I’m fresh off a trip to Vegas for NAB 2014, and thought I’d share some of the more interesting things I saw, especially as it relates to VFX, Color Grading & Finishing. (NAB is the National Association of Broadcasters, and their annual convention is like SIGGRAPH, but for the entire industry, not just VFX.)
For those who don’t know me, I’m a Smoke VFX artist/colorist and general technologist at a post facility in Portland. The bulk of our work is TV Commercial based, so that’s the “lens” I’m looking through as I looked around the show.
(NOTE: Any opinions are those of my own, and are not endorsed by any of my clients, employer, or any of the vendors mentioned. Also – feel free to comment anything I may have gotten wrong – possible I may have missed some details or misunderstood something…)
This was absolutely the year of 4K. Unless you’ve been under a rock, (or sequestered in a darkened room with a workstation) – you’ve probably been bombarded with press releases and industry news about 4K. 4K is the catch all term for the next generation of high resolution imagery – with 4 times the resolution of 2k/1080p HDTV. In broadcast, it’s also called UHDTV – Ultra High Definition TV.
(Note: technically, UHDTV and 4K are slightly different formats, like 2k and HDTV are slightly different – but everyone is referring to it as “4k” since it’s sexier and easier to say than UHDTV. You may also hear 2160p.)
I am shocked at how quickly and thoroughly the production and post industries have embraced 4k. There are still quite a few hurdles to overcome before it goes mainstream – but almost every single camera at the show was 4k (or greater). And almost every single edit platform is now 4k ready – Premiere, FCP-X, Sony Vegas, and also more finishing systems like Smoke/Flame are now 4k ready (Scratch & Resolve have been for a while), and Avid says (or doesn’t actually say out loud, but whispers in your ear) they’ll have something by the end of the year.
Personally, I still think it will be a niche product to actually finish and deliver in 4k for quite while – it will be like the 2007 days, where some jobs had an HD finish, and some were SD – but just a few short years later, everything we do now at our shop is in Full HD 1080p. My guess is that 4k will take quite a while to catch on with the public, but it’s only a matter of time until all TVs are 4k – just like all smart phones now have high-resolution “retina” screens.
(This last “4k World” slide was a cheat – it’s actually from CES – but interesting that it’s being pushed so hard to the consumer show as well).
The big question is how does it get to the viewer? Netflix is now streaming House of Cards in 4k – but very few TVs are ready for it, and most home internet connections could not handle the bandwidth, which is about double what you need for HD (not 4x), due to better codecs – </aH265 or HEVC is the new standard for streaming 4k video.
This model is probably what will lead the adoption of UHDTV – the internet and streaming providers can move much more quickly than the broadcast industry, which would have to spend billions to upgrade their pipelines.
YouTube has allowed 4k uploads for a while, and they even have a 4k “Channel” – but again, sufficient bandwidth and h265 capable TVs are still quite rare.
Blackmagic showed 2 new 4k cameras in the $6000 range, and AJA had the big surprise of the show by releasing a camera of their own, the CION – very similar to the Alexa, but in 4k, and at only $9000, compared to 60k for an Alexa. (which is not even a 4k camera – hard to believe we once thought that looked good, eh? Wasn’t that what you were thinking when you saw all off those Oscar movies shot on an Alexa? “12 Years a Slave was ok, but I really think it needs another K or two.”)
While 4K definitely feels (to me) like a solution in search of a problem, I don’t think it’s a fad like 3DTV. I think it will be more like 5.1 audio – sure, we can do it if we want to, but for many projects, it’s really not necessary – stereo is fine. It might turn out that 4k is the same way – high profile spots and cinema releases – sure, finish in 4k. But for most work? Probably not necessary – at least in the near future. It will probably continue to be broadcast/streamed in 1080, and then the 4k TVs will “uprez” it to 4k, and maybe if their screen is over 75″ – maybe they’ll see a difference. Now, if only the cable companies would give the stream enough bandwidth to look decent, it might actually be worthwhile… But I digress.
The real crazy part about the new UHDTV standard is not even the number of pixels – that’s relatively simple to deal with – but there are also plans to transition to higher frame rate, higher contrast ratios, higher bit depths for more colors (10 & 12 bit) – that’s when multi-format delivery will be quite a challenge…) The new color space (BT2020 is the new Rec709) is actually even broader than the Digital Cinema space. The good news is that there will never be another interlaced format to deal with ever again. The new “spec” calls for frame sizes up to 8k, and frame rates up to 120p, but there are no “i” formats in the new standards at all. (Yeah! From a broadcast finisher’s perspective!)
Adobe Creative Cloud has really taken off. There was literally no one showing anything to do with FCP 7, and probably 50% of the edit systems on display at vendors all across the show were Premiere and CC. There was still a fair number of Avids, and a few FCP-X, and a few PC only platforms (Vegas/Edius) – but Premiere was by far the most common. It certainly helps that it’s on both Mac and Windows, and it doesn’t cost $1500 to start using it – just $50 per month for most users – that’s for every app Adobe makes – Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, etc.
Adobe is also pushing a new tool for collaborative workflows called Adobe Anywhere. Imagine editing from a remote location, over wifi, not with lo-rez proxies, but with full resolution media. That’s what Adobe Anywhere promises. The idea is that the facility runs a very beefy central server, with multiple GPU cards and fast RAID storage or SAN (Storage Area Network).
All of the edit systems become remote clients to the central server – and it’s the server that does all of the processing, not the workstation – the workstation is just giving commands to the server for how to build the edit, and the server builds it and on-the-fly renders an h264 stream to your edit system’s viewer window. The better your bandwidth, the better that stream looks, so on a decent internet connection or a LAN, it looks great. And on a low bandwidth wifi – well, it scales to look as good as it can – but since you’re always using the full rez media, you can pause on a frame and it will instantly update to full rez (when paused) to better judge the quality of a shot. And the “Anywhere” server handles all of the project files & permissions among multiple editors, etc.
It’s still pretty limited in many ways – you can’t link After Effects projects in the timeline (which is one of the best parts about Premiere), exporting files or XMLs is a real chore – but it’s an exciting development for sure. It’s also not cheap. For a group of 10 editors, I was told to expect to spend about $80,000 in server hardware (not including storage), and each user account is $1000/year. So – it’s certainly not for everyone, but possibly a glimpse into a new world of remote collaboration.
HP had a pretty big presence, showing they are still committed to the big box workstation and all of the power and flexibility that comes with it. Every single machine at the Avid booth was running on HP hardware, no Macs at all. Some vendors had Premiere systems with the exact same hardware as Flames (z820), and claim it far outperforms the new macs. Those workstations are not cheap – but with most apps now being cross platform, (other than FCP-X and Smoke on Mac), it’s nice to know you can still build a powerhouse system if you needed to.
The new Mac Pro (trash can/cylinder model) was also pretty prominently featured at many booths – including the DaVinci Resolve booth, which used to run their hero demo machine a a beefy Linux box – but this year was on the Mac Pro. It’s pretty awesome, and will only get better once more software can really take advantage of the power in that little tube, and its’ dual graphic cards.
ProRes is being pretty clearly adopted as the defacto standard delivery format for the broadcast industry. More and more systems (PC & Linux) can now create legit ProRes files. And while many of the new cameras are embracing “raw” shooting modes, many of them can now shoot directly into ProRes format. Funny to think that FCP has diminished in stature, but ProRes is flying higher than ever. Thank goodness those unintended gamma shifts are very rare these days…