Shooting in 4K or HD Post-Pandemic?
In addition to guest posting on the UpCity blog, Loupe Theory is featured as one of the Top Video Production Agencies in the United States. Check out their profile!
To start, this article is meant to be worth your time. I too get hooked by some savvy copy or enticing tagline and clickbait my way into articles like this. Nothing’s worse than getting distracted from the edit only to waste time on an article that doesn’t make my life better. My goal is to do just that: equip you with some super practical tools on when and how to decide whether to shoot in ultra-high definition for your next video project or not. It’s likely not how you’d expect, by way of some entertaining wordsmithing and beginning with a story…
While waiting in a ‘stand-6-feet-apart’ take-out line, getting used to wearing a mask in public circa mid-2020, I distinctly recall glancing up at a TV in the makeshift lobby-turned-queue (pretty sure it was our go-to Chinese spot). Eva Longoria’s charm caught my attention, but what kept it was the stark realization that the entire L’oreal commercial I just watched was filmed by the brunette herself on her iPhone. IPHONE!?!
I remember thinking “Well if what should be a multi-million dollar, high-quality beauty ad is now being filmed by the talent on her smartphone because of quarantine… well… I might as well sell my Red Helium and learn how to use the latest DSLR. It’s been a fun run!”.
This was, of course, the dawn of the hyper-saturated, User-Generated Content (UGC) era of media that was the past two years. Primed by our hours of scrolling on Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts pre-2020 and made mandate by the onset of COVID-19; the commercial-level production value we had been accustomed to as a society overnight became a luxury killed by the lockdown.
It was all about quantity with little regard for quality as most businesses, and their marketing budgets were scrambling to survive. Things were shot and viewed on iPhone, and the game had radically changed for us filmmakers… anyone else goes through a deep depression from March through July 2020… asking for a friend…
Thank goodness the team sport known as filmmaking pivoted, survived, and production as we know it has since come back with a renaissance-like boom of fervor replete with fuller stories, richer content, higher production value, and yes, even more properly produced expensive beauty commercials. Love ya, Eva!
But what was a leading indicator in 2020 is now a rear-view-mirror lagging KPI; namely UGC.
What happens when the global media landscape is forced to rely on amateur, UGC for video footage?
Is there a place for UHD content anymore in a snarky social media-driven world?
Even though we can all afford a 4K TV at home, are lower resolutions the norm now that 70%+ of online video is consumed on 5-6” mobile screens?
Post-pandemic, does it matter if I shoot videos in full HD or 4K resolution either way?
And as with any question considered among us videographers, we love to postulate and justify answers either way. And as with any question in general, there is a question behind that question which more candidly beckons: “Does the substantial increase in a workflow that comes with higher formats, i.e. the hassle of higher resolutions, bit rates, expensive memory cards, massive file sizes, bigger hard drives, longer video edits, saving up to future-proof your next video camera purchase, choppy playback, longer post-production timelines all for better image quality make a lick of difference to the client and/or viewer, etc…?
Is it worth the financial headache time-suck now that we’re all used to smartphone-produced HD video content, can someone honestly just tell me?!
Yes… and no.
The executives at Apple, ARRI, Panavision, Canon, Nikon, Sony, and RED along with commercial DPs, producers, directors, and anyone on the way up or at the top of the agency + commercial or feature film world producing higher quality storytelling (and all those ridiculous clients who want you to shoot at 8K for a 720p budget, aye) would vehemently side with Team YES! And they wouldn’t be wrong (except for those absurd clients who also ask you to pan up and tilt left…)
Worth noting here, this article is not written for them, though Chris if you are reading this, cannot wait for Oppenheimer.
While simultaneously many news stations, “quick-social ads”, “doesn’t matter it’s on mobile”, branded content, vlogging-with-a-ring-light, YouTube tutorials, corporate training series, brand films, mid-size-market agency folks, and editors still riding the dream of the 2014 trashcan Mac Pro would say NOPE. Shoot in HD, call it a day, and move on. They too would be right.
Thanks for the clarity ya doofus, now what, I thought you said it was worth the read?! Carry on…
I think this question invites us into a larger conversation about something bigger than the number of pixels we have, or bitrate, video quality, the best cameras to use for XYZ, and so on…I write this assuming I am talking to the everyday freelance filmmaker or videographer running their small operation or leading the marketing division of an organization. And maybe a studious client who wants an inside-scoop so they can vet their next video production company partner even better; good on you!
PRO TIP: Often if it’s a TV or a streaming service, their post-turn-arounds are lightning fast, so they will tell you the video recording specs they need for their editing software upfront. Don’t assume if they don’t and don’t be afraid to ask! This doesn’t make you look like the fake you feel you are (sheesh, honest much?) it shows you care and are detail-oriented.
Repeat the specs back to them via email as a confirmation that you understand them, and as a paper trail you can come back to when (not if) there is an fps or video resolution miscommunication down the road in post. You can even put the final resolutions for raw footage or edited deliverables in your contract, highly recommend it!
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Now, if you’re doing your job well, you are in the habit of actively listening during discovery. Try to understand what pain points your client, or their client’s audience if it’s an agency, is having and lean into that pain with them to help solve it with your video chops. As such, any number of technical choices can then be viewed less as a selling point, competitive advantage, or higher day rate ($$$), and more like a paintbrush among other brushes in your arsenal of solutions to make their life better.
All the while I am coming back to one central question: How can I best be of service?
To tackle this tactically so you too can walk away with actionable steps, I broke this scenario down into three acts:
The Client, The Story, The Use Case
You get an email like this from a client or lead…
“We are doing a social campaign for Amazon next quarter, targeted at teens, largely on digital channels, social, some OTT buys and organic. It should feel fun, messy, organic, and lively, mixing styles, transitions, aspect ratios, frame rates, and reframing vertical edits for mobile. It’s seasonal and hyper-local so we won’t reuse the content later. Crazy shoot day with seven setups so far, so we’ll need to have a small footprint but still a gimbal for stabilization. Oh, we need it shot and edited in five weeks, H.264 mp4 1080p video for web, likely (5-7) :15, :30 spots. Stuff like this is usually shot on REDs but we have a limited budget this year cause of covid so a DSLR camera could work. What do you think we should film on, and can you give us a ballpark estimate?”
ACT I_The Client
CLIENT | Amazon_Ad Agency_Media Producer
Ask yourself: How can I best be of service?
The client was very technical —> so they’d likely appreciate a bit of camera jargon
They didn’t have a budget for a big cinema camera —> scrap overselling your ARRI
They wanted stabilization with a small footprint —> enter a DSLR solution possibly
It’s for a big brand —> high resolution gives us flexibility in posts to create dynamic content
ACT II_The Story
AUDIENCE | Amazon_Client_Teens
Ask yourself: How can I best be of service?
Digital natives spend more time online than anyone —> this content must slap heavily
They are interacting with the brand via mobile —> so we only need a 1080p export
The mix of style, tone, and aspect ratio speaks to the demo —> shoot enough variety
Visuals are wild and moving —> smaller DSLR camera rigs can shoot that easier and quicker
ACT III_The Use Case
USE CASE | Online_Digital_Organic Social_OTT
Ask yourself: How can I best be of service?
It’s only needed for a quarter —> no need to future-proof at even higher resolutions like 8K
I don’t have the processing power for 4K RAW —> but DSLR 4K will keep us on deadline
It will be a fast day with vertical + landscape deliverables —> so we’re shooting 4K
Final specs only call for 1080p —> 4K sensor content looks better in an HD export than 1080p
So, do we shoot clean 1080p with a more organized shot list and specific storyboards trusting the producers and AD will keep us on track? Or do we embrace the reality that it will be a run-and-gun day with a nimble crew and shoot bigger file sizes in 4K so we have room to play in the post?
Perhaps what is more important than over-analyzing this use case, is that together we:
Didn’t try to upsell 4K cause you already owned a 4K camera.
Listened to the client and measured the various options to best give them the most value.
Focused on serving them, the story, and the brand’s interaction with the end user.
Doing so will filter out low-utility, self-serving thoughts from scarcity and get you to a winning bid faster, so you can reply with empathy by saying something like this:
PRODUCER: “That all sounds great, I loved the creative! Our recommendation would be to film this on a mirrorless camera like a Panasonic gh5 with cinema glass. This will allow us to move nimbly with a compact setup, while also getting the 4K our editors will need for reframing and exporting verticals in post. The proper glass will yield stellar image quality in low light as we shoot through sunset. It will also be ideal for those key beauty close-ups on the shot list while giving us a clean image to muddy up the raw with special effects for those more lively moments.
Further, we can quickly switch in/out of slow motion for those cinematic sequences. I know it is a quick day with lots of setups, so reliable autofocus is a must, which this camera crushes. Lastly, shooting 4K on this setup won’t slow us down in post so we can cut through the footage and start looking at rough cuts soon. How does that sound? Attached are a few scope options for you.”
In films and high-end commercial work, higher resolutions tell a better story as they aim to emulate the magic of film stock and need life-long shelf lives to be remastered down the road, so yes, shoot in 4K, 8K, 22K, etc… Why? Because the big screen is always king and some high-end commercial looks can only be achieved by a Sony Venice II, RED V-Raptor XL, or Alexa LF. At that level, it doesn’t matter in the same way; it’s a different conversation.
But on your way to the top, if you have a job that really doesn’t matter either way and would look great in 1080p or 4K, especially on mobile, put aside your ego, make your editor’s life or the post team of your client’s lives easier and shoot in HD while ya still can, or don’t. It won’t matter in 10 years anyway when 4K is to HD as HD is to 480p today.
Moral of the story? Shooting in HD versus 4K matters, only as much as it serves your collaborators, the story, and the use case for the audience member. Service above self is the best guide to most questions, make it a part of your daily decision-making habits.