Do You Need 4K? An Independent Filmmaker’s Experience

Do You Need 4K? An Independent Filmmaker’s Experience

To 4K or not to 4K? This is the question every filmmaker faces these days. Should I shoot a project in 4K, also referred to as Ultra High Definition (UHD)*, or shoot 1080p HD? The question is usually dictated by what he/she is filming. Is it a commercial, a music video, or a feature film? Will it be shown online, on TV, or on the coveted big screen?

*4K and UHD are not synonymous, though you will hear them used interchangeably as if they are. Strictly speaking, 4K (4096 x 2160) is four times the previous 2K standard. UHD is not four times the 2K standard but instead is four times its predecessor, HD, making it 3840 x 2160. A lot of displays out there boast 4K when really they are using UHD. The vertical resolution is the same for both but not the horizontal resolution, so the most marked difference is in aspect ratio. The consumer standard (TVs, monitors, YouTube) is 16:9. True 4K (referred to also as Cinema 4K, C4K, or DCI – Digital Cinema Initiatives, who set this standard – is wider). There are a few other differences we won’t get into here. In this consumer world, UHD reigns supreme. In the movie projection world, DCI 4K dominates.

4K vs UHD

Netflix Originals are now required to shoot in 4K in order to be shown on the streaming platform. As of this writing, their website states that the filmmaker’s “camera must have a true 4K sensor (equal to or greater than 3840 photosites wide).” If you’re shooting with Netflix in mind, know that UHD is sufficient (see info box above for more on the differences between UHD and DCI 4K). Note that this is true for Netflix Originals – not self-made movies, which can theoretically be shot in 1080p and still qualify for streaming on their site.

A lot of displays out there boast 4K when really they are using UHD. The vertical resolution is the same for both but not the horizontal resolution, so the most marked difference is in aspect ratio. The consumer standard (TVs, monitors, YouTube) is 16:9. True 4K (referred to also as Cinema 4K, C4K, or DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives, who set this standard) is wider.

There are clear benefits to shooting 4K. It provides four times the total number of pixels on a screen compared with 1080p (and twice as many pixels horizontally). But does that mean your work is automatically four times better quality? Is having this much information necessary when you are making an independent movie with a limited budget? I will describe my own experience grappling with this question and why, ultimately, I intentionally chose to shoot in a lower resolution.

Producing an Independent Film: Use Any Camera

This past year, I produced and directed a film, independent of any studio or production company. Every great filmmaker has been asked by the younger generation, “How do I get a movie made?” The answer that all these great directors give is, “Just go make one.” Heck, now you can even pick up a phone and shoot a movie!

This is obviously easier said than done, but there are many people capable of this as long as they are strategic about the story they are telling. There are so many affordable cameras that shoot beautiful images, including the iPhone, which has a 4K option.

Smartphones a Growing Presence in the Industry

I specifically wrote a feature that had minimum locations and a small cast of characters. I knew I would have to finance the movie on my own and my first thought after writing the story was whether I should shoot on my iPhone or not. Not many filmmakers have done this, but there are a few that have with moderate success. I particularly loved what Steven Soderbergh did with his first iPhone-shot movie, UNSANE. The movie is about a paranoid woman who feels she is being watched and followed. Shooting on an iPhone with wide angles created a visual aesthetic of paranoia. It makes the audience feel like they are seeing the woman through the perspective of a third-party observer.

“Steven Soderbergh embraces the freeing possibilities of both the iPhone and the B-movie in this pulpy psychothriller, lent some grit by Claire Foy.” Read more in this Variety film review.

My film was not going to work on the iPhone. Even though the iPhone creates a beautiful image, one can see the difference between a cinema camera and an iPhone. I believe a film has to be conceived with a specific style that matches the story in order to successfully shoot on the iPhone. The feature I wrote needed a more traditional approach to shooting, so my next question was, “What camera should I shoot on?”

How I Chose What Camera Shoot On

I didn’t want to rent an Alexa or RED because it wasn’t cost effective and I knew the scope of my movie didn’t require the cameras that are being used by the big studios. Additionally, I would need very expensive lensing in order to do those cameras justice. So, my first real decision was to rent or possibly buy the camera I was going to shoot the movie on and this lead me to the Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K and the Canon C100 Mark II.

I have worked with DSLR cameras, such as Canon 7D and 5D, as well as the Sony a7S. But the C100 and URSA Mini are designed to shoot movies and have a much better look, in my opinion. Both of these cameras are affordable prosumer cinema cameras with one major difference: the URSA Mini can shoot up to 4.6K and the C100 Mark II can only shoot 1080 HD.

Don’t let lack of access to major cinema cameras hold you back from making your first film. You may not really need all the bells and whistles that they come with. Or you may find yourself solving creative problems in a smart way when faced with limitations. That said, I have worked with DSLR cameras, such as Canon 7D and 5D. The C100 was designed to shoot movies and produces a better look, in my opinion.

This ended up being a much more complicated decision. The C100 Mark II had better reviews and a longer track record of being one of the most reliable cinema cameras for a great price. But the Blackmagic URSA Mini could shoot in 4K and was the “new kid on the block” at the time of this project. In the end, I decided to go with the trusted and reliable C100. The URSA Mini was getting a few negative reviews due to image corruption on some of its footage. The firmware updates that came after didn’t seem to improve all the issues. Eventually, Blackmagic updated their design with the URSA Mini Pro and, based on reviews, it was not a disappointment.

1080p, Style, and Why I “Settled”

You might be asking why I decided on a camera that didn’t even give me the option of 4K. Well, I just imagined it was like the old days of choosing to shoot a movie on 16mm versus 35 mm. I’m not sure if this is an accurate comparison, but it felt reasonable at the time. My movie was somewhat an homage to older crime thrillers of the 70s and 80s, some of which were shot on 16mm. I wanted to make an independent crime thriller for the digital generation. I thought maybe the movie could be seen as a digital noir. None of these thoughts should have practically lead me to shooting in 1080, so I had to do my research on the pros and cons of 1080 versus 4K.

Image from LOVE SHOT courtesy of Steven Fine. Shot on a 50mm Rokinon cinema prime lens. We lit the scene using practical bulbs: a key light (which is lighting the table behind the two characters) and an edge light, creating the high-contrast ratio. We only used two LED 1×1 panels and three 500w photo flood practical bulbs.

Ask Yourself Where Your Movie Will Be Displayed

The first issue to face when making this decision was exhibition. It seemed to clear to me that 4K would be most beneficial to a film being shown in theaters. Theatrical distribution was not the goal for my first feature. I was aiming to make a movie that could end up on streaming services. Because my movie was not exclusively produced by/for Netflix, it did not need to be a 4K movie, and I have rented multiple independent features on Amazon that were shot in 1080p. Most likely, the average movie watcher, who will hopefully rent my movie, will not be able to tell whether it was shot in HD or 4K.

How 4K Would Affect My Workflow

Many filmmakers would argue that 4K would give me much more latitude involving color and special effects, but my movie was not going to have a large amount of VFX. There are probably ten VFX shots in the entire movie, which is minimal, and they are all fairly simple. Since I was editing the entire movie in Avid on my 2017 MacBook Pro, I felt managing media was going to be much easier if I shot the movie in 1080 HD.

Shooting 4K creates an extra step in the editing workflow because if you’re linking the footage from your hard drive to your Avid, then the playback will be slow and choppy. In order to edit the 4K footage, you need to create new offline media of the footage, and once you’re done editing the offline footage, you have to re-link it all to the original 4K files. This entire process can be very tedious and was something I looked forward to skipping.

In this example above, the editor is taking his offline footage and relinking it to his original 4K footage. He has to choose the correct AMA plugin in order for the footage to relink correctly. Otherwise, when exporting the edit, a black screen with a watermark saying MEDIA OFFLINE will appear.

Consider an External Recorder

I ended up getting an external recorder, the Atomos Ninja Flame, which can record to 4K. I thought I was giving myself the option to record 4K with the C100 Mark II until I realized that using the Ninja Flame with the C100 only allowed you to record to Pro Res HD. (This was due to my ignorance. I misread an article about using Atomos with C100.) So, Pro Res HD ended up being the file format in which I recorded all my footage. I was able to fit all the footage recorded for my movie onto a 6 TB Hard Drive.

I believe if I shot the entire movie in 4K it would have doubled the budget for file storage. Of course, I made multiple copies of the footage on separate back up hard drives. Shooting HD made my storage and editing workflow fairly seamless and one of the least stressful parts of the process. Another reason I decided to shoot with the external recorder was that the Pro Res HD files gave more latitude in color correction rather than using the C Log footage directly form the C100.

4K and Post Production Advantages

Shooting 4K would have given me the most latitude involving color correction and VFX, but it also would have allowed me to push in on images more without losing too much resolution. During the editing of my movie, I needed to fix some compositions by pushing into the image. This is very similar to cropping a photo. You can zoom into the image and make the subject appear larger in the frame or you can zoom in and orient the subject where you originally intended.

I was only able to push in about 20% before I stared to notice digital noise and, luckily, I never had to push in farther. 4K footage here can be advantageous but, if I’m being honest, this seems like it could be used as a crutch for filmmakers who need to cover up mistakes. I can’t imagine anyone who would shoot a movie and want to push in and re-frame every shot.

A lot of my movie was filmed at night, so this was yet another reason to choose the C100 Mark II because it handles low light almost better than any other digital camera I’ve seen. I’d push the ISO from 850 to 2500 and couldn’t really tell the difference in image quality.

Image from LOVE SHOT courtesy of Steven Fine. We shot on a 35mm Rokinon cinema prime lens. We lit the scene using only ambient city light. The ISO was set to 2500.

Project Type Will Dictate Your Need for 4K

All of these decisions I made with regards to 4K versus 1080p HD were made in relation to my small independent film. If you’re shooting a big VFX-heavy commercial for a corporate company, then you will definitely want the highest resolution, so you can give your client options. If you’re shooting a web series or independent feature with very little special effects, then I don’t see any reason why you’d need more than Pro Res HD footage.

When we screened my feature at a movie theater from a 1080p Blu Ray, the image was fantastic on the big screen. Most of the audience never even thought about whether this was 4K or 1080p because if you don’t specify, then they don’t care. The cinematographers and the gearheads who attended the screening assumed it was shot in 4K.

Image from LOVE SHOT courtesy of Steven Fine. We shot on a 50mm Rokinon cinema prime lens. We lit the scene using ambient city light, two LED Panels and two LED light bars. The lights were wrapped in pink and green gels to give the overall light a neon look that matched the rest of the movie.

Image from LOVE SHOT courtesy of Steven Fine. This scene was shot with a 50mm Rokinon cinema prime lens. We lit the scene with ambient city light and one key light hanging off the fire escape to the left of the frame. We used heavy diffusion on the key light here.

4K is Not Required for Art – Do What Works for You

For anyone out there looking to make a short film or a feature, and you’re facing the dilemma of whether to shoot in 4K or not, just think about the extra time and money it might require for your project to be shot in 4K. If your movie is VFX heavy, or you know you’ll be massively altering the images you shoot, then I definitely suggest 4K. If you are really trying to make a movie on a small budget, which hopefully means you wrote a story appropriate for a small budget, then I think 1080p will get you to the finish line.

I believe the more important question to consider is what is the best camera and lensing for your story. For me, the C100 Mark II with Rokinon Cinema Prime lenses, gave me the images I wanted and needed to complete my first feature film.

5 Popular Cameras and Lenses for Smaller-Budget Projects

I used the Canon C100 Mark II and Rokinon cinema prime lenses for my small-budget film. Here are a few other options for folks also working on small budgets and who need a smooth file-handing workflow.

Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera ($58 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)

Pros

  • Ultra small.
  • Sensor size matches that of Super 16mm film (if you’re going for that look, otherwise this can be considered a mark against the camera).
  • Built-in RAW and ProRes recording.

Cons

  • 1080p maximum resolution.
  • Bare-bones body that requires an external monitor or EVF.
  • Micro Four Thirds mount, which some might find limiting for lens selection.

Lens Recommendation: Any from the Voigtlander Nokton f/0.95 Primes collection.

Panasonic GH5S ($100 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)

Pros

  • Unlimited internal capture of 4:2:2 10-bit Cinema 4K video.
  • Ability to shoot up to 240 FPS in Full HD.
  • Professional-grade tools found in many video-only cameras but in a DSLR-esque form factor with the ability to shoot stills.

Cons

  • No built-in stabilization (but this affects stills shooters more than video shooters).
  • Micro Four Thirds mount, which some might find limiting for lens selection.

Lens Recommendation: Any from the Veydra Mini T2.2 Primes collection.

Sony a7S II ($102 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)

Pros 

  • Internal capture of 4:2:0 8-bit UHD (30 minute clips).
  • Ability to shoot up to 120 FPS in Full HD (but with a crop factor).
  • Built-in image stabilization.
  • Excellent low-light performance.

Cons

  • Poor battery life.
  • E mount, which some might find limiting for lens selection since many of Sony’s lenses focus by wire.
  • Noticeable rolling shutter.

Lens Recommendation: Sony FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS Lens

Canon C100 with Dual Pixel CMOS AF ($141 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)

Pros

I used the C100 Mark II for my project but if you want to save even more money and get some of the same features, this C100 sports…

  • Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology.
  • Good low-light sensitivity.
  • Dual SD slots.
  • All the modularity you want in a cinema camera.

Cons

  • Doesn’t have the robust upgrades that you find in the C100 Mark II or C200.
  • Rental of any in Canon’s C-series of cinema cameras surely won’t disappoint, but you may find yourself going over budget quickly, especially since you’ll still need a lens, microphone, and support gear.

Lens Recommendation: Any from the Rokinon Xeen, Rokinon DS, or Rokinon Cine collection for their wide selection of primes and competitive pricing.

Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K Camcorder ($192 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)

Pros

  • Lens built-in with manual control of zoom, focus, and iris (but could be a mark against if you want to choose your own lens).
  • Integrated IR filter for 4K shooting in complete darkness.
  • Dual codec recording with 2 card slots.
  • Controls rolling shutter well.

Cons

  • It’s an all-in-one and might not be modular enough for your project.
  • Low-light sensitivity (outside of IR filter) isn’t very high
  • Squarish and bulky form factor, difficult to run-and-gun with for some.

You are not limited to only these choices, however! Explore many more cameras and lenses to rent for your next major video production over at BorrowLenses.com.

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Steven Fine is a writer/director born in Chicago and raised in Atlanta. He earned a degree in Film and TV Production from Boston University and moved to Los Angeles to work on feature film development for Ben Stiller and Robert Zemeckis. Later, Steven was the post-production coordinator for shows Luke Cage and Fargo. He has just finished his first feature film, which he wrote, directed and produced. In addition to his directing and post-production work, Steven is the co-host of the movie review podcast Celluloid Heroes, which can be found on SoundCloud and iTunes.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent review and he answered questions I didnt think about.

    Reply
  2. 4K is Not Required for Art . Thank you.

    Reply

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