30 May 2013

4K Ultra-HD and HFR High Framerate for Animation – Big formats, Big issues

Future Film and Television technology is happening now

4K Ultra-HD is a new film technology appearing on our radars today.  In a decade's time (at best), all productions will be produced to the new high spec stadards being launched at the moment.  The filmmaker can then choose to selectively focus on high resolution, high framerate high dynamic range and 3-D but most likely all of these techniques will be on maximum by standard.  This means today's producers looking ahead with an eye to 'future proofing' their content as well as early adopters and USP-eager producers are facing a production reality of high spec hardware and pipeline challenges as the new stechnologies slowly turn into new standards.  DCI spec 2.0, new EBU and SMPTE standards are certainly around the corner.  This, as they say, will change everything - again.

4K, HFR, HDR and 3-D all pose challenges for live-action and animation production alike.  The live-action film and television industry can get away with upgrading their cameras and editing systems to the tune of about 40-60% extra cost.  New cameras, new lenses (4K primes), new editing software, storage, post processing (deBayering 5K or 6K), compositing, grading, mastering and delivery.  Stock and library footage suddenly becomes much less useable.  In 4K, in High Framerate and in 3-D it is all more. But then animation is in much more of a pickle.

4K, HFR, 3-D: common techniques of the future, rearing their young heads today already.
The biggest question remains: what kind of content will film makers be using the tech for?

Future proofing... again

The industry has switched in the past 10 years from SD to HD fully and production from broadcast to film, from indie to big budget now works in HD and 2K.  Ultra-HD (4K) is 4 times as big and High Framerate (HFR) is anything from twice the amount of frames at 48 fps to six times the number of frames at 144 fps. 

Modern television sets are being sold at 4K resolutions, with refresh rates of 1000Hz.  1000hz?!!  Yes, really: the consumer is supposed to be able to perceive 1000hz refresh rates when the human eye can’t see much more than 72Hz per eye.  Oh well, the presentation technology is here and the consumer hunger will be huge.  Can consumers see the difference with their human eyes?  Only at screen sizes of 15 feet / 5 meters wide, but that doesn’t matter – there will be a demand regardless.   

So producers scramble to future proof their productions once again (after the introduction of 3DTV introduced 3-D future proofing, multi-format production introduced 360-degree future proofing and digital properties introduced online world future-proofing).  4K future proofing is here and HFR future proofing is here. 

Oh, and of course let’s not forget HDR future proofing, which has managed to snuck in recently as well.  Cameras advertising 13-stops of light means a need for production and post-production not just with 12-bit imagery but at least 16-bit or ideally 32-bit image bit-depth.  So we’re all looking at 4K HFR HDR 360 3D digital future proofing and in no way will there be higher production or license fees to cover the enormous overheads.  Tough luck, independent producer, you will bleed for a place in the future media landscape!  In this light it is no surprise the big studios are pushing heavily for the new technology to be adopted as soon as possible.

The Black Magic Design 13-stop HD camera.

In terms of delivery, wireless 5G technology has already been announced by Samsung to hit the airwaves by 2020.  They make a case of highlighting the possibility to transmit Ultra-HD content over the Gigabit bandwidth of 5G.  Question is just how relevant that is for mobile devices but for television sets with 5G receivers it makes a lot of sense, let alone Digital Cinema projection – and this is of course exactly the market Samsung is thinking of.  No more wires into the house, just mobile-enabled devices and all enabled to run high spec content such as 4K, HFR HDR, 3D and so on.

5G: slated for 2020

Compressing 4K

Compression of 4K material is obviously another big challenge. It will obviously need to be compressed to death to fit into the satellite transponders and cable bandwidths of today.  Freeview / OTA 4K?  Highly, highly unlikelySky4Kand HBO4K?  Highly likely and very soon so, but at the expense of four of their HD channels.  Painful, cost-wise but promotion is a costly affair, something Sky discovered with thir Sky3D channel.

The follow-up compression technology from the current standard of H.264/MPEG-4 AVC is the new H.265 codec, AKA High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC).  H.265 can do a third to twice the compressing (35%- 50%) at similar visual end results to H264, but at heavy computational costs: twice to ten-fold the computing power (2x – 10x).  That means a 4K video stream can at best be compressed to twice the size of HD/2K, rather than four times its size, with a need for a quad-core processor at double the Ghz speed compared to the CPU used to encode and decode the HD/2K stream with H264.  Upgrade time!  It is important to note that the current profile of H.265 limits Chroma subsampling to 4:2:0 (no 4:2:2 or 4:4:4) and 8-bit colour bitdepth (no 12-bit, 16-bit or 32-bit).

Heavy compression at play

But wait, animation studios do not creating imagery using compression, be it H.265 or RED (which is not open, not standard, license-based  and RED hardware-reliant), but working in uncompressed formats known in the live-action world as RAW.  Computing power to create, store and playback ‘Future proof’ material will need to be upgraded to an enormous degree.

Render cost

The biggest cost increase with 4K for animation production lies in 3D CGI render cost.  2D drawn, cut-out animation and stop-motion can be acquired using 4K-8K and 32bit photo cameras.  However, higher resolutions such as 4K and 8K require higher textures and more detailed shaders, while line thickness will need to be finer.  Downscaling 4K hand drawn animation to SD might result in disappearing outlines and a moire texture mash. Computer Generated 3D animation, however, needs to be computed: rendered - pixel by pixel.   

It doesn’t take complex calculation to figure out 4K will quadruple render times compared to HD or 2K.  HFR will double that time again at 48fps and quadruple at 96fps, while stereoscopic 3-D already doubles rendering times for computer animated content.  It doesn't matter where all this data is rendered; on a farm, or on the cloud - it still needs to be rendered.  In all, 3D animation production can easily incur a 16x render cost hike.  Your current average render budget of $ 380,000 USD for the pure rendering only of a 90 minute 2K feature can easily go up to 6 million USD for little to no extra boxoffice in the end.  Is that realistic?  Perhaps a 200 million Dollar production has no problem with a 5.6 million Dollar budget increase, but a 5 million Euro independent animation production, as is so common in Europe, will simply not be able to pull this off.   

A small render farm.
And we’re not even talking about television series here, which are not just 90 minutes long, they are 52 x 11 or 22 minutes, totaling 572 to 1,144 minutes.  The  resulting eye-watering render cost means television animation will swap quality for renderability; no beautiful pictures but bland, functional ones.  And if that is not enough to cut the render overheads, the budget for creative production parts will need to suffer.

Render budget breakdown

A render budget production line is not just the sum or render costs, it also includes the cost of specialized render TDs and pipeline TDs.  Own-built render farms and outsource render farms, including those running on cloud-based solutions, quickly equal in cost even before farm management and render licenses are included.  Render licenses include those for 3D software, plugins, shaders, render engines and render management software.  At 2,000 render cores that becomes a serious expense – think of a $100 USD plugin render license: with 2,000 cores that’s $200,000 USD extra cost.

In all, 4K, High Framerate and other technologies arriving and on the horizon are going to strangle a lot of independent animated productions.  Unless of course there is a render solution out there that can soften the blow and offer much lower render prices than a straight up 16-fold cost increase. This is where 4KRender comes in to offer a new, complete render service.  A 4K render service that can shave a third off your 4K HFR render costs through high-end specialization, the use of proprietary processes, clever algorithms and strategic render farm management.  What's more, 4KRender is UK-based and that can only be good news for European & US animation productions after quality, reliability and proper communication, besides European MEDIA co-production funds of course. Got a 4K CGI feature film or 4K animated television series to render? Contact 4KRender.com


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