray.
Ultra HD Is About More Than 4k
If most of the films getting released on 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray are really 2k movies, what’s the point of Ultra HD at all? Honestly, the increase in pixel resolution from 1920×1080 to 3840×2160 is the least interesting thing about Ultra HD. At the screen sizes available in almost all home theaters, 1080p already hits a sweet spot for delivering richly detailed images with no visible pixel structure. Our human eyes are not capable of resolving much of the additional detail 4k may offer, except on perhaps the largest of projection screens. That extra resolution is more beneficial on a huge 50-foot cinema screen, but for the needs of home theater, it’s basically irrelevant.
Fortunately, Ultra HD brings other new improvements over regular High Definition. The most notable of these are enhanced colors and High Dynamic Range.
You may have read about how Ultra HD will offer millions of new colors that HDTVs of the past were never capable of reproducing. While technically accurate, those claims are largely overblown. The 10-bit color depth and expanded color gamut will be subtle improvements. Ask yourself when was the last time you watched a Blu-ray and thought it wasn’t colorful enough? (Please spare me the inevitable snark about watching black-and-white movies.) Many of the new colors in the expanded gamut are beyond the range of human vision – and of those that are visible, most of today’s two-tone, digitally graded, teal-and-orange movies will never use them. However, the 10-bit color depth means the elimination of banding artifacts in color gradients, which are a genuine limitation of the 8-bit color that standard Blu-rays are encoded with. Artifacts like that are already pretty rare, but Ultra HD shouldn’t suffer them at all, which is a good thing.
High Dynamic Range is by far the most interesting development of Ultra HD. HDR movies have much darker darks and much brighter brights than those of the past, yielding a richer, more vibrant and lifelike image. HDR projection started rolling out to theaters over the past year, and the response from viewers has been overwhelmingly positive. Now that experience is coming to the home as well.
With that said, be aware that not every movie is HDR. A movie has to be specifically graded for the extended dynamic range in post-production. So far, only a handful of movies have undergone that treatment. The very first HDR movie was Disney’s ‘Tomorrowland’, which was released theatrically on May 22nd of last year. Other notable HDR titles include ‘Inside Out’, ‘Pixels’, ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’, ‘The Martian’ and ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.
Not every movie that gets released on Ultra HD Blu-ray will be encoded in a High Dynamic Range format. (The UHD spec contains three competing HDR standards.) However, it is possible to re-grade older movies into HDR, and of the supporting studios, Warner Bros. has announced that it plans to do so for all of its Ultra HD Blu-ray releases. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. Re-grading a movie for HDR is a form of revisionism that the filmmakers did not intend when they originally made the movies. If those filmmakers are still alive and approve the decision, I might be interested to see the results, but I have no more interest in ever watching ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in HDR than I’d want to watch ‘Casablanca’ colorized.
That 4k TV You Just Bought Is Already Obsolete
Sadly, the Ultra HD rollout has been a confusing mess. The UHD Alliance only just recently settled on some of these critical features, and 4k TVs purchased in the past (even many still available in stores today) may not be compatible with either the enhanced colors or High Dynamic Range. To truly take advantage of everything that Ultra HD Blu-ray offers, you need to have a display labeled with the new “Ultra HD Premium” branding.
Even then, with three competing optional HDR standards, there’s no guarantee that the HDR decoder built into any given Ultra HD Premium set will be able to decode the HDR format on a specific Ultra HD Blu-ray disc. What a disaster!