If you’ve gone shopping for a television lately, you are likely aware that 4K resolution (often billed as “Ultra HD”) is no longer a thing of the future – it’s here. Yet while higher resolution has made its way to becoming a standard feature in affordable consumer panels, a great deal of content is still being broadcast or streamed at 1080 (commonly referred to as HD).
For streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon, there is a mandate to get ahead of the curve, with both companies already making select content available to customers in 4K. Both subscription services are also investing billions in building libraries of original programming and, for the last two years, have required that shows like “House of Cards” be shot using one of a handful of cameras that were suitable for narrative TV and could handle native 4K image capturing.
But what does that 4K requirement mean for documentary series like Netflix’s “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On”? In the early stages one of the shows two cinematographers, Bryan Donnell, said he received a memo from Netflix outlining the cameras and specs that were acceptable for shooting the show.
“I swear it must have been the camera list from ‘House of Cards,'” said Donnell. “[We were going to be] shooting in a way that was photojournalistic and verité, which…involves an intimate small crew and small camera.”
According to Donnell, using one of the larger cameras would have fundamentally changed the way he and his small crew were able to shoot the show. The first step therefore was convincing Netflix that a smaller, documentary-friendly camera like the Canon C300 Mark II could meet both the specs the network required and the demands of the shoot. According to the show’s other DP, Ben Bloodwell, getting Netflix to sign off on the C300 was vital for the small, intimate spaces the show required them to shoot in.
“You can strip [the C300] so far down that you can hold it within your body and in a really small space,” said Bloodwell. “I feel like it’s a little more intimate. It doesn’t get people as obsessed with having a camera in their face.”
Even with a doc-friendly camera, the camera crew still needed to make other adjustments. Shooting in 4K means the raw footage files are significantly larger than when shooting HD or 2K, requiring a great deal more media management as camera cards fill up quickly and footage needs to be frequently offloaded. According to Donnell and Bloodwell, when shooting 4K, it’s necessary to have someone whose job is purely to oversee media management. The alternative is someone in the camera department dumping cards late at night, which can lead to mistakes being made (like losing footage).
The cinematographers both admitted the increased resolution and file size also alters their shooting approach. In a verité style shoot, their natural instinct is to keep the camera rolling. That’s hard to do with 4K.
“Our style of shooting this project is high ratios reap a lot of benefit, because you cut the camera and immediately that’s when the magic starts to happen,” said Bloodwell. “I’ve found times [shooting in 4K] where I’ve been like, ‘I don’t know what our media management situation is going to be like at the end of the day, I’m going to cut a little bit.'”
The DPs say they rely on sound to continuously roll and capture everything, and when something significant happens, they quickly flip the camera back on. “Your editor is going to have to know how to work with that type of footage – get a lot of cutaways and come into a scene a little after,” said Bloodwell.
Shooting at 4K at this time also means making sacrifices on other aspects of image quality. “It’s hard to find 4K that goes up into the 4/4/4 color sampling and 12 bit depth, I would personally rather have [those] and step down to 2K,” explained Donnell.
The advantage of recording that additional color and bit depth information, versus a higher resolution, is that it allows colorists to “dig” into the image and get the most out of it in post production. Both cinematographers acknowledge there’s a reason these decisions are not left in the hands of the DP, as the producer needs to be thinking about the longevity of the project. They also believe this is simply a brief transition period and soon camera companies will have equipment that allows for higher bit depth, color sampling and higher resolution in a file size compatible with a documentary shoot.
Despite the small sacrifices and adjustments that come with shooting 4K in a nonfiction setting, both Bloodwell and Donnell say there is something refreshing about the higher resolution mandate: It’s a market mandate that’s based on quality.
Editor’s Note: This article was part of Indiewire partnership with Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography at the Canon Creative Studio on Main Street. To see the whole conversation about shooting in 4K, watch the video above.