Why you MUST have 4K and raw and why you absolutely DON’T need it!

By Phillip Bloom

OK…a confusing title. Let me clarify. I would shoot raw and 4k on every single shoot if I could. It’s wonderful. I want everyone to shoot raw and 4k. There we go. BTW is is actually raw not RAW. It’s not an acronym. It’s a word. Raw data. Unprocessed. You know…raw! I hate unnecessary caps and there is nothing worse THAN WHEN PEOPLE WRITE EVERYTHING TO YOU IN CAPS BLAMING THE CAPS LOCK IS STUCK. I DON’T CARE I CANNOT READ IT SO PLEASE BUY A NEW COMPUTER NOW.

I am not a negative nelly, poo-pooing raw or 4k. Far from it. I am just a cautious person by nature. When I see everyone clamouring for it, I have to ask the question “why do you want it?” which usually gets the obvious answer along the lines of they “want to be able to shoot the best images with the best latitude.” I then ask the more important question, “why do you need it?” Of course I get the same answer! That should not be the case. That is the key. What you want and what you need are two vastly different things

Raw is brilliant. 4K is sexy as hell…BUT they both come with a number of quite severe headaches for the vast majority of people (including myself) who are clamouring for it. If those headaches were not there, then I would tell everyone to go for it, but as I am in somewhat of a position where people listen to me (still an utterly bewildering thing to me) and take what I do or advice I give as verbatim (which you should never do, mine is just one opinion so please feel free to ignore this or take my advice on board and listen to others too as you should never take one person’s opinion as gospel) then I must explain the issues we face. I am not being devil’s advocate either as I genuinely believe these issues are real and would be quite a problem for many. Not everyone though. Some people are perfectly kitted out to take this on and their work is ideal for it. So whilst my title of this article is essentially black and white, the actual arguments are not. Many shades of grey and most of us if not all of us fall into this grey area at some point. There absolutely is a use for both of these for SOME jobs…just not for all.

BELOW ARE PICS OF ME USING RED EPIC

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When I shot lots of RED Epic which was only ever raw and 4k/ 5k, the images I were getting looked so gorgeous and the flexibility in post was amazing. Truly eye opening. The problem I had was in post and in storage, and this is with R3D files which are way more manageable than other raw/ 4k formats floating out there. I ended up getting a very expensive Mobile RED Rocket card to make my post life more bearable. I still spent a small fortune on hard drives.

These Epic images were indeed epic, some of the finest looking images I have shot, technically, you know…in a pixel peeping kind of way (please do not pixel peep as it makes the palms of your hands go very hairy!) They were not my finest work creatively – that of course is nothing do with the camera. That comes down to me. An important point to make. One I have made countless times before…a better camera WILL NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER SHOOTER OR FILMMAKER. It will make your images look better compared to if you had shot on a lower end camera for sure. 4K and raw will not make your work any better. Although it may help you mask mistakes so the appearance of your work is better.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with making the appearance of your work better than it actually is. When I first shot tapeless using XDCAM discs, I used to erase shitty shots and make my rushes look better… but ONLY when I gave them to the client. Not if I was editing them myself, I didn’t care how clean they were. But I wanted my client to have clean rushes. It made me look way better than I actually was :)

 

That is the joy of raw, the ability to do so much with it in post is just incredible. You can fix so many in-camera issues, not all of them of course, but many. It can rescue shots due to lost detail in highlights and shadows, fix those white balance issues…. it can help make the most of difficult shooting situations when you can’t deal with the issue in-camera like you would normally, for whatever reason (as in different lighting). That is not the whole point of raw at all, it’s not there to fix things in post, it’s a big plus of it. It’s more for getting past the limitations of codecs giving limited dynamic range, so you get more creative choices in post. So couple raw with the stunning detailed high resolution images that 4k  give you, then you simply have the best images possible and the most flexibility in post. BRILLIANT. After all, that is what everyone wants!

Of course, all of this is utterly irrelevant if your content sucks. No point shooting on a high-end format like 4k and raw if your content is below par. It is not going to make it any better just because it’s raw and 4k. If that was the case I would shoot everything I did in 4k and raw, no matter what, so I could magically take even my most mediocre work and make it much better!

Until recently, 4k and raw video was pretty much exclusively RED. Without Jim’s visionary company, the high end cinema arm of camera companies would have rested on their laurels. RED gave them a massive wake up call. Good. Everyone needs a good kick up the backside every now and then. Blackmagic Design are another visionary company, but let’s talk about them later.

So which company was accidentally the main catalyst for everything changing? Canon of course. Not by design, by accident really. The 5DmkII revolution was not intended but a happy collection of circumstances that collided in an event of universal magnitude that rivalled the big bang in its significance to humanity. OK, maybe a wee bit of an exaggeration, but certainly for us filmmakers it kind of felt that way.

Canon never set out to change everything, but they did. As much as some corners may whinge that it has watered down the industry and created way too much competition, I for one am utterly grateful for what happened. Prior to this, I saw so many people get work because they had the gear, not the talent. Now the playing field is levelled, talent can shine. It’s not all great of course, as more competition means less work for some, and many saw a collapse in their amount of work and the amount they were able to charge. This sucks but it’s inevitable. It happened to the stills industry quite a long time ago after all.

In fact it was the coming of DSLRs that ironically made me move my career plans from being a photographer to a video cameraman. A photographer friend of my father took me aside and said “Philip, I know this is what you want to do, but everything is going to change in the coming years and the incredible time we are all having will come to an end. Digital will take over and with that will come a huge influx of people into the industry cheapening it and dropping the quality. It is inevitable. Have you ever thought about moving images? That’s where the future is”. Utterly true, and this was back in 1988. If he had said to me “but beware of the end of 2008, a French-American will come along and drop a New York based short on us, shot on a camera that will do the same for video that is going to happen to stills” then I would have laughed at him and just ignored him. Well, that happened

Of course we have lived with the issues these cameras gave us and of course the freedom too, but people want more now of course, especially with DSLRs being in a bit of rut at the moment. They are fed up with compressed codecs. So when RED brought out the Scarlet many people saw this as their way out of DSLRs and into the big league. Now of course this is utter nonsense. As I said before, no camera will actually make you better. Some cameras will help you get work though. C300s for example are massively popular right now and owner operators are reaping the benefits of this. Most of the people I know who bought Scarlets were gutted when this massive investment from their T2i didn’t pay off. For some it did, but for most no. Why? A CAMERA DOESN’T MAKE YOU ANY BETTER! I may have mentioned that to you already 😉

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Blackmagic Design in April last year dropped a bombshell on us. A $3000 raw shooting video camera (that also shoots on, the much ignored feature of the camera, ProRes HQ and Avid DNXHD modes which are damn fine). $3000? WHAT?! How is this possible? Well, mostly due to a lot of off the shelf components and a clever knowledge of how to deal with video due to their experience in the post production market. With limited R&D costs, they were able to bring out a camera with such high end features and low cost that it was probably the biggest kick up the backside we have had since the 5DmkII.

Ponte Tower from Philip Bloom on Vimeo  Shot on the Blackmagic in raw.  

Now, they have had huge supply issues which have marred things and now announced new cameras just a year later, and before most people who ordered the original camera received their orders. I have talked about the pros and cons of the Blackmagic camera through two in-depth reviews of both the EF and MFT versions. A lot of these issues are actually nothing to do with the raw, so I recommend watching them if you have not already. This is the main review and this is the MFT add on.

Now with the additional excitement of the new Magic Lantern hack which has quite incredibly brought raw video to the 5DmkIII, the raw clamour has reached unparalleled heights. Although this hack is still in a very early stage, it will undoubtedly reach a more stable level pretty soon, and everyone will be desperate to shoot everything in raw on the MKIII. Why? Because it’s raw…you know? It’s better. Yep. It is. A hell of a lot better. Not just that, but the image itself is better than the MkIII is able to give us normally. There is more detail, and with raw much more dynamic range of course. There are are a number of big caveats though which I will get to…but the achievement of these people is incredible and should be applauded hugely. I am assuming most people know what raw is. I didn’t at first when I came across on DSLRS so if you don’t know,are too embarrassed to ask and haven’t yet googled it then here is a description

Anyone who shoots stills know how massively better raw photos are to manipulate than JPEGS. That’s the crux of the whole argument. It’s a digital negative.  This is the same that raw video offers us over codecs like MXF, ProRes and AVCHD. You may notice I am not using the word uncompressed. Uncompressed IS NOT raw. Please don’t get them confused. There is uncompressed raw. That is what the Blackmagic Cinema Camera gives us, and its files are massive. The RED for example shoots raw but is compressed. The amount is up to you when you use the camera, there are different levels of compression. R3D is for me probably one of the best formats I have ever used, not the simplest to use, but the most powerful yet workable. The user can decide the level of compression that works for them while still maintaining raw. Compression is our friend. Well lossless compression is our friend! Why? Money and time. Money, as our storage needs are slashed, both in cards/ SSDs/ hard drives. Time as the files are much smaller meaning they’re quicker to work with, and of course time is money, so really it all comes down to one thing…money. Money is why we should not shoot raw for everything. The same can be said of 4k.

4K version: 576 Megapixels from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

4K of course doesn’t mean raw, it’s simply 4 times the resolution of HD. Does it look 4 times better? To me I would say no. It looks better, just not four times better. I currently own two 4K capable cameras. One I can’t use the 4K with yet as I don’t have the firmware update yet or the 4K recorder. That is the FS700. A strange beast of a camera. Terrific features and image combined with a form factor and intuitiveness that frustrates me every time I use it…but it’s a great camera and is 4K capable.

The other 4K camera I own is the Canon 1DC. This is my favourite 4K camera I have used. Is it because the image is better than the rest? Nope. Is it because the compression is efficient? Nope, quite the opposite. Then why? Because it’s small and it records internally and also shoots brilliant HD. There is no other 35mm video camera that size that can shoot 4K internally to that quality. The biggest issues for this camera are that it has all of the quirks of shooting video on a DSLR and most importantly the lack of decent compression.

Motion JPEG is about as efficient as a 10 man crew shooting an interview. We have long gone past Motion JPEG being a good codec. It is so inefficient it means we have a bit rate that often exceeds 400 MB/S (The internal 4k of the F55 is twice as efficient as the 1DC) My FS700 shoots 24-28 MB/S albeit in HD. AVCHD is an efficient codec. Not exactly super robust but not bad. It’s actually better than XDCAM EX which is 35mb/s. The higher the number the better, yes? Afraid not. It’s all about how it gets compressed, the efficiency.

So with this rather high bitrate, the cost of cards that can handle such a huge stream of data is very high. 30 minutes on my 1DC equals 128gb roughly. A 128gb branded 1000x speed card, the speed you need, is in excess of £600 generally. There are cheap ones out there, I use many Komputerbay ones which are a fraction of the cost. They scare me. They are not a known brand, but I couldn’t afford the branded cards I needed for the documentary shoots I do. I never offload during the day. I do use my NextoDI for on location secondary backup, but I never offload to the requisite 3 to 4 hard drives on location and reuse the same cards during the day. Why? Because I am shooting. Certain people have told me I am unprofessional for not having a DIT on set/ location to manage offloads. I think these people need to go out on a few documentary shoots with me to see this cosy ideal is utterly impractical most of the time, and of course not affordable for the majority. I ended up buying 13 cards. A big outlay yet only 6 and a half hours of recording time. Fine for most shoots. A little bit tight for interviews and I shoot all my interviews in 4K now, more on that later :)

With the Magic Lantern hack, I have heard of people having success with slightly slower cards. That’s great, but I am pretty certain their cards are going to stop fairly frequently. I don’t know about you, but I have no desire for my camera to ever stop rolling when I don’t want it to. 1000x cards are needed for the current Magic Lantern hack, which means a lot of money is needed for data acquisition and that is before we even get into offloading them.

I love my 1DC though. I can take it anywhere with me in a simple shoulder bag and shoot 4K stock footage whenever I want. I can shoot guerrilla style in 4K which is pretty lovely as the camera is so compact and of course I love the image. I just hate the format. Not just the cost in cards and in storage but in the time it takes for me to deal with it in the edit.

For so many years I have been editing full HD files on my laptops with no issues. None of this proxy nonsense. I don’t need that. I remember going into a production house about 6 years ago to check out an edit for a series I had done for Channel 4 in SD. They were editing in 15:1 as they didn’t have the storage capacity for the original DV tapes…yep DV, shot on the lovely DSR-450. I found this astonishing as I was editing XDCAM full HD on my macbook pro on 5400RPM USB 2 drives. Now though with my 1DC, I cannot edit without using proxies. My computer cannot cope with it and I need very fast drives to edit the files from. As I travel for around 10 months of the year, I edit the vast majority of my work on my Macbook Pro Retina. Powerful computer but not powerful enough. So even if Apple astonishingly did release new MacPros it would make little difference to me right now as I am never home!

So let’s go over the main pros and cons of raw.

Let’s start with raw

PROS: 

WAY better dynamic range than most cameras.

Huge flexibility in post.

Can help mistakes made on shoots or help us get past issues we couldn’t overcome.

It opens up many creative options in really hard shooting environments, making my life as DP easier often and this is not about laziness.

CONS: 

Generally cannot be edited natively, proxies are needed after going into software like DaVinci resolve to interpret the raw data and tweak them before exporting to the proxy format. This is very time consuming.

Much larger files than compressed codecs meaning lots and lots of cards. Though there are raw compressed options out there like R3d and cineform which I am expecting will be licensed and put into the new 4k BlackMagic Production Camera.

The huge cost in acquisition media and the enormous cost of storage on top of this.

You need to learn new skills. This is almost a pro actually. Working with raw is not as easy as many think. Education is key here.

It’s not magic. You still need to know how to expose properly and I actually think a light meter comes into its own here, knowing how many stops of light difference there are between the shadows and the highlights. STILL hold the highlights more than the shadows for most raw cameras as a rule.

People will want to shoot everything with it, then hit a massive bottleneck on their projects in dealing with files. It will be a hard but necessary lesson.

Now the pros and cons of 4k

PROS: 

  • Incredibly detailed images, 4 times that of HD but they are not obviously so.
  • Fantastic ability to crop in post. Something I do on all my interviews for docs now that I shoot 4k for them. I am not shooting 4k docs – just 4k talking heads. I can then go in for tights or back out whenever I want in the edit. Way better.
  • “Future proof” I am bit hesitant about this as I see very little need for future proofing most of my work. Now for high end drama and big docs then yes. Do it.
  • You have a higher end format to sell to clients. Sometimes an advantage. Not always though…see cons.
  • Scaling down to 2K in post often yields quite stunning results.

CONS: 

  • Inefficient codec mean massive files. Even efficient ones are pretty big, which means expensive cards and lots of storage.
  • Inability to edit natively for the vast majority of people. Proxies are used which of course adds time.
  • Most production companies I have dealt with cannot take it.
  • Almost nobody can actually watch 4k. I can’t.
  • It can lead to lazy cinematography. Although I use the crop to help me in interviews, this is not due to being lazy but to give me options. You should never forget the tight shots because you can crop. The whole aesthetic changes. The depth of field remains the same so it doesn’t look like a true close up
  • You need to be even more skilled, as mistakes are easier to spot.
  • Incredibly unforgiving and harsh. Showing the flaws in everything, especially people. Fantastic for beauty shots etc..for drama it’s actually too detailed and causes the DP many issues.
  • Needs a really big screen to really see the difference.

Will it actually take off as a consumer format for the home? I am very pessimistic about this.

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That last point brings me onto how I judge things like whether consumers will go for it. I judge everything like this by using my friends and family.

For example. My sister has a lovely HD TV. A year ago I saw she had no HD sources, not even blu-ray. I asked why she hadn’t and her answer was “I can’t tell the difference”. Now SD to HD was huge in quality leaps. So I bought her a Blu-ray player and some movies. I said to her she must be thrilled by the massive increase in quality. Her response? “I can’t tell the difference”. That is my sister.

My parents came to BVE to see my 4K seminar for Canon. The projection screen at BVE was too small to really show off the 4K properly and only on close inspection could you really tell. People 2 rows back from the front would not have noticed any difference.

I showed mum and dad a live feed from a 4k camera into a 4k monitor on the show floor. I said, “This is 4 times better than your image at home on your TV”. The response? “Oh”…followed by my dad saying “Is it? Our TV looks better!”

Now I am not saying this is what everyone thinks, but I strongly believe that most consumers don’t want to be sold another format when HD looks fantastic anyway. It’s going to be hard to sell, especially when it really is harder to tell the difference than when we went from SD to HD.

On the topic of TVs, I have to mention how god damn awful they all look in TV showrooms. They all look like the 48p version of The Hobbit. I hated the 48p version of The Hobbit. It looked cheap. Simple as that.

Some say I am old school and it’s the future. That 24p is not enough for cinema. Maybe that is true. In fact I think it is. I just love the look of 24p and everything else looks wrong. I can’t even stand 30p, and interlaced is the devil!

Will this change with time? I am sure it will. I don’t actually know anyone who liked the 48p version of “The Hobbit”. I have heard that people do, especially the much younger generation as it “looks like my video games”. Will it take off? Not for now. In the future, quite possibly. Why? Because the public will get used to that awful look? How? Because of their TVs!

TVs are sold with all these whizz bang picture enhancements that all SUCK. I once was in a store with my parents and the salesman was selling a TV to my parents citing all these cool features that make the image look “better”. I had to interrupt. I said “it’s these features that make my work look like crap. They are not good. They are quite the opposite!”

Go into any TV showroom and you will see what I mean. I even saw a £35,000 85″ Samsung 4k TV in Selfridges the other day. It had all that crap on it. Looked like poo. I decided not to buy the TV because of that. Nothing to do with my total lack of £35,000 😉

In fact, I hate these settings so much that at every opportunity I take all these settings off. Everytime I go round to a friend or relatives house they have all that stuff on. I ask if they like it, the answer is almost always no. They just thought that was what flat screen TVs look like. So I turn it all off.

SO IN SUMMARY

High frame rate shooting (and 3D to be honest) are really not something I like at all…BUT…I adore raw, I adore 4K. I just don’t think most of us need either for the vast majority of our work. Great for people doing effects work, green screen etc. Great for fiction work for sure with a budget, as the gain at the post end is substantial. For most other work? Neither are really needed.. Do you want to shoot a wedding in 4K raw? Please do…I then want you to write me a blog post on what it was actually like.

I wish I could shoot everything in 4K and raw but until storage drops in price enormously and compression gets better AND computing power catches up (I have to edit 90% of my work on a laptop because I am travelling all the time) it must remain a tool to be used as and when, and those times will be rare for most. I am utterly guilty of shooting in 4K just because I can. I still find it astonishing that not one of my films on the Epic ever were mastered in 4k (actually I think “Host” may have been). I certainly have never seen any of my Epic stuff in 4k. In fact most of it went to either web or standard def amazingly!

Host (a Danny Lacey short film) from Danny Lacey on Vimeo SHOT ON RED EPIC IN 4K

If I was able to edit my 4k more easily, then I would shoot almost all of it in 4K as it does look better. I miss my RED Epic, it was fantastic but it actually was unnecessary for almost all my work. I wish I still had it in many ways, but it had to go.  I may have to cross over to the dark side and buy a big old PC tower soon so I can really kit it out to edit 4k natively. My brand new iMac freaks out at me when I try and edit, even with the nice Nvidia Cuda card in it. Although unless I am home more it won’t make a difference as it’s still laptop time! I know that it won’t end up as 4k and I also know I need to buy shares in Western Digital, as the demand for hard drives is going to sky rocket!

The same really goes for raw. With the Blackmagic having raw and the 5D3 now getting close to having raw in the magic lantern hack doesn’t mean you should use it all the time. This is not a dis on the Magic Lantern achievement at all. Far from it. I am shocked and blown away that they were able to do it. When it’s stable I am sure there will be times when I will find it useful but I doubt I will shoot a whole project on it for the same reasons why I choose to shoot ProResHQ on the Blackmagic instead of raw and would only occasionally shoot raw for key shots or moments. It’s a tool I use when needed. If Canon had actually put raw video into the 5Dmk3 themselves I would still only use it when I absolutely needed it for the same reasons. After all when I shoot stills I always shoot raw but when I shoot MASSIVE timelapse projects like the recent Las Vegas one which was 160 shots (a huge amount for time-lapse) I had to forget shooting raw (which pained me greatly) and shoot JPEG for the majority of the shots as it was just too impractical. Yes…there is a compromise but it was simply not workable for such a massive project with a very quick turnaround.

For now, the additional time needed to work with it in post is something I cannot deal with. Edits take long enough as they are…I am firm believer in keeping things economically feasible in post. I am also a firm believer in using lighing and composition to cope with the relatively limited dynamic range and relatively little push and pull you can do in post with these compressed codecs. Sometimes I actually want a window to be blow out you know? Otherwise I can always do the thing I have been doing for 25 years. I ND gel the window! I am a firm believer in nailing it in camera and only “fixing it in post” as a last resort. Raw is not a replacement for lighting properly or making less of an effort. Likewise, 4K is not a replacement for getting proper coverage. These are both tools that can really help us technically when making films. They just won’t make our films any better!