It's never easy to go to a show like NAB and figure out the new paths that content creation will take; as NAB has continued to grow in size and complexity, the task has become more daunting. In the past, the show focused on products for television and radio; in recent years, it’s expanded its definition of broadcasting to include motion pictures, internet, mobile and virtual reality. Because of the show’s all- encompassing scope, it takes a fair amount of scrutiny to discern the true trends from the marketing hype.
LED All The Way
Whenever we saw a light on display at NAB, we assumed that it was an LED because nearly all of them were. Not only have the sources switched to LED, but the majority of the fixtures have integrated control via DMX for the higher-end units and Bluetooth for the smaller, less expensive models. Thankfully, as the output of the LED lights continues to increase, prices on many new units actually become more affordable.
For years the flexibility and quality of light produced by small, well-made fresnels have made them the go-to fixture for many shoots. Fresnels were often too expensive for some productions, but that seems to be changing now due to advances in LED technology and market competition. Mole Richardson released its first light from the new Mole Pro Line at NAB. The 5-inch fresnel has a 100 watt LED, DMX control, is daylight balanced and retails for under $1,000.
HDR and 8K in Your Living Room
At this year's NAB, no longer did we hear the question of when 4K would come; 4K is definitely here. This year the most talked about new advancements in motion picture technology for both the cinema and the living room viewing environment were High Dynamic Range (HDR) and 8K resolution; that’s 16 times larger than 1920 x 1080.
Many cameras can produce video with a higher dynamic range — or greater variation between light and dark in the image — than that of the rec. 709 standard for HDTV. Until recently, only a handful of monitors and digital cinema projectors were capable of reproducing a dynamic range that was substantially larger than the HDTV standard. At this year's NAB, not only were many of the professional monitors and recorders on display HDR video capable, there were also consumer TVs that were 4K HDR ready. Whether or not manufacturers can market HDR technology to consumers remains to be seen, but it was the hot new feature that everyone wanted to talk about.
Because the general attitude was of inevitable conversion to 4K for those who have not already converted, the idea 8K TV didn't seem that shocking to those at the show. Japanese camera maker Ikegami showed off an 8K TV camera with an ENG style Canon zoom lens, and it was not a prototype. An Ikegami representative said the camera and lens were actually production models ready for order if you could afford the million dollar price tag.
On the cinema camera side, RED Digital Cinema has begun shipping their Weapon camera with 8K sensors, although at NAB they said if you ordered now you'd get a 6K Weapon and probably have to wait until sometime between September and November for delivery of the 8K sensor upgrades, which are proving to be much more difficult for them to manufacture than they had expected. While the RED Weapon isn't what most of us would call cheap, it's not a half-million dollar camera body so a rental may at least be affordable, especially for filmmakers needing the higher resolution for VFX shots.
Ang Lee and The Future of Cinema
Oscar award-winning director Ang Lee (“Life of Pi,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) showed footage from his latest feature, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which is set to release later this year. The film was shot with Sony F65 cameras in 4K, 3D, at 120 frames per second. Two prototype Christie laser projectors were used to screen the footage at 4K for both left and right eyes at 120 fps. The viewing experience was similar to, but much more intense than, seeing 70mm IMAX film footage for the first time.
Digital cinema in 3D has been traditionally plagued by the light loss caused by the 3D glasses, which created images that were often noticeably darker and had less dynamic range then the same footage in 2D. The laser projectors delivered substantially more light than traditional cinema projectors so no loss of dynamic range was noticed in the 3D footage; however, the most dramatic aspect of the footage shown was a result of the 120 fps frame rate.
In the past, Peter Jackson and other filmmakers experimented with footage shot and screened in 48 fps or 60 fps; these images often still showed motion blur. The footage from Lee's film, when viewed at 120 fps, had virtually no motion blur at all. Unlike footage that was shot at a lower frame rate and converted to 120 fps, which often suffers from an increase in contrast and loss of detail from digital filtering, the native 120 fps footage had more natural looking contrast and an amazing amount of detail. The result was a picture with startling realism that was very compelling, particularly for the battle scene shown. Some in the audience described it as virtual reality on the big screen.
Lee's editorial team intended to cut the film at its native resolution and frame rate monitoring with two projectors for 3D. After running many tests with different software, they found that Avid Media Composer allowed them to monitor the edit with 4K feeds going to both left and right projectors but only with a framerate of 60 fps, so the post team had to render out footage to view it at 120 fps. While many of today’s cameras have no problems acquiring 4K, 6K and even 8K images, post-production obviously has a way to go as far as real time monitoring of high frame rate footage in resolutions of 4K and higher.
With many consumers buying large 4K televisions for their homes, cinema exhibitors are looking for ways to get customers back into theaters. Ang Lee believes his upcoming film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” can help do just that. He believes the future of theatrically released films is not limited to the new look of the high frame rate and highly detailed footage. He sees it as an exciting addition to traditional 2D, 24 fps films. Additionally, Lee believes the use of HDR can also enhance the viewing experience of traditional projects. The Christie laser projectors used for the NAB screening are still prototypes, but the hope is that at least five theaters in the US will get the new projectors in time for the November release of Lee’s film in 4K, 3D, HDR at 120 fps.
Spherical Gets Real
Spherical video got a lot of interest at this year's NAB with educational sessions and an entire programming track on spherical production. Exhibitors showed off cameras, camera rigs and post-production software specially designed for spherical. There were options available to help you through production and post-production, but not a lot of solutions for distribution. Even with all the knowledge available at this show on spherical video, monetization is still one of the vital missing puzzle pieces. YouTube recently launched a spherical video feature that allows you to upload content to be viewed on VR headsets; however, if you're trying to make money on the production or if your client doesn't want the project released on YouTube, your only alternative is to place the video in an app for something like Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR or Oculus if you want it to be easily available for the public to view.
CNET founder Halsey Minor was at the show with his company, Reality Lab, with a prototype of their new Quantum Leap VR camera. The camera is specifically being designed to capture and stream live events from sports to concerts to reality shows. Perhaps more interesting is Reality Lab’s work on a distribution network for live spherical streaming that will make content available to viewers watching on systems powered by mobile devices and PCs.
Part of the challenge right now in creating spherical content is that there are no standards for distribution. Without shooting test footage and viewing it on different spherical platforms, there's no real way to be sure of what the viewing experience will be from platform to platform — or if you're footage will even be viewable at all. One of the advantages to a company like Reality Lab setting up a distribution platform for content creators is that they are performing tests on the different platforms and establishing their own standards that content creators will have to adhere to in order to place content on their network, much like traditional broadcasters have standards for the video files that they'll put on air. This allows content creators to concentrate on creating content without having to figure out how to optimize video for very different hardware platforms.
Most of the spherical content that was talked about or shown at NAB was either promotionals, commercials or art pieces. There's a lot of interest in creating scripted spherical content, but there isn't a curated distribution platform for it. Internet based distribution of traditional 2D scripted content wasn't really successful until the rise of original and exclusive programming from platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. YouTube was one of the first to post video content on the web and allow creators a way to monetize, but very few productions have found that distribution on YouTube brings in enough money for their productions to turn a profit. Additionally, consumers are not in the habit of, nor do they seem very interested in, looking through an app store in search of scripted content. If you're hoping to make a huge indie film breakout like “Paranormal Activity” but as spherical video, it's probably going to be a while before there's a distribution platform for you to send it to.
As more big companies and studio film productions continue to release short promotional spherical films, you can expect interest from smaller companies and consumers to increase. Luckily, you no longer have to strap a dozen cameras or more together, figure out how to get them to sync, and then try to figure out how you're going to stitch all those video frames together to make a single spherical video file. There are individual cameras and pre-built camera rigs now available as well as post-production software to help you along with process.
There were many all-in-one spherical video cameras and camera rigs on display at NAB. Often with video cameras, you might think that spending a lot more on a camera would get you noticeably better image quality, but at NAB we found that that's not always the case.
The new Nokia Ozo, which features eight images sensors, was released just before NAB, and it's $60,000 price tag caused quite a stir. Nokia’s booth at NAB got a lot of attention, as did the camera's design. The Ozo looks more like a spaceship than a camera, but the footage that the Ozo produced was, sadly, less compelling than it’s body design. The all-in-one spherical camera can be used for streaming spherical video or for recording at a higher quality, but even the recorded video lacked the quality one would expect from a camera at a third of the price.
On the other end of the spectrum was the Ricoh Theta S which retails for $350. It has two image sensors that capture 360 degrees by 180 degree fields of view that are recorded to a 1920 x 1080 video file that can be converted to a spherical video file with the included software. The camera had surprising color and contrast reproduction although detail did suffer from the 1080 30 fps recording format. However, the Theta S is a great option for anyone looking to test the waters of spherical video content.
GoPro also showed off their new Omni 360° camera system. It consists of six GoPro HERO4 Black cameras in a custom rig that synchronizes the cameras with included mounts, accessories, and post-production stitching software. The Omni offers recording in 8K 30 fps or 5.6K 60 fps video. The unit is a very compact 120mm cube. The Omni is expected to ship in August for $5,000 with cameras or $1,500 for the rig and software alone.
If you're still holding out on upgrading your lighting gear to LEDs, now's a great time to start looking to buy. The same could be said of 4K cameras. Most of the leading manufacturers now have very affordable models. It's hard to say how far away 8K adoption is, but what’s probably most important to keep in mind is that not all technology is developed for the masses. 8K might not be for everyone, just like not everyone is a PC gamer or owns a Blu-ray player, but it’s a technology that will continue to become more available and more affordable in the not-too-distant future.
Theaters will possibly have to upgrade their projectors to accommodate 120 fps playback, but the conversion for bringing the same experience into consumer’s homes may not be as costly. Many TVs are being made with LED panels that run at 120 Hz even though most of them currently won't accept inputs over 60 Hz. Additionally, there are consumer monitors and video cards built for PC gaming that can accommodate frame rates up to 120 fps out on the market.
For VR and spherical video, it seems that distribution platforms that monetize content and provide standards for uniform viewing across multiple headset brands is what’s lacking. Hopefully, these platforms will launch and take root while there's still so much interest in the technology so content creators will not only have the technical standards they need to ease their workflows but the ability to monetize their videos so they can continue to create.
Technology for the creation of content has never been more accessible or affordable. This year’s NAB showcased everything you need to make a low budget, independent film in 4K HDR or a spherical video wedding app for your high-end clients.
Odin Lindblom is an award-winning editor and cinematographer whose work includes film, commercials and corporate video.