Last weekend, Paramount Studios in Hollywood, CA, hosted the Cine Gear Expo, during which all the latest tools for movie and TV production were shown to the professionals who will use them every day. On Friday evening, attendees were treated to a special screening of After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan's futuristic thriller starring Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden as father-and-son soldiers who crash land on Earth after humans abandoned it 1000 years earlier.
What made this screening special was the fact that it was a native 4K DCP (digital-cinema package) projected at 4K resolution (4096 pixels horizontally) with a Sony digital-cinema projector. Many commercial cinemas now have 4K projectors—they can now be found in about 15,000 auditoriums in North America—but they almost invariably show files with a native resolution of 2K (2048 pixels horizontally), which are upscaled by the projector.
The projection room at the Paramount Theater. The projector on the far right is a top-tier film projector in front of a pair of stacked Christies. The Sony 4K projector is at the far end of this line up, where you can't see it from this perspective.
After Earth is the first major motion picture shot with Sony F65 digital cameras—in fact, serial numbers 1 through 7—at 4K resolution, which was maintained throughout the entire workflow, from shooting to editing to mastering to projection. The only exception was the CGI (computer-generated imagery); like all CGI these days, it was created and rendered in 2K, then upscaled to 4K.
Before the movie, they played a couple of short pieces that were also shot on the F65 at 4K. In addition, they were shot at 120 frames per second, and the motion was super-fluid with razor-sharp detail. This confirmed my appreciation of high frame rates even more than The Hobbit did.
Also before the movie, there was a discussion of 4K with cinematographer Jon Fauer, Sony Pictures Technologies President Chris Cookson, and Colorworks SVP of Technology Bill Baggelaar. Cookson said that Sony started scanning 35mm film at 4K several years ago to capture everything in each frame, protecting the long-term value of its assets. He also pointed out that the commercial-cinema experience has changed, with stadium seating and larger screens, and that people often sit too close to the screen for 2K. To present as much detail as possible, he said, we need 4K.
I spoke with Cookson after the screening and asked him why CGI was still being done in 2K. He said it's simply a matter of rendering time—it takes four times longer to render 4K images than it does to render 2K. He acknowledges that this is an area that needs improvement, and he's dedicated to advancing the technology to accommodate 4K CGI as soon as feasible.
Baggelaar was in charge of the workflow for After Earth, which he designed, built, and tested before shooting started. He said that everyone was nervous about shooting with the F65 for the first time, especially in the remote jungle of Costa Rica and the redwood forests of Northern California, but the cameras performed very well with no major problems. All in all, the movie generated 112 TB of data, which, he claimed, is surprisingly little compared to some other projects that generate two to four times as much.
Unfortunately, I was sitting too far back to take full advantage of 4K, even on such a large screen. But the theater was designed in such a way that I would have been looking up at the screen if I had been at the ideal distance, which I try to avoid to prevent neck cramps.
Even sitting too far away, the movie itself looked gorgeous—sharp as a tack with beautiful colors. The smallest details, such as Jaden Smith's character in the far distance, somehow looked clearer than I would have expected under normal circumstances; I got the distinct impression that the image could have been blown up by quite a bit and no detail would have been lost. The CGI animals did look a bit artificial, but that didn't bother me very much at all.
As for the movie itself, I thought it was pretty lame, though I won't give any spoiler details here. At least it's mercifully short at 100 minutes. And the sound levels in the Paramount Theater were quite reasonable—an average of 80.2 dBA with the highest 1-minute maximum at 97.5 dBA; the level exceeded 83.9 dBA 10 percent of the time, 72.4 dBA 33 percent of the time, and 67.5 dBA 50 percent of the time. Very civilized.
I didn't expect a great movie—it's rating is 12 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—but I was definitely interested in seeing a true 4K movie image on such a big screen, and in that regard, it did not disappoint. However, if you see After Earth in a commercial cinema, keep in mind that you'll probably be watching a 2K downrezzed file, so don't expect a difference in picture quality from what you normally see. I hope the movie industry develops the infrastructure needed to distribute 4K DCPs, because they really can look spectacular.
UPDATE: In response to some of the comments posted in this thread, I contacted Sony Pictures Technologies President Chris Cookson and asked if it's true that virtually all movies shot or scanned at 4K are actually shown at 2K in commercial cinemas. He said that the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) specification is designed to allow one DCP to service both 2K and 4K cinemas; it's a single JPEG2000 (J2K) file that allows a 2K projector to disregard the 4K "layer" and play the movie in 2K. He also verified that in most cases today, the file is delivered on a hard-disk drive.
So why aren't more 4K-equipped theaters displaying true 4K images? Cookson suspects that some projects are finished and distributed in 2K because many post houses are not set up to do 4K without a lot of extra effort and expense, so they discourage producers from keeping the 4K information in the finished product. In fact, he says, many post houses can't even project 4K, so the filmmakers don't get to see what they are losing.
On the other hand, Sony's own post house, Colorworks, was built from the ground up to do 4K, so it's easy for them. Thus, movies from Sony Pictures, including After Earth, are finished and delivered in 4K, and if the theater is equipped to project 4K, that's what you will see, contrary to my previous statement. It seems we are finally in the transition to true 4K cinema, and I couldn't be happier about it.
In the comments below, AVS member coolscan points out that, in addition to 4K resolution and a 4K DCP, the projector also needs a 4K-compatible IMB (integrated media block). This is a more-expensive component, so many theaters didn't opt for it because there was no 4K material when the projector was first installed. According to Cookson, the vast majority of Sony 4K projectors have the Sony IMB, which is 4K-compatible.