Thursday, November 27, 2014

How to Get the BEST 4K Video Out of a 1080p Camera!

I've held off on this article as I did not feel the time was right, but it has become too evident that 4K is the next big thing for TV's and digital video recording. Many of us are lucky enough to own camcorders or cameras that output 1080p quality video, but now that 4K is becoming increasingly popular, should we toss those devices aside and purchase a 4K camera? I would like to argue that (for now) 1080p can suffice for 4K videos, and I would like to show you how and why...

Back in the Day
Just before I was about to be a sophomore, I switched high schools. I was late to the party so I only had a few choices for my electives. I opted for a video class that I thought would be easy; boy, was I wrong!

The former teacher was known to be very lax and the video class had been easy. But the current teacher wanted his students to really learn how to create video projects at a high standard. Before you were allowed to even touch a NLE (Non-Linear Editor), you had to learn how to edit with VHS. While not as hard as editing 8mm with a film splicer, it was still an arduous task. Once you had done one project on a VHS editing bay, you could then move onto a NLE.

When I first sat down in front of a computer (loaded with Adobe Premiere), I didn't know where to start. I could open the program, but that was about it. So I pulled over a classmate and asked them one question: Which button cut the video. From then on I educated myself on all the skills and technical aspects of production and post-production.

I was fortunate enough to get into digital video just before 24p became a huge revolutionary way to capture and output video. For the younger crowd, it was much like the jump from SD to HD (1080p). For newer crowds it will be akin to 1080p to 4K. I wouldn't say that things were simpler back then, but because there was less to contend with, it did give a sturdier background for digital video and all the new features that would start to arise.

Originally I wanted to do something in computers, but since that first class in high school, I have continued my studies and experimentation in digital video. I even went on to get a degree in film and media. That's not to say I forgot about computers altogether, otherwise this blog would not exist.

1080p vs. 4K
1080p is a video resolution of 1920 x 1080. 4K is a video resolution of 4096 x 2160. There are other 4K resolutions, but I won't get into that here (check "14 Things People Get Wrong..."). 4K is roughly 4 times larger than 1080p. You can check this by multiplying the numbers above then dividing the total for 4K by the total for 1080p. In pixels, the comparison is about 8 million to 2 million. This should help you understand why 4K is such better quality than 1080p, even without having a TV that will allow you to test that theory.

1080p vs. 2K
2K is a video resolution of 2048 x 1080. Again, there are some other resolutions, but I will not be getting into them. 2K is just barely taller than 1080p. 2K is the resolution used in most cinemas (there are some cinemas that do show movies in 4K).This may help understand why the need for cameras, camcorders, and TV's to have 2K never really came to fruition.

Be Forewarned
The best way to get 4K video is to obviously have a 4K camera or camcorder. A 4K smartphone may be cool, but it is not a good way to get 4K footage (even with hacked bitrates).

The only camera I know that can be hacked to become a 4K camera is the Sony F5, but the camera alone still costs thousands upon thousands of dollars. It would be better to get something like a Panasonic GH4, especially now since there are rumors that Panasonic may discontinue the line...

But if you can't afford those options, then follow along below.

Preparation for the Transformation
There are a few things you can and should do in order to make the best quality out of 1080p video footage.

The first is a pre-production step. If you own a Canon EOS, a Panasonic GH2, a GH1, or any other camera that can be hacked for higher bitrate, you should enable those settings. You will need to spend some ample research on how these are performed, how they can react, and how to reverse the process if needed. For an applicable Canon, you can use Magic Lantern, which will give you a setting to increase the bitrate. The process is easily reversible by just pulling out your battery. On a GH1 or GH2, the process is a little more in-depth as you need to actually replace the firmware and find a respective mod that will increase your bitrate (the Driftwood Moon or Cake is a good one for GH2 users). Of course, there are going to be a lot of cameras without any sort of hack, so you can skip this step if it does not apply. (Or pick up a cheap Canon that can use CHDK; camera list available here.)

For my tests I ended up using a hacked GH2 that got me about 80-100Mb/s for my 1080p footage. It came out superb and was a perfect candidate to try for a 4K upscale.

The second step is something anyone should be able to accomplish. After creating your video, but before throwing it into a NLE, download and install the free version of GoPro Studio. You can then increase your video footage's bit-depth from 8-bit to 10-bit. I won't go into the exact steps as I use NeoScene (which was a product that became discontinued when GoPro bought Cineform). They have the same capabilities, except that the GoPro Studio is an editing suite, and NeoScene includes the ability to convert AVCHD files (great for GH2 users like me!). If you want NeoScene for AVCHD footage, you may be able to find some valid serials sold on eBay. I have a posting here with the actual downloads that GoPro's site does not make available for discontinued users.

If you're asking why do the second preparation task, because you know that bit-depth is about color; it's because that this will likely help produce a better 4K version of your 1080p footage since it will have more color information when producing a top-notch 4K video. 8-bit deals with 256 colors, while 10-bit uses 1024 colors. And when doing the upscale process below, the computer is trying to produce non-existent details from details that do exist. Giving it more to work with is better than less in these circumstances.

How to Make 1080p into 2K
The easiest way to go about this is just to enlarge your video until the height is 2048 pixels high. Sure, some quality loss will occur, but not enough to be noticeable to the naked eye. To reiterate, there isn't much of a reason to do this unless you are specifically asked to do so (i.e. a client needs his digital video in 2K).

If this isn't satisfactory, you can use similar steps that will be discussed for 4K.

How to Make 1080p into 4K
Now, you could just scale 1080p footage to the dimensions of 4K, but unlike 2K, the quality will be substandard. Because we are enlarging the footage more than 4 times its original dimensions - where 2K is a slight pulling of the height - the quality will immediately take a hit and be noticeable by enthusiasts and the general public alike.

A simple way, which I do not recommend, is first scaling the 1080p footage to 4K, then use some post filter effects. You can throw on some Gaussian blur to smooth over the banding and artifacts that will undoubtedly arise, and use a bit of sharpen to get back a bit of that grain for realism's sake. This can be useful for quick jobs, but it doesn't give it the video footage quality it deserves.

Instead, you should use Adobe After Effects CC. If you don't have it, try out a trial version. If you use up the trial, either buy it or reinstall your OS and do the trial again (a bit extreme unless you have a spare computer you don't actively use).  

Not long ago Adobe introduced a new "detail-preserving upscale" feature for Adobe After Effects CC. It is an effect and is fairly easy to use. The results are quite phenomenal, even moreso when compared to just a standard upscaling of the footage.

Now that you have the required tool to perform this trick, follow these steps to transform your 1080p footage into 4K:

  1. Open After Effects
  2. Select "New Composition".
  3. Change the values to 4096 x 2160.
  4. Name the composition whatever you like.
  5. Click "OK."
  6. Import the 1080p footage into your "Project" panel. (Drag-and-drop your footage on the Project panel, or right-click the "Project" panel and go to Import > File... to browse for your footage. File > Import > File... also works.)
  7. A "comp" will be created along with the footage import.
  8. Drag-and-drop the footage into your comp timeline.
  9. In the "Effects & Presets" panel, type in "Detail". The "Detail-Preserving Upscale" effect should appear. (If it does not, you are not on the latest version of Adobe After Effects CC.)
  10. Drag-and-drop the effect onto the footage in your comp timeline and it should automatically apply to your footage, and open the "Effects" panel.
  11. Ensure your timeline is at the beginning of your footage by dragging the time cursor to the start of the footage.
  12. Click the "Scale" stopwatch provided underneath the "detail-preserving upscale" effect in the "Effects" panel.
  13. Use the "Scale" option to increase the size of your footage until you fill the entire frame.
  14. Click the "Detail" stopwatch provided underneath the "detail-preserving upscale" effect in the "Effects" panel.
  15. Increase the amount of the "Detail" to 100%.
  16. Click the "Alpha" stopwatch provided underneath the "detail-preserving upscale" effect in the "Effects" panel. (This step and 17 are optional, however, it does seem to look slightly better if done.)
  17. Change the value from "Bicubic" to "Detail-preserving".
  18. Go to Edit > Add to Render Queue
  19. Click it.
  20. The render queue window should appear in place of the comp timeline. Adjust your settings as preferred.
  21. Click "Render".

Note: While 4096 x 2160 is true 4K, many "4K" TV's only support up to 3840 x 2160. So, you may want to check which value you should use depending on your monitor or TV that will be used for viewing.

Note II: The stopwatch is usually not needed unless you plan on changing that selected item's actions during playback. However, I found that not clicking on it for this effect made it ignore the filter altogether when outputted from the render queue. For my tests, it seemed to work if I just did the stopwatch for scaling, but to be safe you may want to do the stopwatch for all the effect properties.

There is no perfect upscaling solution, such as that, this is not a perfect solution. But this is by far the best method I have come across, as well as the least time-consuming. There will never be a perfect solution for upscaling because your are taking something smaller and making it bigger, which will always cause banding and artifacts.

If you don't know much about video and are thinking you should use the above steps to downscale video, don't. It's really just a waste of time. Problems in detail and quality only happen when going from small-to-big, not big-to-small. Decreasing the size of something will retain its detail and not create any of the issues noted above. You can simply scale down the footage in any NLE and be fine. 

However, if you go from big-to-small, then attempt to go back by using small-to-big, the problems above will occur. It would be smarter to keep a backup of the full size as it will be perfect in comparison to trying to match the original with the solution I have presented.

4K You, 4K Me, 4K Everybody!
I have found other software to perform upscaling, but all have mediocre results and cannot come close to the quality retention Adobe After Effects provides. I should say that the larger the gap in dimensions, the less useful any of this becomes. If I try to upscale 480p to 4K, the results should look horrible regardless of what program is used. On the flip side, If trying to upscale from 4K to 6K, this method should still be valid. Because 8K is so massively large, this technique may or may not be valid when coming from a 4K source (certainly not 1080p).

If you need to test your footage, you can always upload it to YouTube where it should give you the option to use 4K when viewing. And if you need to keep the great quality of your 4K video, but need a more manageable file size for sending or uploading, check out "VP9 + Opus = WebM...", which will also have the 4K example I made.

Another thought to remember is that your footage is not 4K, just your outputted video is. For most of us, this method will suit us fine. Others may rather purchase a 4K camera for the real deal. But that doesn't mean to trade-in your 1080p camera, as you may need a dual-setup one day, and this technique can help produce a beautiful 4K video from that second camera that only offers 1080p...


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