Audra Coulombe is the Marketing Manager for The Molecule, a VFX, Motion Graphics, and VR company located in New York and Los Angeles.
It seems like every day we have higher-resolution footage coming in from clients through our FTP. From a viewer standpoint, this trend has a ton of benefits. Higher resolution goes hand-in-hand with a better viewing experience — and who wants to go back to the days of yore with TV sets like these?
The biggest drivers behind this movement are our favorite streaming services, like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. High resolution has become a huge selling point for these services, so it’s become a sort of arms race between them to offer the highest quality at the lowest prices.
For viewers, it’s super exciting to see video quality moving in this direction. But for VFX and MGFX companies like The Molecule who work on these shows, higher-resolution footage provides a whole new set of challenges to address.
More Shots Overall
In the days of standard definition, there were a lot of little details that the viewer didn’t see. As a kid, I remember going on the set of a famous talk show during a studio tour with my classmates. The tour guide pointed to the floor, saying that it wasn’t real hardwood. “We had an intern draw wood lines with a black Sharpie on this linoleum,” he told us. He also noted that once everyone switched to HD, they would have to put real hardwood floors down, because then viewers would be able to tell that it was fake.
A scar, a tag sticking out of an actor’s shirt, a store sign with a real phone number on it — all of these are examples of shots that, decades ago, would have been too low-resolution to need VFX cleanup. Today, almost every shot can be a VFX shot, simply because higher resolution means more detail, and more detail means that minor flaws are viewable.
Higher-res shots make data storage disappear as fast as space in a crowded train during rush hour. Blink, and it’s gone. Sometimes the only way that you can accommodate UHD, 4K, or 6K footage is to just buy more space.
As The Molecule’s visual effects coordinator, Joshua Sacavage receives footage from production companies, preps it for artists to work on, and sends them the finished product. “A frame of HD footage is 8.3MB, whereas a 6K frame is a whopping 75.5MB,” he notes. “This means I’ll have to work with the IT team to make sure we’ve got about nine times as much storage available for a 6K project as we would need for one shot in HD.”
If you’re planning on upgrading your current setup or building a new one, Molecule CEO Chris Healer recommends planning way, way ahead. “We’re building our new IT infrastructure at about ten times our current capacity,” he says, “and we’re anticipating demands will grow even more with VR and HFR footage.”
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges with working on 4K or 6K footage is the extra time required, simply because the footage takes twice as long to read, view, and render. If your footage is hosted on a server, the time it takes to view it on your machine is exponentially longer. As producer Ezra Christian notes, “a single frame of 6K footage takes minutes, not seconds, to load.”
Meanwhile, compositing supervisor Mark Friedman adds that, “we still have the same turnaround time on footage that takes, on average, twice as long to process.” Because higher resolution footage takes longer to render, you also need to be sure to double, triple, or quadruple check your shot before you set it to render — or else you’ll have wasted hours rendering something that needs to be redone.
So how can you squeeze more hours in the day? Well, you can’t yet, but you can make your work hours more efficient. We created our own viewing station with a 4K monitor that has a direct link to our server. On a recent film, we were working on anamorphic 2K footage (which ends up being 4K) and, as Mark reveals, “it took an hour to quality check four shots on our normal monitor, but we were able to QC 20 shots on our 4K in the same amount of time.”
You should also plan ahead with each project. If you know the resolution ahead of time and know that things will take longer than normal, consider adding in extra time to your initial bid.
Increase in detail is an obvious benefit to higher K, but another big benefit won’t be seen for years to come. This was clear to us when HBO re-released The Wire in HD and asked us to help remake some of the VFX to better conform. “Creating shows in 4 or 6K now means that years down the road, these networks won’t need to up-res their shows,” says Ezra.
Before and after images from VFX work for the re-release of The Wire.
If you’ve been working with 4K or 6K footage, what other types of challenges do you face? Share your thoughts in the comments!