Future-proofing your CG pipeline for 8K, HDR, and beyond

With the rise of 4K content tightening the technology gap between film and broadcast television, production demands are now catching up to creative studios who've remained ahead of the consumer curve. VFX teams have long had the capability to create Ultra HD content in excess of 4K, but the limits of consumer technology means this hasn't yet become as great of a necessity for TV and gaming as it has for film production. That's all changing in a big way, now that 4K and HDR are taking hold and bridging the tech divide across all digital entertainment industries.

Digital artists will increasingly need to push the envelope in the level of detail woven into their assets if they want their work to hold up under scrutiny at the higher resolutions and bit depths viewers will soon expect. The new Ultra HD norm is stunning to behold, but it also requires that studios think to the future when developing today's production pipelines.

The rise of Ultra HD and HDR

Ultra HD is nothing new to the film production world. Studios have been shooting at 4K and beyond for some time now, though until more recently there's been less of a need for it outside of IMAX films and big screen productions. Some higher end TV shows have already started future proofing their investment, posting in 4K or higher. What was once a luxury for large-scale projects is growing into a necessity industry-wide as 4K pushes closer to becoming the baseline viewing standard in more households.

Popular services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video have ramped up 4K streaming offerings, driving greater interest in TVs that take advantage of it. On the gaming front, big players like Sony and Microsoft have also rolled out upgraded console hardware capable of powering gameplay and cinematics at 4K and HDR bit depths.

HDR is another interesting facet that has a huge affect on both the audience viewing experience and on the content production side of the equation. From a viewer standpoint, it delivers richer colors, sharper contrast, and a more dynamic look than you'd find on a standard TV or cinema projection. On the tech side, it requires that game and film studios take a different approach to shooting and processing imagery to higher enhanced standards to make the director’s vision pop visually on-screen.

Of course, even as many households are just getting on-board with the current generation of Ultra HD and HDR, the next generation of consumer hardware and 8K broadcast standards are already being planned. NHK in Japan has already run preliminary tests and plans to broadcast the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 8K.

What impact does this have on VFX and game development studios working on the next wave of cutting edge digital content?

Close up of a computer chip

How Ultra HD affects artists and studios

Alongside the entertainment tech world's steady march to adopt even higher Ultra HD resolutions comes new challenges that digital artists and creative studios must overcome to keep pace with the evolving industry. The demand for greater detail, sharper images, and deeper colors puts pressure on today's artists to weave extreme levels of detail into their work to ensure their assets hold up at 4K and 8K resolutions. For studios, building a pipeline that can handle the extra load—both with current productions and far into the future—is a key consideration.

One of the biggest hidden costs of HDR and jumping upwards on the Ultra HD resolution scale is the massive amount of data and processing power required to work with assets and textures at this expanded scope. Going from a standard 2K project to a 4K or 8K production requires exponentially more storage and power to pull off. From artist hard drive space and studio storage capacity to having the raw processing power for rendering so much data, sufficient infrastructure is a must to avoid bottlenecks that can grind progress to a halt. This can affect budget, turnaround time and production capabilities on numerous levels.

Having flexible, future-proof tools that don't buckle under the strain of demanding projects is equally important for artists working in Ultra HD across games, film, and TV productions. HDR mastered productions will place emphasis on linear color workflows with floating point accuracy even for games production. A future 8K deliverable will require vastly higher resolution textures than today’s standard 4K and 8K texture maps. If production processes don’t advance to anticipate future clients’ demands, it’s only a matter of time before projects hit a wall at the worst possible moment.

CGI bird feathers painted and textured with Mari software from Foundry

Future-proofing for the 8K generation ahead

It's dangerous for studios to build out their pipeline infrastructure with a narrow focus on aligning to current industry production metrics. You need the flexibility to scale upwards well into the future without having to overhaul your entire pipeline with every new production that throws a surprise wrench in your setup.

All of this underscores the importance of studios planning ahead for tomorrow's needs when building their production pipelines for the productions of today. Every period of innovation has its growing pains, and we're on the cusp of another significant jump forward in the realm of entertainment technology. Are you taking the necessary steps to ensure your production pipeline is primed to tackle anything you can throw at in the years to come? Thoughtful decisions on choice of tools, workflows, data formats and your studio's infrastructure needs now will serve you well down the road when you're relying on scalability to stay competitive and tackle increasingly more demanding projects.

Want to find out the best way to prepare your business for the production demands of the future? Check out our follow-up article here