Sunday 1 January, 2017 13:43
This Christmas, after sitting on the sidelines for as long as I could manage, I made the leap to the new Ultra HD Blu-ray format. I won’t go through all the specifics of the new technology, but broadly speaking, we’re looking at a resolution bump from 1920x1080 to 3840x2160 (compared to “normal” Blu-ray), along with a variety of other technical advances including larger capacity discs and a higher data rate; a new, more efficient codec (HEVC); 10-bit colour and high dynamic range (HDR). If all that sounds like double Dutch to you, suffice it to say that Ultra HD Blu-ray (shortened to UHD from hereon in) represents a technological leap over regular Blu-ray that, in theory at least, is comparable to that of the jump from DVD to Blu-ray.
Note the “in theory at least” part. There are a whole lot of what-ifs to consider, not least the question of whether an individual title will actually benefit in any way from these advancements. Since the early 2000s, the vast majority of films, though shot on celluloid, have been “finished” in a digital environment, meaning that the completed product (including editing, visual effects and colour grading) exists only in the digital realm. The bulk of these digital masters are 2K, i.e. a resolution of 2048x1080 - in other words, onlya quarter of the resolution offered by 4K and as near as damnit to Blu-ray’s 1920x1080. In theory at least (again that ominous phrase), with titles shot on celluloid, it should be possible for studios to go back to the raw camera negative and recreate the end result at a higher resolution, but in practice this is exceedingly unlikely, not least given the immense costs involved. More positively, the wealth of films completed entirely on celluloid in the pre-digital intermediate (DI) era represent a treasure trove waiting to be tapped, and a small handful have already made their UHD debut. One of these, LABYRINTH, is among the 20 UHD titles I’ve picked up so far, and the results are impressive, but it remains to be seen how many films will actually receive this costly investment.
With titles shot digitally, the situation looks even less hopeful. While 5K, 6K and even 8K capture formats are rising to prominence, the majority of existing digital movies were shot at a resolution below 4K: the original Arri ALEXA, for example, used on films such as SKYFALL, DRIVE and GRAVITY and for a long time held up as the gold standard when it comes to digital filmmaking (at least if the goal is to emulate the look and feel of film as much as possible), captures data at 2880x2160, which is some way off UHD’s 3840x2160 in terms of horizontal resolution. And once again, a great many - even among those shot at 5K and above - were finished in 2K. And it’s worth bearing in mind that, even among titles both shot and finished at 4K or higher, in 99.99% of cases any visual effects shots will have been rendered at 2K, given the immense processing power and storage capacities required to render and save footage in 4K. For crying out loud, the Pixar films, which dominate virtually every “best-looking Blu-ray Discs” list out there, only exist in 2K, and this is unlikely to change any time soon.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are a multitude of titles out there that are genuinely 4K, or at the very least close enough (including films like SICARIO, captured in 3.4K and treated to a 4K finish), and in those instances the benefits of the resolution jump should be (and, in my experience, are) obvious. And, in addition to the aforementioned celluloid-only titles like LABYRINTH and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, a decent number of films shot on celluloid have indeed been finished at 4K, among them ARGO, THE DA VINCI CODE and JASON BOURNE - all three of which (and others) are already available on UHD. And it’s worth stressing that increased resolution is far from the only improvement afforded by UHD. The new HEVC codec is considerably more efficient than its predecessor, AVC, and HDR allows for a greatly enhanced range of light and shade, resulting in some genuinely impressive results in titles that take advantage of it (though I remain sceptical of the idea of “retrofitting” older films that were never intended to be viewed this way).
To experience the new format, you will of course need an Ultra HD player and 4K display, neither of which I owned. As a result, at the tail end of 2016 I took advantage of the Black Friday bonanza and duly picked up a 50 inch Panasonic TX-50DX700B (an LED TV at the more budget-conscious end of the spectrum) and a Panasonic DMP-UB700EBK player. Had money been no object, I’ve no doubt that I’d have gone out and splurged on a top-of-the-line OLED display (I got to experience one first-hand last Christmas for a week or so, and it’s difficult to go back to the anaemic blacks of LED displays after that), but unfortunately I have not, as of yet, won the lottery (and am unlikely to do so any time soon given that, in order to be in with a chance of winning, you have to buy a ticket). I’m reasonably happy with the display, though it does of course represent a compromise: the blacks are fairly underwhelming, there is some visible clouding, and while 50 inches is not to be sniffed at, it represents a significant downgrade compared to the 123” projector screen I have the use of. (The projector itself is 1080p, and it should surprise precisely no one to learn that 4K projectors don’t come cheap to say the least.)
As noted above, I’ve picked up 20 UHD releases already, representing an interesting cross section of the different possibilities in terms of capture formats and resolutions. Pretty much every variable is accounted for: titles shot and finished at sub-4K resolutions (EVEREST, GHOSTBUSTERS , WARCRAFT, WILD); titles shot at 4K or higher but finished in 2K (CONCUSSION, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, OBLIVION); titles shot in close to 4K and finished in 4K (THE NEON DEMON, THE REVENANT, SICARIO); titles shot in 4K or higher and finished in 4K (LUCY, SULLY); titles shot on film and finished in 2K (THE BOURNE LEGACY, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, THE TOWN); titles shot on film and finished in 4K (ARGO, JASON BOURNE); titles shot on film in the pre-DI era and given a new 4K scan (LABYRINTH); and even one title which looks to be nothing more than an upscale of a dated 2K Spirit Datacine scan (THE BOURNE IDENTITY). At least one title, THE MARTIAN, was finished in 2K, but for the UHD release the studio went back to the original 6K capture to do a fresh 4K DI (albeit with its copious effects shots remaining unavoidably 2K). This might be termed going above and beyond the call of duty and is likely to remain the exception rather than the rule.
So how does it all look? Is it worth the cost of upgrading? The second of these two questions is one that can only be answered on an individual basis, but from my perspective - i.e. that of a resolution junkie - it came as no surprise that the titles that impressed me the most were invariably those that had been both shot and finished at the highest possible resolutions. The 20 titles I picked up can broadly speaking be broken into four categories: the “wow, that looks amazing” category, the “that looks very good, but the improvements over BD are subtle” category, the “I’m not convinced that looks any better than BD” category, and the “whoever did that should be ashamed of themselves” category (the latter represented by a single title, the aforementioned THE BOURNE IDENTITY). Some titles fall somewhere in between two of these categories, but the five titles that impressed me the most - JASON BOURNE, LABYRINTH, LUCY, SICARIO and SULLY - were all finished in 4K (or rescanned in 4K from the camera negative in LABYRINTH’s case) and shot on either 35mm or at 4K or higher resolution. (The exception is SICARIO, shot in 3.4K - which, as previously noted, is close enough to 4K not to split too many hairs).
Within these titles, the improvements over their BD counterparts range from the subtle to the striking. This is not like the DVD to BD jump, where literally every shot looked appreciably better. Static close-ups and extreme long shots tend to benefit most from the resolution uptick; medium and long shots, and those featuring frenetic movement, less so. The close-ups of Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbæk arguing outside the hotel at around the 0:02:10 mark in LUCY absolutely pop in terms of fine detail: check out the various moles and spots on Johansson’s face, and the individual strands of her hair. (And, perhaps less flatteringly, her upper lip hair at 0:36:00. See also Morgan Freeman’s face at 0:26:18.) Of course, LUCY is an effects extravaganza, particularly in its final act, and there’s a clear difference in resolution between those shots that were CGI-augmented and those that weren’t (check the shots of the computer-animated primate in the opening sequence for a good example of this).
In some titles, more notably THE REVENANT, the most appreciable improvement doesn’t come from the increased resolution (possibly thanks to the amount of mobile camerawork and medium to wide shots) but rather the high dynamic range, which adds to the sense of immersion in a way that’s difficult to put into words. The best way I can describe it is to say that it really does feel like you’re staring into the harsh glare of the winter sun rather than simply watching a recording of it. There’s a particularly striking moment just after the start of Chapter 3 where the camera cuts from a subdued shot of Leonardo DiCaprio and his son splashing through the river to a low shot of Native American horsemen galloping across a muddy field, the pale sky filling much of the frame. (Though, bizarrely for a title finished in 4K, the occasional subtitles for non-English dialogue in THE REVENANT appear to have been poorly upscaled from a lower resolution source, to the point of the individual pixels being visible, like when you do a “nearest neighbour” resize job in Photoshop.) Edited to add: note also that some portions of the film were shot on the Arri Alexa 65, with a native resolution of 6.5K, meaning that at least SOME of the end product is genuinely 4K (thanks to Vincent Pereira for this point).
A film like WARCRAFT, shot in 3.4K and finished in 2K, looks underwhelming throughout, to the extent that I’m not convinced it offers any meaningful uptick in detail whatsoever compared to the BD. Given that I doubt there are many shots in that film that weren’t touched by CGI in some way, it’s unsurprising that the filmmakers chose to go for a 2K rather than a 4K DI, but it does put us in the slightly surprising situation whereby one of the titles that I suspect many people would have expected to provide some of the most impressive demo material (a big fat CGI epic romp) basically looks interchangeable with its BD counterpart. In comparison, CONCUSSION, despite also being shot in 3.4K and finished in 2K, provides an appreciable improvement in detail over the BD as well as some genuinely impressive HDR moments.
And what of the titles shot on film? The bag is, as they say, mixed. A title like THE TOWN, shot on 35mm and finished in 2K, gets a modest boost in detail, but you never forget that it’s an upscale. Ben Affleck’s directorial follow-up, ARGO, on the other hand, was shot in 35mm (with some shots in a range of other formats, including 8mm, 16mm and 2.8K digital) and finished in 4K, and offers a smoother, more naturally filmic image, though the increase in detail remains at the more subtle end of the spectrum. JASON BOURNE - again shot in a mixture of formats, but again predominantly 35mm with a 4K finish - looks more impressive still, boasting exceptional levels of fine detail… when the camera manages to stay still, at least. I think it’s safe to say that, with 4K, we’re at the upper limits of the resolution that can be eked out of 35mm film, but those who claim there’s nothing to be gained from the jump from 1080p to 4K for film-sourced titles (and remember, there were those who said the same about the move from DVD to BD) are categorically wrong.
An important issue to consider is the small matter of viewing distance. I’m sitting pretty close to my display at a distance of about one metre (in part in an attempt to emulate the engulfing effect of watching films on a wall-sized projection setup), and the difference between a UHD disc and an upscaled BD is obvious. But move back to a more respectable distance (one that allows more than one person to see the screen at any given time) and the differences become more subtle. And of course how good your eyesight is will play a part as well. I don’t wear glasses and, as far as I can tell, have decent (possibly above average - though I’ve never had it tested in any objective sense) vision. Over the Christmas period, I put both my parents - both in their 60s and both wearers of varifocals - in the hot seat, so to speak, and the improvement in detail in titles like LUCY and SICARIO was readily apparent to them, but I suspect they’d struggle to see the benefits from several metres away. So, if you’re short-sighted and normally watch your films on a 40-incher situated at the other end of the room, there may not be a whole lot of point making the leap to the new format.
There’s also the small matter of compression, and I’d be lying if I claimed not to have spotted some instances of mild-to-moderate artefacting. The HEVC codec is more efficient than its predecessor, but bear in mind that it still has to squeeze four times the number of pixels onto discs whose capacity is considerably less than four times that of a dual layer Blu-ray Disc. (The highest capacity UHD disc is 100 GB, the lowest 50 GB.) In THE REVENANT, for instance, there’s some fairly noticeable artefacting around the swaying branches near the top of the frame in the wide shot of the tree at 0:01:18. And in LABYRINTH, I’m uncertain as to how much the coarseness of the grain is its natural appearance and how much is down to the compression struggling to handle this much random “noise”.
So, ultimately, do I think it’s worth jumping aboard the UHD bandwagon? That’s a question I can only really answer for myself, and that answer would be a cautious if not overwhelming “yes”. I should point out that, whereas I can remember wanting something superior to DVD for almost as long as that format was in existence, when all said and done I’m still very happy with Blu-ray. A well-authored BD sourced from a modern transfer can still wow me to the extent that I’m genuinely amazed it’s possible to achieve such a level of quality on a mass market consumer format. (Arrow’s recent release of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., which I had the opportunity to QC last year, being a case in point.) That’s not to say that UHD is incapable of wowing me or that its improvements over BD can in any way be described as minor, but the need for a newer, better format seems somehow less “urgent” than it did back in the days of DVD. With that said, you’d have to prise my 4K TV, UHD player and small collection of discs from my cold, dead hands. While it would be fair to say that the majority of the discs I’ve seen so far offer only a modest improvement over BD, the absolute best the format has to offer is a sight to behold indeed, and I suspect I’d have a hard time going back to watching these individual titles on BD, in the same way that my heart always sinks just a little bit when I have to QC a DVD version of a film after having previously gone through its BD counterpart.
This has been a lengthy piece, and it should be borne in mind that these are very much preliminary observations based on the viewing of a small number of films and some judicious skipping through several others. It’s going to take some time for us to work out what constitutes “the new normal” as regards this fledgling format - in other words, the absolute best and worst it’s capable of. I imagine that, as with Blu-ray, we’ll go through a bedding in period whereby the titles that get all the attention and the highest scores from reviewers will be the ones that are naturally the most showy - i.e. the extravagant, hyper-saturated effects extravaganzas. I suspect UHD is destined to remain far more of a niche interest format than BD, but for those who care about experiencing their films in the best possible quality, UHD is very much where the future lies, if not the present.
Note: this article is indebted to Remy Pignatiello and Esteban Medaglia for the information about 2K versus 4K rendering.