Video Tech companies are forever busy trying to ensure that we have an appetite for their new tech. But more and more we find ourselves asking, where do you go from here? That question is rooted primarily in the reality of the end-users equipment and what we can predict about how the current platforms for content will evolve.
Now, the end-user conversation will vary depending on what manufacturer you’re talking about. Canon and Sony are more focused on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo—where Arri and RED and more focused on platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Broadcast and Motion Picture. That said, there are common threads between these worlds and although we will weave between the two worlds we will try and stay more focused on the center.
Now, let’s walk through some of the possibilities for manufacturers to see if any obvious answers emerge…
While all modern cameras are shooting 4K in varying color compositions and bitrates, the strong majority of viewers do not have 4K equipped televisions. Further, more and more viewers are enjoying content on smaller screens. A smaller screen means less need for high resolution. The point is, unless the format changes to an interactive one (being able to pinch-zoom your way around a piece of content) then resolution is not the direction we are headed in the next 5 years, at least.
Besides the roadblock of consumer device-resolution, you also have bandwidth to wrestle with. Even with conservative compression, 4K video takes a lot of bandwidth. If you have 20 people in a Starbucks all streaming 4K video—well, you won’t. They will all be throttled down to 720 by the platform to prevent stalling due to their bandwidth shortage. The reality is that very little 4K content is consumer in 4K if it is even offered in that resolution (at least from streaming platforms). So what use would 6, 8 or 10K content be? Only if there was a massive infrastructure upgrade overnight—but that is happening more in bits-and-bites in select neighborhoods over a long period of time.
Ah yes, bitrate. Bitrate is like resolutions wife—he’d be nothing without her. Bitrate is the measure of information that can be transferred in a second from the sensor of the camera, through the accompanying processors and onto your choice of media. Having high resolution without high bitrate is like having a big club, and no strength to lift it. Conversely, low resolution with high bit-rate is like handing a chopstick to a giant—I will elaborate no further as my analogies are beginning to show their seams…but you get the point.
Higher bitrates coupled with higher resolutions mean more information is being stored about that image—more color information, more exposure information. This translates into a richer image.
The truly desirable mark here is to forego compression and have “raw” information sent from the sensor to the onboard media (CF, SD, XQD, SXS, etc.). In other words—you get all the information the sensor can offer you without having to Frankenstein-on outboard recorders, support-backs, etc. But even achieving this goal doesn’t give you something you don’t already have in most cinema-cameras (the ability to capture raw through some menagerie of tech)—it just might make it easier to get.
More frames the better!...Sort of…But, really—only if you actually need them. Having the ability to shoot higher frame-rates with a camera certainly makes it more versatile. In the taste of the last 5-6 years, slow-motion footage has become way more popular, probably to do with it being way more accessible with newer technologies. No question that high frame rate capabilities are appetizing, BUT…high frame rates come at a price—light gathering.
As you increase frame rate you decrease the ability for the camera to gather light. Thus, you need to add light to the scene. If you do not have this ability, or have reached the limits of your abilities to add light, you must start increasing the sensors sensitivity (ISO). Increasing sensor sensitivity comes at the price of signal noise which will eventually (when ISO is pushed high enough) render your image useless.
So, increase frame-rate all you want—all you’re really doing is making a feature that can only be utilized by a small population of your users that can manage the needs of higher frame-rate shooting—without even starting the discussion of specialty lighting that will not flicker at the more stratospheric frame-rates.
Specialty cameras that can shoot these super-high frame rates are rarely owned by DP's or Production Companies and are more commonly rented as needed from camera houses or owned by DITs of the technicians that process the data on set.
Do you remember when the 5D came into the conversation? Well, I do. I watched this shot from a 5D Mark I driving through downtown LA at night, with no other supplementary lighting. It was, in a word, incredible. The ability this $3,000 camera had to gather light while obtaining a clean image was absolutely stunning. This fact began the most revolutionary phase in Film and Video production since color film. The wave of new users, and the influx of their money birthed a technology explosion in this industry.
I mention this only because the root is very important to remember in this larger conversation. This boom was entirely thanks to the sensitivity the 5D was able to muster while keeping image noise down to an acceptable level. What this meant was that Johnny-nobody could shoot scenes that only Johnny-showbiz could shoot before. Why? Because Johnny-nobody didn’t need so much artificial light, and therefore didn’t need such a big budget to create aesthetically pleasing images.
Sensitivity still has a welcome place at the table for a big reason mentioned above—frame rate. Better low-light capability means you can bump up ISO to counteract the loss of exposure you experience when increasing frame rates. Not to mention, shooting dark scenes and having them expose in the camera in a useable way.
Yup. This will be on the list forever. No matter what you’re after (high resolution, high frame rates, rich colors) every production benefits from the ability to capture a larger range of light intensity. The thing about dynamic range is that you can never have too much of it—dynamic range translates to choice in post-production. You can choose to use it all, some, or very little—but if you start with very little you can only go down from there.
The next 5-8 years is going to be all about lossless transmission from sensor to media (aka RAW recording onboard), dynamic range performance and better low-light performance. These all have a common thread—FLEXIBLITY. That is what production companies, DPs, independent operators and pro-sumers want…A camera that can do it all. But we all know that there is always a shortcoming for any product, whether that is a function of possibility or of manufacturer self-preservation. Either way, I’m excited to see what they come up with.