Be Careful What You Wish For

“2K, 4K, 8K, a dollar. All those who want it: stand up and holler!” A cheer heard on the floor at NAB 2013.

When the “K” wars started back in the mid-90s, I was part of a group of vested image-makers who insisted that 4K be the standard to one day replace film (with conventional wisdom at that time being that film had an equivalent resolution to 4K).

Some called me a Luddite, incorrectly thinking my position was that digital would never replace film. In fact, what I have been saying for the last two decades is that digital capture needed to reach a par quality level before it could take over from film.

With the coming of 4K (and soon 8K), the industry is nearly convinced we have reached that point, even though we never paused to consider all of the unintended consequences a high-resolution digital format like 4K would bring.

Now that we’ve had the opportunity to work with and see 4K on the screen, those unintended consequences have become evident. Like the enormous amount of data collected in 4K capture, placing added pressure on Local 600 camera teams in terms of equipment, storage, and time to properly collect and protect this added material. We are fortunate that the quality of software, hardware, and computing power has improved enormously, just over the last year, enabling us to effectively keep pace with 4K capture on set, in real time. But since producers are reluctant to pay for the added costs of 4K (despite its value for future-proofing the digital “negative”), it’s a matter of “be careful what you wish for.”

The other “gift” 4K has brought is the elimination of those imperfections that are inherent to film, and that contribute to the suspension of disbelief, which, I feel, is vital to the artistic process. No more random grain pattern (grain crawl), no more judder and weave associated with film projection, no more moments (however imperceptible) of time on the screen when there is no image. All of these so-called “flaws” make our brains work harder and help us, as passive viewers, suspend disbelief.

Of course, twenty years ago, when we said film is equivalent to “4K or better” resolution, we didn’t take into consideration the printing process, which took away resolution like a dump truck removing sand from the beach. We lost resolution with the internegative/interpositive process, with the striking of answer prints, and with the dirt on the window in between the p rojector and the screen. In point of fact, the “resolution” of film has always been revealed as a soft and romantic image that is forever linked with great cinematic storytelling, and the suspension of disbelief.

The world of digital capture does offer many choices to mold the image. Cinematographers can choose not to shoot 4K on a camera system that provides 10-bit color, opting instead for 2K resolution at 12-bit color – more color depth in exchange for a bit less resolution. We can use filtration, just as we’ve always done throughout the history of cinema (everything from Tiffen ProMist filters to Dior stockings). We can use legacy lenses or different approaches in post-processing th at are now available.

But no matter where you come out in this current incarnation of the “K” wars, the point is that it still all boils down to what story we want to tell – the ultimate bottom line. The only way to make those decisions, in a world filled with more creative tools at our disposal than ever before, is to understand the type of story we are telling and the visual path that will take us there.


Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600