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Gearing Up for 4K Production, Part 3: Storage, Throughput, Switching, and Delivery

Two big issues that concern almost everyone making the jump to 4K and UltraHD are throughput and storage. How are you going to manage and transfer all those additional bits?

Switching 4K Video in a Live Production Workflow

In a live workflow, there are several options for switching 4K/UHD video. One products I use frequently is the Blackmagic Design ATEM 1 M/E 4K Production Studio (Figure 2, below). For $2,500, this unit brings you into the UHD switching world. The ATEM line, which has been on the market for a few years now, includes great switchers for HD as well. They started interlaced, they added progressive, and now they're adding UltraHD. The feature set is improving.

blackmagic ATEMstudio 4k

Figure 2. The Blackmagic Design ATEM 1 M/E 4K Production Studio

The caveat with Blackmagic is that they generally ship hardware first and then update via firmware--albeit very frequently, especially on the switcher side. While users have experienced some delays with Blackmagic cameras, on the switcher side, the company has done a good job of supporting the ATEM line and adding features on a regular basis. Some of the features that weren't available when I first bought my ATEM 1 M/E--the HD version--came out via firmware. One of those is the audio mixer that's built in to the software control panel now, so you can actually mix the channels, and de-embed or work with audio that's coming from embedded sources like HDMI and HD-SDI, as well as the XLR inputs and the RCA inputs. The 4K Production Studio model has XLR as well as RCA inputs, so you can support external audio switchers and the like.

The ATEM 1 M/E line has higher-end capabilities, such as picture-in-picture than the ATEM Television Studio, Blackmagic’s $999 entry-level product. The 2 M/E model supports a quad view, so you can have four inputs at the same time. The 1 M/E is limited to one single picture-in-picture, as well as graphic overlays and things like that.

With the 4K model, they've also added a front panel, which manages your Aux controls. You can actually have two operators working on different switches.

The big issue with Blackmagic is no scalers. Everything has to be one frame rate and resolution. If it isn't, you need an external scaler or frame-rate converter; otherwise, it won't accept the input.

Delivery

To close out this article and this series, I want to touch on 4K and ultra HD delivery. H.264 is today’s codec of choice. Moving forward, you have to look at HEVC or H.265, or--for archiving and grading--DPX. These codecs (especially DPX) bring big file sizes. At least for now, with 4K/UHD, file transfer or local playback is probably what a majority of your clients are going to be doing, because the opportunities for UHD delivery online are still limited. YouTube does have UHD capability; if you’re going to use it, make sure that you're encoding properly.

My first 4K output tests with Premiere Pro/Adobe Media Encoder revealed that it didn't support 4K or UHD encoding at 60p for H.264. It was a level 5.2 requirement, and they only support 5.1. No one really needs 4K 60p today, but if that’s your requirement going forward, keep in mind that you can't encode that today on Premiere Pro. There are plugins you can get, such as Cinemartin Cinec for HEVC encoding, to bridge the gap.

It’s also worth noting that many early 4K TVs don’t support HEVC. Sony’s first 4K TVs, for example, can't play that codec, and early adopters of those TVs are having to buy external boxes now to download that content.

Much of this is likely to change fairly quickly, as with any rapidly advancing new technology taking strides toward the mainstream, so if you’re looking seriously at 4K/UHD adoption on the production side--and your clients are considering it seriously on the consumption side--it’s important to pay close attention to all the latest developments as they happen so you can make the soundest choices possible when gearing up for 4K/UHD production.

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In part 2 of our 3-part series on gearing up for 4K live production, we'll explore the cameras and lenses available today for professional 4K production.
We'll begin this 3-part series with a look at the two 4K formats and a discussion of why you'd want to shoot in 4K today even though most viewers and potential clients aren't demanding it, and start to examine the links in the 4K live production chain with an eye to connectivity, codecs, and capture.