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4K is the future: A tour in Sony's Hollywood studios

20 Aug 2013 | Rasmus Larsen |

We jumped on a plane and took the long trip to Los Angeles to get a peek inside Sony’s Hollywood film studios. Here we talked with Sony about why they believe 4K is the future for in movies and TV series, and got a unique and exclusive look into how Sony works with colors and editing in movie production. Join us to get insight into 4K and much more.

A tour in Sony’s Hollywood studios

In late 1987, the preparations to sell Columbia Pictures began. At that time Coca Cola owned a large share of the company, but they were looking to sell. Two years after, in 1989, Japanese Sony got involved. They acquired Columbia and two years after they changed the name to Sony Pictures Entertainment. An entertainment juggernaut was born. Sony Pictures Entertainment has since created some of the most popular Hollywood movies that have brought joy to cinemagoers and living room watchers around the world.

A tour in Sonys Hollywood studios

Today, Sony has far-reaching activities and besides selling cameras, TVs, smartphones, PCs, projectors and film equipment, a significant part of Sony is concentrated around its music, game and movie studios that are amongst the leading in their respective markets. Sony has also had a prominent role in the professional world, which, according to Sony, has helped them capture an impressive 75 % share of the 4K cinema projector market.

A tour in Sonys Hollywood studiosDo you recognize these?

FlatpanelsHD recently had a chance to get in behind closed doors and we took the long trip to Hollywood, more specifically Culver City where Sony’s studios are located. It was not just a quick tour of the studios. We had a unique chance to meet and talk with people who work with cameras, colors, restoration, cutting, and not least 4K. We are happy to share, so come on inside.

Everything in 4K from this point on

Sony is undergoing a major transformation these days. They are betting big on 4K – or Ultra HD – products with new 55, 65, and 84” 4K TVs, a new PlayStation 4 that can handle 4K video, and a new 4K media player (only available in the US initially). This is just the beginning of 4K as it will play a significant role in Sony’s future.

As opposed to many of its direct competitors Sony is in a unique position as they do not only develop and sell display units such as TVs and projectors, they are also involved in the entire value chain all the way back to cameras and movie production. This allows Sony to influence the direction of the TV market and that is what Sony hope to do with 4K. They hope to adopt it in every step of the value chain to help ignite the 4K market. And this is where Sony Pictures Entertainment comes into the equation.

A tour in Sonys Hollywood studiosSony’s new F65 4K camera in action

Sony's movie studios began working with 4K some time ago and all new projects are commissioned in 4K resolution. Sony says that they have already created or remastered over 100 movies in 4K, including Spider-Man, Salt, Lawrence of Arabia and Taxi Driver. 4K is also reaching TV series where Sony is currently working on 4K versions of popular TV series, including Breaking Bad.

Another interesting element is the prospect of old movies being restored in 4K, which can help start the revolution. This is not just old wine on new bottles. Movies filmed with analog cameras have been filmed in resolutions higher than 4K for decades. In order to restore an older movie in 4K, Sony puts the film roll back into a film scanner that now creates a new master in 4K (or higher). Sony says that they have scanned archived movies in 4K resolution for several years to prepare for the shift. After scanning, the movies go through the entire digital 4K workflow where Sony removes noise, works on colors, aspect ratio, and much more.

A tour in Sonys Hollywood studiosWe saw some screenings of Lawrence in Arabia in the 4K version in Sony’s studios. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos during the clips

Lawrence of Arabia from 1962 is one of Sony's flagship projects for 4K restoration. Besides being part of movie history, Lawrence of Arabia was filmed on 70mm film that can compare to even 8K digital resolution. Work on the 4K version has taken 3 years of sporadic work, according to Sony. In one demonstration we saw how the rough directly-from-the-scanner version of the movie compared to the new restored 4K version. The difference was heaven and earth. Both versions were in 4K, but the original version obviously lacks color grading and more. Also, because part of the film roll had started to crack a bit Sony had issues with horizontal white line in some scenes, which had to be removed digitally frame by frame.

Lots of movies and TV series are currently being prepared for 4K by Sony; both new and old. And with almost all new productions being created in 4K and many old movies coming out, the dearth of 4K content surely looks like a short-lived phase. There are really no similarities to the early days of 3D. However, the question of which media / format to release 4K movies on/in still remains. Sony believes more in internet distribution than physical media. Below you see some of the titles being released in 4K from Sony.

A tour in Sonys Hollywood studios

Working with colors in Colorworks

Sony Colorworks is part of Sony’s movie empire. This is where a lot of the film magic happens after filming is done. In the Colorworks studios Sony is working with colors to give movies the right look. In Colorworks Sony is also working on the restoration of older movies by removing noise, flicker, and other things. This is a demanding task and for some productions Colorworks goes through a movie frame by frame. With 24 frames per second it can be an extremely time consuming process.

A tour in Sonys Hollywood studiosSome color work is done directly on-scene but most work is done in studios afterwards

Colorworks does not only work on Sony’s movies. Other studios can hire them to work on productions, too. When working on movies Colorworks usually work with extremely high quality masters in 4K resolution and 16-bit color per channel. Based on one of these masters Colorworks creates different version of the movie for movie theatres, Blu-ray and DVD releases.

The theatre version is created in the so-called DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) color space that can reproduce far more intense reds, blues and greens compared to the Rec.709 color space used on Blu-ray discs. With the introduction of 4K / Ultra HD a new color space called Rec.2020 is introduced, which is closer to that of DCI in movie theatres. Movies encoded in Rec.2020 will significantly improve picture quality compared to today’s Blu-rays and with the introduction of 4K Sony says that they are starting to really consider how to approach Rec.2020 productions for the consumer market. Colorworks typically releases most movies in three color space versions, and Rec.2020 might add the fourth with the introduction of 4K in living rooms.

Everything in Colorworks is still being carried out by humans. Color corrections are done entirely by eye

Everything in Colorworks is still being carried out by humans. Color corrections are done entirely by eye, and are thus subjective. The industry folks have done this for so many years that they know exactly how to adjust and play with colors to create film magic. It is simply done on a trial-and-error basis by turning digital knobs until the right look is achieved. The Colorworks experts explain that even though computers can do many things today a PC is still very far from being able to color grade movies automatically. Similarly, Sony is not interested in outsourcing work to low-wage countries. Quality is of essence and Sony wants the best people in the industry. In Sony’s eyes those people are still found in the US.

We saw various clips before and after color grading, and the difference is stunning. Especially in scenes that have been filmed over several days or in changing locations. Most people never think about how some scenes are filmed over the course of many days and at different locations. Since man is not – yet – master of the elements, such situations lead to very different lighting and color compositions when filming. These faults or inaccuracies are corrected in the Colorworks studios.

When we say color it obviously also includes work with shadows, contrast, and many other color-related aspects.

"Color is the single most important element of a movie"

We also saw demonstrations of dialogue scenes without color grading that looked fairly boring and mundane. After color grading they could suddenly appear dramatic and formal. Colors play such a crucial role, which we tend to forget. As pointed out by the behind-the-scenes guys at Colorworks; "color is the single most important element of a movie."

The Colorworks guys also gave a few funny examples of how they sometimes need to apply some extra tricks to certain scenes. Even though old movies have been recorded in resolution higher than 4K for decades they were not intended to go to the big screen in such high resolution. So, for example, make-up can be problematic. The same with cables used in action scenes. In such instances errors have to be digitally removed as such errors show up very clearly in the 4K scans.

Working with an uncompressed movie in high resolution and deep colors requires raw power and hard drive space. We had a short peek inside the server room that currently has a capacity of 16 petabytes (almost 17 million gigabytes).

A tour in Sonys Hollywood studiosDevices such as those behind the glass are used to scan film rolls to digital copies. Many film rolls are currently being scanned in 4K to release movies in 4K versions

Is 4K necessary? Why not 8K?

Sony believes wholeheartedly that higher resolution is the next step in the TV industry, but why is Sony so confident? Why have they pushed so hard for 4K TVs and products in general and made efforts to switch to 4K movie production?

A tour in Sonys Hollywood studios
Sony does indeed recognize that 4K has come faster than initially expected. Sony’s decision to move so aggressively into the 4K market relies on many different factors, they say, but the most important reason is that it improves the movie experience, not just picture quality. This attitude is shared amongst Sony’s staff, but it is first and foremost a result of a range of experiments Sony has conducted in recent years. Sony has pulled outsiders into its Hollywood movie theatre for testing to find out more about how people perceive the difference between 2K (very close to Full HD) and 4K resolution. Tests were conducted as “blind tests” and viewers were never told when to expect 4K and 2K content on-screen. In fact, in some experiments they were not even told that it was about 4K.

Sony told us that the experiments unanimously showed that 4K improves the movie experience and draws the viewer further into the film universe.

Seen in a larger context, Sony argues that 4K is the natural next step after 2K (and HD in general) due to several factors. If you look at for example movie theatres, film canvases have increased in size and viewers have moved closer to the canvases, at least relatively. Sony believes that 4K is the “sweet spot” because the level of detail allows movie makers to fill the viewer’s entire field of vision. 2K resolution is too low and would result in pixilation when moving so close that the entire field of vision is covered.

The next step after 4K is 8K resolution that offers four times more pixels than 4K, and the first 8K tests are already underway in Japan, Sony’s home turf. So why not go straight to 8K instead of 4K? Sony provides several reasons; one is obviously costs. It typically costs 2-2˝ times more to make a 4K production compared to a Full HD production and costs would be even higher for an 8K production. Additionally, Sony says that no 8K digital workflow exists in movie studios yet. Computers cannot keep up, the software does not support it yet and there are no 8K monitors to display it on.

That does not mean that Sony has no plans for 8K and no masters of movies in 8K resolution. They have, but they have not run anything through the full editing process at 8K. A third reason is that special effects studios have barely even moved to 4K resolution yet as it requires massive computing power. Most of the early 4K movies have special effects in lower 2K resolution. You might already have noticed that special effects at times appear a bit ‘softer’ than for example facial close ups.

But the main reason is that Sony sees it as a process. Sony believes, as said, that 4K is the optimal resolution to cover the entire field of vision in a movie theatre or at home. 8K will not add additional value until video content moves beyond the field of vision. Sony gave the curved IMAX cinemas as one example where 8K would make sense. 8K is reserved for another time and together with the next step in the arts of movies and video, 8K will open new doors, but that comes further down the road. 4K is, according to Sony, the best resolution right now. The rule of thumb is that you have to set one and a half screen height away from the canvas or TV to take advantage of 4K resolution.

That being said, Sony was also quick to emphasize that 4K / Ultra HD is about much more than just pixel resolution. It is also about higher frame rates in up to 120 fps (compared to 24 fps for movies nowadays) and about more saturated and vivid colors. This is something that Sony is excited to work with in future film productions.

Big thanks to Sony for the unique look into its Hollywood studios. It was truly an exciting experience. If you have any questions please ask.