720 vs 1080 vs 4k: What resolution choices do I need to make?

Moviemaking has been around for about 120 years now and has gone through dozens of formats and format variations. The first films shot at about 12 frames a second. As history moved along, many other formats came and went, and some were quite popular and innovative. The 16mm format, for example was popular with amateur filmmakers, while Technicolor and widescreen Cinerama and CinemaScope amazed people in the theaters. IMAX and Super 35 are today’s film choices, but other pure digital formats are becoming more and more popular. Some people are even starting to shoot movies with their phone cameras.

So really, today’s discussion, for both amateurs and professionals, is more aligned with digital video formats and those resolution choices. Essentially, we’re not really “filming” anymore, but then we’re not “taping” anything either. We’re choosing a digital resolution. If only we could find a word as easy, accurate and fun to say as “filming.” Future generations may ponder what that term means, if we’re still using it to describe our digital zeros and ones edited on a computer.

While that is all an interesting discussion, “filmmaking” is really just storytelling. We can still watch and enjoy and be moved by stories created with film formats that are long obsolete. Charlie Chaplin never had to worry about shooting in 4k or not, and to an extent, neither do you.

“I look at this as a question of intention,” said Jeston Cole Lewis, the managing director of Argos Productions. “Does shooting in a specific definition help tell your story? Does it help get your message across? I think that’s the first thing to consider. The other thing is, what does your budget look like? Can you afford higher resolutions, and therefore more storage, a more powerful computer, and more processing time?”

What do these resolution choices mean?

Formats — and video “containers” — will come and go, but resolution choices will offer fewer, standardized choices. At the level we’re talking about in 2020, our choices are basically 720p, 1080p and 4k, which is the most current push.

“All of these numbers are the measurement of the vertical pixels in an image,” Jeston said. “720p is still the broader standard for streamed content. Most network solutions can’t handle full 1080p. It has been shown that the eye can’t see the difference for anything above around 2k. Although 4k and higher can be useful for some virtual reality (VR) applications, when it comes to film, it is mostly an excessive amount of data.”

If television makers can continue to sell higher and higher resolution monitors, we’ll probably keep going up that chain for the latest and greatest. “But I think it is already overkill,” Jeston said. “Shooting in these high resolutions doesn’t help you tell a better story, it just uses more space (digital storage). You’re not missing anything.”

Plus, most of the latest equipment will upscale your smaller resolution videos to higher, better looking resolutions. If you already have a 4k monitor, you’ve already noticed this, because there are currently very few true 4k movies or videos out there. You may not personally even own any Ultra HD Blu-ray discs yet.

(NOTE: Some of you may notice a 1080i resolution. This refers to a technical difference between it and 1080p. The “p” means a progressive scanning process, while the “I” means an interlaced process. Skip, the “i” format and go with progressive. “Interlaced video essentially gives you half the image at a time, causing more artifacts during fast moving scenes. If you can get progressive scanning, it gives you a much more consistent image.”)

What it boils down to

What it boils down to is upscaling. All thanks to today’s technology. “Upscaling in post has become really easy and very good,” Jeston said. “So if you need to deliver something in a higher resolution, you shouldn’t have any issues.” There will always be some people who will choose the highest resolution possible, and that’s fine, too, if you’re one of those folks. We all know a couple obsessive audiophiles who want the best audio wavelength reproduction systems they can get, even though humans can’t (supposedly) hear some of those subtleties. So go for it, if you feel like it, but for the rest of us, it’s not that necessary. We’re still all creatures of story.

“We shoot pretty much everything in 1080p here at Argos Productions,” Jeston said. “We get beautiful images, and I would say that spending more money on lenses is more important than getting higher resolution.” And professional photographers would probably tell you much the same — it’s all about the glass. And, of course, you can always make standard definition copies, depending on your intention. You’re certainly not watching high resolution stuff on YouTube, even if it was originally shot with expensive 4k gear and high-tech special effects and production techniques.

So knowing that early films were once 12 frames a second, and today’s Ultra HD clocks in at 60 frames a second, will you one day regret not shooting in 4k now? “I don’t think so. I think, like most things, people will get fatigued by the marketing machine and will start consuming lower resolution content because of their amazing storytelling attributes, not because of their ultra-super-duper resolutions that go beyond the capacity of what your eye can actually see. Look at vinyl records, for example. They’re about to outsell CDs for the first time since 1986.”

Think of your favorite artist, say Van Gogh, Monet or Banksy, for example. Do you have a print on your wall or maybe a book of fine art paintings? Of course, you’re missing the texture and emotions of experiencing the original work of art, yet you still have that print on your wall. Do you know why? It’s because it still has a story to tell. It still communicates something personal to you, even though it’s not a 4k original but just a design on your phone case or shower curtain. In the end, it’s all about the story, not the medium.

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