8k workflow for independent films

Mar 15, 2018

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My latest feature film, Immortal, is an anthology film being shot by four different directors. In order to keep the film feeling like a cohesive project though we decided to do have one writer (me), have one cinematographer, Tom Colley, and shoot on the same gear – the RED Epic with an 8k sensor. The 8k Workflow is a bit tricky. Shooting with an 8k camera definitely has its advantages and drawbacks and today I’m going to be sharing what I learned from shooting with an 8k camera.

Any aspect ratio

One of the coolest things about shooting with a Red 8k sensor is that you can essentially chose just about any aspect ratio from 4:3 to 1:2.39 and still get a clean 4k plus image. The thing is so massive that you can do a Wes Anderson type thing where some of your film is in one aspect ratio and some in another and still use the same camera. That being said, would you ever want to? I understand that if you’re a DP for hire it’s nice to have that kind of flexibility but if you’re a director who is renting the camera for a shoot this feature isn’t all that important.

Still, it’s worth mentioning because the camera owner/operator and I had a conversation about what kind of aspect ratio we should shoot the feature in and it was nice to be able to say whatever I wanted without it being an issue. Just to be fair though, if you’re shooting on a 4k camera that has a true DCI 4k width (4096px wide), then it most likely shoots as tall as you need and you can always crop down to get your aspect ratios – my GH5 does this.

8k Workflow – the resolution comes in handy

We did not shoot the film like David Fincher where everything was kept 20-30% wider than intended and then crop in during post-production, but you very well can with this camera with ease. I like getting my frame right on set for a few reasons:

  1. It gives the DP a sense of pride in his framing
  2. There’s less work in post because you got it right in camera
  3. You’re forced to commit to things creatively instead of giving yourself too many options that can drown you later

That being said there were a couple instances where we made cuts in the edit that we weren’t expecting to make and ended up with a few shots that felt too static as a result. What was nice about the 8k was that it allowed us to add a zoom to the shot without lowering the resolution of the image. Adding post zooms is absolutely amazing. You can control the speed and start stop times and add easing curves to the start or finish of the zoom – it’s like having the world’s greatest operator.

That being said, zooms are things that you use so rarely anyways that I’m not sure this is necessarily such a great feature but it did add a little depth for us on our project. Where it came in really handy was in making certain Ronin shots even more dynamic. If you add a post-zoom to a camera that is already moving it’s virtually undetectable to the eye and can really impact the emotional punch of a shot.

8k Workflow: The codec is more important than resolution

I remember when I first got my GH5. I was so excited to use the 4k image and play around with it but I was a bit disappointed that Premiere kept crashing in the timeline. I have a pretty decent editing system but the codec was just too much computing power for my machine. I ended up using proxies – which worked just fine – but it was an extra step that kind of sucked. Also, rendering out the video took forever because it had to go back to that inefficient codec to render out my final deliverable.

One thing RED has absolutely perfected better than anyone else on the planet is the compressed raw codec. It’s like magic. How they’re able to get 8k files to play on my computer (and laptop!) without much trouble is absolutely amazing. You also get to chose your compression level with red. So you can shoot 1:1 (but almost nobody does). Most people shoot 1:6 in 4k but when you’re in 8k you can easily shoot 1:10 or 1:12 and if you’re delivering a 4k final file the loss in quality is visually imperceptible (at least to me). That essentially means that your files are taking up 1/12th of the file size without sacrificing any visible quality – holy cow!

To give you an idea of how much data the file sizes take up – here’s a great online calculator tool that Red put together: http://www.red.com/tools/recording-time

It drives me bonkers that I have to create proxy files for my GH5 but the 8k RAW files work just fine! It goes to show you that the codec is MUCH more important than the resolution when it comes to ease of editing.

I’ve heard that the GH5’s latest codec that shoots 4k at 400/Mbs is much easier on editing systems but I haven’t bought one of the new V90 SD cards that is required to shoot at that higher frame rate so I haven’t been able to test it yet. I tried to sneak in a few seconds of recording onto a normal SD card but it crapped out after about 3 seconds cause it couldn’t keep up with the write speeds that the codec requires.

Hard drive space and data transfers are a pain

Even if you’re shooting at 1:12 compression ratio it’s still going to eat up hard drives like crazy. And transferring those files to hard drives on set and managing them becomes a pain. If you have a fast computer to offload with (or if your DIT) has one, then you should be fine…but you do end up spending more money on hard drives to archive and edit your project though. It’s not a huge expense as hard drive prices are constantly coming down but it’s something to be aware of if you’re going to shoot on 8k.

Also, Red Mags are expensive so most DPs don’t have a ton of them. You can definitely shoot a whole day with just a couple of the larger mags but transferring the files takes so long on anything less than a stellar computer that you really need to stay on top of the transfers if you want to have clean mags to work with every morning of your shoot. We got close a couple times and only had one mag to shoot on some mornings while the DIT rushed to offload the second mag while we were shooting.

Indie films don’t need 8k and really don’t even need 4k

All this crazy talk about resolution and going from 1080 to 2k to 2.8k on the Alexa to UHD and then 4k and now 8k – it’s exhausting and it begs the question – is it even necessary? If you’re shooting an independent film and nobody has backed you financially who is requiring a 4k image there really is no point in even shooting 4k. Netflix does demand 4k for their produced projects, but they acquire stuff that’s shot in HD (and even SD) all the time. If you shoot a movie that goes on to win the Palm D’Or, nobody’s going to care what the resolution is – they’ll just want your film.

If you’re sitting there saying to yourself “well, yeah but what about theatrical distribution” – don’t even go there. The chances of a theatrical release for independent movies these days is rare. I mean RARE. Of course, that won’t be what most of you want to hear though. For those of you who have your heart set on distribution in theaters – keep in mind that well over 90% of theaters project in 2k maximum. 4k projection is relatively new. Most of the movies you see in theaters are still being projected in 2k. So if you are happy with what you’re seeing at your local theater, 2k is going to be JUST FINE for you even if you decide to go theatrical.

If you shoot a movie that goes on to win the Palm D’Or, nobody’s going to care what the resolution is – they’ll just want your film.

The craziest thing about working with 8k

Perhaps the craziest thing that has happened to working in 8k is that I kind of want to shoot my next feature in 1080. For all the glory and advantages of shooting in 8k, I think my next feature will most likely be a New Media SAG contract which means it destination will be streaming online. If your destination is online streaming then 1080p is actually what almost everybody wants as a deliverable. If you go over to filmhub.com or distribber.com you’ll see that they all want a 1080 Proress 422HQ file as the main deliverable. Which totally sucks if you’re on a PC cause we can’t export to Prores – ARRRGGG!

But the crazy small size that 1080 files offer and the ease of use of some of the cameras are just a dream to work with both on set and in post. I’m talking to the DP of Immortal now about a mockumentary feature idea and both of us agree that we would likely shoot it on 2 Canon C300 cameras. We could probably fit the entire movie on a 2 or 4TB harddrive (which are under $100), and transfer entire cards of minutes instead of hours. Editing the image would be LIGHTNING fast as would exporting full 1080 versions of the film.

If, by some turn of events, we get into a festival that requires a DCP or want to do a theatrical run after the initial release online creating a 2k DCP from a 1080 file is only a 7% increase in pixel size and shouldn’t be noticeable. After all, movies like Collateral, Star Wars Episodes 1-3 and countless other Hollywood features did it without anyone making a fuss.



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