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Ultra High Definition: prospects and challenges

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ULTRA HD is a new format for presenting video content, which changes many production and distribution aspects. The point of those changes and what to prepare for all market players were discussed during the press conference “ULTRA HD: Workflow & Perspectives”, held in Kiev in late February. The event was organized by the edition broadcast.net.ua.

WHO IS WHO?

Before speaking about the operation in the UHD standards, we should make a clarification. The fact is that 4K and UHD formats differ. 4K format is a standard for professional digital film production, approved by the consortium DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives). Formally, there are several 4K standards, and they all originate from the age when different film companies offered own formats that resulted in emerging formats like matte-shot, wide-screen, academic, full-frame and others. At present, it is taken as a basis the 4K format with resolution of 4096×2160 pixels, being also called Full 4K. In addition, this standard specifies that data encoding is ensured by JPEG 2000 compression, supports a bit rate of up to 250 Mbit, and the color depth is 12 bit 4:4:4.

The Ultra HD format is a standard for content consumers, and it is designed to deliver a TV signal to the houses for viewers to get a richer viewing experience. Ultra HD originates from Full HD with resolution of 1920×1080. The new format is four times larger than Full HD, so it was still known as Quad HD, the aspect ratio is 3840×2160. Thus, the difference between 4K and Ultra is just 256 pixels horizontally.

Marketing professionals, as usual, did not go into those nuances and became calling all TV-sets with horisontal resolution of above 3840 pixels the 4K ones. At that, the names may look very attractive for an uninformed user: “4K Ultra High-Definition”, “4K UHD”, “Ultra High-Definition TV 4K”, “4K Ultra HD”. The marketers’ initiative was also caught up by reporters, and as a result those concepts were nearly mixed.

UHD standard appeared in 2005, when the Japanese TV company NHK carried out broadcasting in Ultra HD quality via fiber optic communication channel. In 2007, the Ultra HD standard was approved by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). In 2012, the standard was approved by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

However, transiting to a new broadcasting standard still faces many difficulties, and a 256-pixel difference is not the greatest one. The same content production in that new format is accompanied by considerable costs. It is required to change the whole production infrastructure, to improve the approach to data processing, to train specialists in operating with new standard. These are production problems, and there is also a consumer segment. So, the market offers a large number of Ultra HD TV-sets with a diagonal of above 40 inches. However, the industry experts agree that the difference between Ultra HD and Full HD will be noticeable starting from around 55-60 inches. And the average price for a TV-set with this diagonal starts with one thousand dollars, making such a purchase quite expensive. Above all, given the recent transition to Full HD TV-sets. According to statistics, in 2015 just 620 thousand TV-sets were sold in Ukraine, of which only about 130 thousand were Ultra HD. This means that Ultra HD market in Ukraine has not been shaped yet.

TRANSITION DIFFICULTIES

The problems of the production process’ transiting to 4K format were described by Konstantin Manakov, representing the Star Media Group with some experience in creating 4K content. While the company produces videos for online platforms, this is not about coming to television, as it is a too distant prospect.

Konstantin points out that a productive operation with 4K picture requires taking into account exclusive standards for the production hardware. All content creation cycle consists of several key phases: recording, transmitting, processing and storing.

To record a 4K signal it is necessary to increase significantly the memory card capacity. So, when recording in 4K RAW format at 60 frames per second the 512 GB Sony AXS memory cards will last for 21 minutes. When recording at 24 frames per second, it will last for 53 minutes. For reference, when shooting in HD MPEG2 format at 24 frames per second, this card will last for 275 minutes or over four hours and a half. Using the promising XAVC format, specially designed by Sony for producing 4K and Ultra HD content, allows increasing available recording time a little bit. So, when recording at 60 frames per second, the card will last for 27 minutes and when recording at 24 frames per second it will last for 67 minutes. It should be kept in mind that the cost of this card ranges within two thousand dollars. Thus, shooting becomes significantly expensive, especially if it requires dubbing during simultaneous recording on two cards.

The information content received when shooting in 4K is three to four times more than in Full HD. This means that to transmit this data, the bandwidth of outdated USB interfaces is insufficient. It is required to modernize this part by using USB 3.0 or FireWire ports in order to avoid an endless sleep mode of footage transmission.

The full-scale storage also requires additional costs, as, for instance, four episodes of TV series occupy 28 TB in 4K, and this size in Full HD comprises the whole season of 12 episodes. All materials are stored in RAID 5 arrays, and editing is ensured by using special servers ISIS 5000. They provide reasonable scalability when working with 4K content. The backup storage is ensured by special sixth-generation LTO drives.

To process received content it is required to put more powerful processors and graphics cards. Konstantin presented a comparison that when encoding HD content their computers processed 35 frames per second. When operating with 4K, the performance dropped up to four frames per second. For video editing it is applied the Final Cut Pro professional video editor or the Avid DNxHD solution by the Avid Company. For color grading it is applied DaVinci Resolve.

At the time of writing the article, the Star Media Group did not have any special 4K test monitors in view of their exaggerated price. The quality control was carried out on the existing monitors Sony and Panasonic and using software. As assured by Konstantin Manakov, just this year the company will buy required monitors for a comprehensive content production control.

As stated by the expert, producers initially got interested in the prospects offered by 4K, but then, after calculating new production costs they found themselves unready for such a serious investment. Therefore, the main production is made in Full HD format, which has not yet exhausted its potential. And given the sharp fluctuations in the dollar and the unshaped market in Ukraine, the 4K content is unlikely to become in the near future a widespread format in the entertainment industry. There will be ad hoc big-budget image-building projects, most probably designed for the Western market, there will be promotional shooting, but it is actually too early to say whether 4K becomes a widespread and common format for the mass media.

ECOSYSTEM OPEN TO PARTNERSHIP

The AVID Company also took part in the press conference “ULTRA HD: Workflow & Perspectives”. Two company’s representatives Ramunas Dirmeikis and Konstantin Kaltashkin told about a new cross-platform ecosystem by AVID, designed for the professional community of filmmakers and open to partnership with other industry leaders, both in the field of software and hardware.

In his speech Ramunas Dirmeikis suggested making a “zoom out” to see the whole picture and to analyze what happens in the film and TV production industry. Over the past ten years, the film and TV production market has undergone significant changes. The volume of produced content has increased near two- or fourfold in different segments. And the budgets of production sites have increased just by 3-4%.

This information assisted the AVID Company in understanding exactly what to offer the community of film- and video makers and how that solution would help film companies and production studios.

In developing its offer, the AVID Company was based on the need for producing high quality content. Both, in engineering terms like Full HD or Ultra HD, and in terms of content. The content delivery to the consumer must be made as and when required by consumer, to the convenient platform and with convenient resolution. The content should be truly multi-platform. A user may start watching TV series on his tablet, then shift to his laptop, after that take his Smartphone, and in the evening at all may want to enjoy the picture on the home theater.

Another important understanding of the process is that a user is not about to pay. If he has a free alternative, he will always opt for it. Therefore, the production sites should know how to make more money in a single product. It is necessary to build own technology so to deliver own content to a greater number of platforms, which has increased tenfold as compared to ten years ago. At that time users watched video content only on TV screen or PC monitor. Today, the situation has changed. Many young production teams understand it, and this opportunity becomes a growth point for them. But those of the “old school” are not so alert and go behind all these changes, so they become hard to make a profit in existing reality, even despite the content consumption growth by half. There appeared tablets and Smartphones, and people started consuming more video content.

It is required to be able to change quickly themselves and own internal processes to keep pace with acting on user preferences changes. The production process ceases being linear as a few years ago, when companies made a product, offered it to users, and forgot about it. Today, the production process becomes endless. Companies film something, offer it to the audience, get a feedback, and change something to make the product more attractive and more demanded. The product should be always readily available to the company, so that it would offer it once again in a new form earning extra money. Thus, in 2015 the company generated the AVID Everywhere Concept (see more concept details here in English).

Within the AVID Everywhere Concept it was designed a solution called AVID MediaCentral Platform. It enables producers to address all their pressing issues in their work. This platform is scalable, operates with Android, iOS, Windows, both with mobile and desktop solutions, in the office or remotely. As stated by Ramunas Dirmeikis, the speed of 4 Mbit/s is sufficient to work with content. Users can access the platform via the cloud or install an application on their computers, buying subscription for a year or month by selecting applications they need for work; in this respect AVID shows a truly flexible approach, where the very customer may find an optimal operation format.

The ecosystem AVID MediaCentral Platform is open to new solutions, and anyone can suggest something new. The platform supports any image resolution and there is no strict reference to any standard. In addition, the platform has a special “layer” Market Place, where all platform users may communicate with one another, share experience, offer their content; for example, if a studio films some TV series, it can offer an audio sequence, written specifically for them by composer. Or it may present compilations and portfolio to find sooner a new customer.

The AVID Company does not set a goal to make another cloud-based solution for video and audio. The main task is to assist in meeting strategic needs of users, and therefore the AVID Everywhere Concept and the AVID MediaCentral Platform go on being completed and developed due to regular assessment of changing industry. This idea was supported by implementing an agreement with competitors like Apple and Adobe on certifying their products to operate with the storage-segment of the AVID MediaCentral Platform. See more details of the AVID MediaCentral Platform here.

The platform’s potential has already been appreciated by leading international media groups. There is the US Sinclair Broadcast Group among them, managing 164 TV stations with over 400 channels broadcasting daily, owning also cable TV and radio stations. When the Sinclair Group required creating a new product, the company itself invited programmers and developers, investing huge money in it. But when it became necessary to produce news, the Sinclair professionals drew attention to the AVID MediaCentral Platform, getting thoroughly acquainted with the platform and its potential. As a result of numerous meetings of AVID and Sinclair, the media holding decided to implement that platform in all 64 news production offices.

In general, the AVID MediaCentral Platform accounts for 28,000 connections and over two thousand installations, including in Ukraine.

Another interesting solution for the community is the First product line representing free software for audio and video editing. This is a special offer for those who can not afford to buy a full AVID solution for any reason. It is actually no need cracking anything and becoming pirate associates. The AVID Company invites to use this tool. There is the Pro Tools solution available, as well as the Media Composer application. Today, the First product line already accounts for over 160 thousand registrations.

Especially for closer feedback from customers, users, technology producers, content producers, broadcasters it was set up the Customer Association, where one may share ideas, suggest innovations and modify existing solutions. This association allows all AVID customers to exert influence on the company’s products to release in the future. Within its activities the association organizes the annual conference AVID Connect 2016 to be attended by specially invited speakers, members of the association, company’s product managers, with technical workshops arranged for professionals. The AVID Connect 2016 will be held on April 16 and 17 in Las Vegas.

HARDWARE AND OTHER THINGS BY AVID

At the conference “ULTRA HD: Workflow & Perspectives” AVID also presented specific solutions in addition to its vision AVID Everywhere. They were described by Konstantin Kaltashkin.

Above all, this is a budget storage system ISIS | 1000 designed specifically for video editing. It differs from a common IT-solution by a number of features designed for content producers and small postproduction studios. The ISIS | 1000 has a special file system implemented, which distributes files across storage. It results in a rapid simultaneous work of large number of users with one file with no need for copying it, and it also makes it easier to work together on a project. It is also implemented an option of remote editing by applying Media Composer. A particular pride of the company is dynamic changes in the selected data of disk space to be made by users. This is a patented solution, unsuccessfully tried to reproduce by AVID competitors, including by applying reverse-engineering. The software is coded on Linux, it was certified the operation with applications of other companies, including competitors like Adobe and Apple. ISIS | 1000 supports simultaneous work on a project of up to 24 users. The hardware supports up to 80 TB of disk space configured in a RAID 5 array. The peak capacity reaches 1.2 GB/s. It is also implemented the operation with audio editing, sharing with the Media Composer and Pro Tools, it is possible to edit 4K content directly on ISIS | 1000. The price, including seasonal and regional discounts, is about 14 thousand dollars.

It was presented the Media Composer software, being well-known for professionals. Among innovations it is worth mentioning the access to the storage via a web interface for content editing. The connection can be also ensured through the 4G Internet, so an editor is not tied to the office, and may do his work at home or directly at the shooting location. For convenient work and editing, the software has a new DNxHR codec with already integrated DNxHD codec and supports 2K, 4K, Full HD content. In addition, DNxHR is coded for operating with promising formats like 16K, 32K and others. The software has a wide range of capabilities implemented to work with content from SD to PB and above or with proxy. Many processes like encoding/decoding/moving and other operations are put in the background, enabling to automate the process. When working with 4K content one can select a subframe and see the picture in Full HD resolution without conversion. There are also available overlay effects, supported 5.1 and 7.1 sound, and available operation with 64 audio tracks.

The changes affected licensing and updating as well. Users can see their valid licenses and applications available to update. See more details of the Media Composer here.

There was a brief presentation of a new hardware solution under the name Avid Artist | DNxIO, a special interface for working with HD, Ultra HD, 2K, 4K content. This unit facilitates professional data processing in real time. Avid Artist | DNxIO allows quick and efficient accelerated encoding, as well as color and frame rate conversion. The device incorporates a variety of high bit rate ports for data transmission, such as the optical ones, HDMI 2.0, Thunderbolt 2, PCIe, and audio inputs and outputs, including with power supply. On the front panel there is a LCD display for more comprehensive control over the content. See more details here.

SOLUTIONS FOR ULTRA HD

The Sony Company is one of the major players on the Ultra HD market, both for the professional community of content producers, and for those denominated as industry fans. As emphasized by Vitaly Semashko, a spokesman for Sony, in his speech at the conference “ULTRA HD: Workflow & Perspectives”, the company pays attention to all promising activities both professional and amateur ones. Sony produces both professional products with an incredible set of features, and semiprofessional solutions, which meet over and above the needs of small production sites. Sony develops and offers the market a completed system of products required for production, distribution, display, control, and home use.

Sony conducted own 4K content market research, which identified the main issues to be taken into account for offering the community acceptable options to transit to the new content production format. The main difference of 4K is a data size, so the network bandwidth should not be a bottleneck in production, and large files moving must be minimized by improving working infrastructure. For reference, the size of one 4K frame (4096×2160 pixels) increased twentyfold as compared to the SD frame (720×486 pixels).

The price for filming equipment should not be high, and the price for storage media should be within production budgets planned by filmmaking companies. In addition, it is necessary to implement new options and technologies to reduce the cost of 4K postproduction.

As part of this understanding, Sony pays a particular attention to encoding of received signals. Specifically, it was developed a promising codec XAVC, which is perfectly great for production sites dealing with TV. Here it is a review of specifications of the XAVC Revision 2.2.

In addition, a significant attention at the conference “ULTRA HD: Workflow & Perspectives” was centered on professional cameras for shooting in Ultra HD mode. Sony presented its line of F-series cameras, detailing the models F65, F55 and F5.

A65 camera has long been known to the community of content producers. This camera is well-proven in production. It has a great 8K sensor, mechanical shutter, wide color gamut, dynamic range of 14 stops, and an option of recording 16 bit images F65RAW to the SR-R4 recorder at a rate of 1 to 120 frames per second. See the camera description here.

F5 and F55 cameras are a class lower, and they are common by compact size and modular design, resulting in making shooting much easier, as the cameras can be adapted to specific operating environment. In addition, these cameras are equipped with 4K Super 35 mm CMOS-matrix for video filming with resolution Full HD, 2K and 4K on SxS memory cards. The cameras are also equipped with 16-bit RAW 2K and 4K output.

The Panasonic Company also told about cameras for Ultra HD. It presented AG-DVX200 and VariCam LT cameras.

DVX200 is a mixture of camcorder and photographic camera. With a relatively reasonable price of near five thousand dollars, the camera incorporated all the best from a photographic camera and the video one, becoming a full-fledged hybrid. Special mention in this regard should be made of optics. The DVX200 has a built-in Leica Dicomar 13x zoom lens, which takes half the camera’s price. Among other “delicacies” there is an option of infrared shooting, interframe and intraframe compression, an option of filming videos 4K 10 bit 4:2:2, a dynamic range of 12 stops, a slot for an external recorder. The company offers a DVX200 camera for additional shooting for the flagship VariCam 35. See review of the camera in English here.

The second camera is VariCam LT, and it is more expensive professional camera worth near 18 thousand dollars. It acts as a budget substitute for the flagship camera VariCam 35, offering virtually the same set of features. It is implemented here a dynamic range of 14 stops, double level of ISO 800 and ISO 5000,  4K, UHD, 2K, HD and HD ProRes formats support, with an option of filming in High Dynamic Range (HDR), two slots for XpressP2 and SD cards, as well as new AVC-Intra2K-LT and AVC-Intra-LT codecs. See more details here.

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