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More Thoughts on 4K Video + Good 4K is Better than a Movie Theatre

Last fall I wrote about 4K television and streaming in Impressions of 4K Television. See also Sony 4K Television: Wow! and 4K UltraHD Fascinating Visually, Selection Needs to Expand.

I’ve been evaluating 4K video some more, a fascinating study for me that I started last September—akin to how I first started assessing still imagery, but this time with years of experience studying hundreds of lenses and dozens of camera. My 'eye' is now well tuned enough to be a distraction: I can’t watch 4K video or even go to the movies without seeing all the visual flaws. 4K video is fascinating in its own right because unlike all previous formats, it gets close enough to real to be interesting for the visuals alone (and since nearly all Hollywood movies made today are dreck in terms of plot or character development, that’s a key point).

So now I’m studying 4K on the Sony X930C, which has a fabulous picture. While OLED TVs are just starting to appear, the X930C supports the new 4K HDR standard and so when source material starts appearing, it should gain another bump up in visual impact. OLED-based 4K TVs will be even better in picture quality, but the X930C is stunning right now, and way beyond really good.

Both the Sony 4K TVs mercilessly reveal limitations of the source material, and limitations are legion: depth of field, noise and posterization, focus errors, dynamic range, flare. And that’s best case: compression of streamed 4K material can at times deliver ugly tonal transitions, stuff that in a still image I’d eviscerate in a review, such as noses on human faces. There can also be network issues that sporadically reduce streaming 4K quality to sub-HD levels, and the pixellated result is not pleasing. If it doesn’t look good, it may just be the streaming quality, so keep that in mind (hint: unplug the TV and/or internet router if quality problems persist).

Observations:

  • High quality 4K is a whole new experience visually; I can’t go back to standard-res TV. Really good HD material can be quite satisfying on 4K also, and indeed better than mediocre 4K material, particularly movies originally shot on film (e.g., The Bourne Identity). Still, 4K TV cries out for high quality source material, and there isn’t a lot of that yet.
  • 4K is as much about dynamic range and color gamut than resolution. Just as with still image photography! All three have to be there in proper measure: resolution, color gamut, dynamic range. The dynamic range component is now standardized and with support starting to arrive in TVs like the Sony X930C; perhaps confusingly for still photographers it is called HDR.
  • Noise (film or digital) is a limitation with all sorts of 4K material shot in low light (Jessica Jones and Breaking Bad, show high levels of noise and sometimes posterization). Sometimes posterization is seen and sometimes pronounced: there is no magic bullet just because it’s video instead of still. Some recent movies are shot digitally on huge sensors (e.g, Revenant in 65mm anamorphic); I saw no such defects in Revenant, so large sensors apparently help tremendously.
  • The moving frames of video hide serious image quality defects as can be seen by pausing any 4K movie or show and examining any static details.
  • 4K footage that fully utilizes the resolution for more than a small fraction of the show is hard to find; movement, focus, lighting all reduce actual resolution. Ungraded 4K video at 100M/30p right out of the Sony A7R II or Sony A7S II makes a laughingstock of 4K streaming. UltraHD BluRay (due out in March 2016) should help a lot. The iMac 5K with 100M/30P 4K at actual pixels or at 5K looks fantastic, showing that 8K has serious potential for future 8K home TV (pixel density relates to believability of the image). Bandwidth is the main problem.
  • BluRay upscaled to 4K looks acceptable to very good, depending on the content. Blade Runner on BluRay cries out for a 4K remaster, but my guess is that the source material will have a lot of limitations. Plain DVD video is almost cartoonish in its coarse details, but old original Star Trek episodes on DVD work out just fine given the strong story lines; those were never about special effects.
  • Viewing distance matters. Anyone familiar with high-fidelity audio knows that listening position matters a lot. The same is true with video. I experimented with my preferred viewing distance to the 64.5" Sony X930C: 52 inches from the screen ±5 inches). Closer is too wide an angle for viewing comfort, farther feels out of the scene. This is one reason why most movie theatres suck: there are perhaps 6 optimal rows for seating (distance) and only a few seats in the middle (centered).

4K beats the theatre?

Having just seen two movies last night, I would say this: the theatre experience is challenged by the potential of high-grade 4K. The theatre image quality is not necessarily better than a high quality 4K movie on a high quality 4K TV. For starters, the theatre resolution is not commensurate with screen size: if seated too close then the image is less than sharp, and farther away the eye cannot necessarily discern any more than with a 4K TV. And that’s assuming the best seats in a good theatre.

More impressive in favor of the 4K TV experience (with future 8K and/or OLED becoming unbeatable): the reflected light of a projection system cannot compete with the rich blacks of the Sony X930C (or similarly with stills or video, an iMac 5K). Coming OLED screens will only widen that contrast gap: the black level of a movie theatre itself is not at all black (for starters), but reflected vs transmissive is like print versus screen. Get an iMac 5K and see the light. Now there may be specially-endowed theatres in which things are better than my local ones—so I’ll set that possibility aside. But I can get a better experience right at home on 64.5" 4K than at the theatre. What does this bode for theatres? I’d much rather see Revenant and Star Wars on 4K at home, assuming high quality UltraHD BluRay source.

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