A well-known fast food chain wanted to sell more milkshakes. Through extensive surveying they asked their target customers how they could improve their shakes. They made those changes to the recipe, but only saw marginal improvements in sales.
So they hired a team of marketing researchers to figure out why current customers were buying their milkshakes and hopefully discover the key to increasing consumption.
The researchers began by camping out at one of these restaurants for 18 hours a day. They wanted to observe when people were buying the shakes and then hopefully approach them to ask why.
The fast food company had made the reasonable assumption that people were buying their milkshakes as a dessert to go with their hamburger and fries. So they expected the bulk of milkshake sales to be at lunch and dinner times.
But when the researchers observed the customers, they found this wasn’t the case. Half of all milkshakes were being sold before 8:30 in the morning.
When they asked the customers why they were buying them at that hour, they learned it wasn’t because the people were getting off the graveyard shift, or even that they were hungry.
People were buying a milkshake at 6:30 AM because they were faced with a long, boring commute and they wanted something that tasted good, would stave off hunger for a few hours, and would take a long time to consume. (The company makes thick shakes served with a thin straw.)
As the researchers put it, the customers were “hiring” a milkshake to do a job: make their morning commute a little more bearable. They were using the product in a way the company never intended, and for reasons that never came up in the marketing surveys they had done before.
OK, so what do early morning milkshakes have to do with shooting video at 8K?
They both illustrate the need to clearly understand how the customer/audience will eventually use the finished product. Because like a milkshake (to paraphrase Kelis), a camera that shoots 8K “brings all the boys to the yard.” And you need to step back and decide if higher res is really always better for your production.
The Endless Quest For Higher Resolution
Ever since the first light-hungry tube camera was connected to the first foot-locker-size tape deck, video professionals have been conditioned to shoot at the best quality possible.
That's because, back when editing was on tape, each step in the process would take the finished piece one generation down from the original. Even when editing 1” to 1”, this meant a perceptible loss in quality.
Even after the move to all digital, it still made sense to shoot on the highest quality possible. As the finished piece was converted to lower res files, that quality at the beginning was noticeable.
Then along came the 4K revolution. You could shoot video with the same quality as film (finally). And Hollywood soon proved it was good enough for big screen feature films.
Today, 4 out of 5 DPs agree 4K is the way to go for non-theatrical video production. (The 5th DP had his phone shut off and could not be reached.) But it's a no brainer.
Now along comes 8K video—twice the resolution of 4K.
If the past has taught us anything, it’s that we should be using the highest resolution possible. So we should automatically start shooting everything on 8K, right?
Well, maybe not.
We asked veteran DP Todd McClelland this question, and he had a pretty interesting answer.
A Short History of Video Quality
First of all, he brought a little perspective. McClelland remembers when the giant 3/4” U-matic was the standard format for decent corporate video. He’s shot millions of feet of film. Thousands of hours of video. And more times than he can remember he's heard the claim, “Hey, this guy finally found a way to make video look just like film.” Of course it never did.
Then he was down in LA in the early 2000s and saw footage from a Panasonic Genesis (Sony’s CineAlta also achieved the same look). These cameras were shooting at an effective resolution of 1080p and the results were truly remarkable.
“For the first time,” says McClelland, “the CCD sensor was the same size as 35mm film. It gave you a similar color range and depth of field.”
The quality was good enough for George Lucas to use the CineAlta to shoot Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones.
According to McClelland, that leap from the standard 525 lines of Beta-SP to 1080p was bigger than the subsequent improvement to 4K, or the latest step up to 8K. Video had finally lived up to its promise to look just as good as film. After that, it was just an improvement in resolution.
So we asked him, “Since 8K cameras are now available, should people be shooting their productions at that resolution instead of 4K?” After all, that’s what video professionals do—shoot at the best possible resolution.
McClelland said, “Love to. But probably not.” Then explained why.
First, he said that you’ll probably run into problems as you shoot. In his experience, very few of the available lenses can’t cover the extra large 8K field. The ones that do a good job are huge, heavy, and very expensive. Whereas he's able to use his favorite film lenses from the 1970s on 4K cameras.
Second, your better resolution won’t even make it to the editing bay. Post houses are not set up to handle 8K files (they are 16x larger) so they will need to convert your footage down to a standard pro format, about 25% of the quality. And having that much extra data, especially when it’s essentially unusable, is a hassle at every step in the process.
Third, he said that you won’t see the difference between 4K and 8K unless you are producing something that relies heavily on CGI and will be shown on a movie theater grade HD projection system.
In other words, 8K is great if you’re shooting the next Avengers movie. But until lenses, post facilities, and projection technology catch up, it’s probably overkill. For example, if you spot Bigfoot at a distance, please get footage of him in 8K, because the capacity for lossless digital zoom is unreal.
This brings us back around to the milkshakes.
The fast food company had a marketing problem they couldn't solve until they figured out why people were buying their shakes.
Your clients are facing the same thing. Before you shoot anything, they need to be able to tell you exactly how the finished piece is going to be used. If your client doesn’t know, they should really spends to time to find that out before proceeding with the production.
A TV spot has a chance of being seen at 1080p, if the viewers have a TV with that quality and have paid the extra for HD. That’s also the best resolution of Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. But with the majority of video being watched on people’s mobile devices and many people having a limited amount of wireless data, consumers are happy seeing things at a lower resolution.
In fact, streaming sites will automatically show a lower resolution, if that’s what it takes to keep the video from stopping to buffer. So your 8K masterpiece, with enough resolution for an IMAX theater, may end up being viewed by most people at 480p.
You can get people’s attention with stuff that is visually stunning, but to keep them engaged, you have to grab them with your story. And that’s something that works at any resolution.
Note: The milkshake story is a great case study in marketing. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen was one of the researchers. McDonald’s was the client. It’s one of the best explanations of the “jobs to be done” marketing methodology. Watch Christensen tell the story here: http://youtu.be/sfGtw2C95Ms