'After Earth' joins exclusive ultra-HD movie club

Monday - 6/3/2013, 7:12pm EDT

In this Monday, May 20, 2013 photo, Sony Electronics business development manager Keith Vidger stands against a beam of light from a movie projector as he explains about 4K digital cameras at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif. Sony Corp., one of the first makers of 4K, or “ultrahigh definition,” television sets, is coming out on Friday, May 31, 2013, with one of the first movies to be both shot and presented in the format, “After Earth.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

RYAN NAKASHIMA
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Sony Corp. is taking a deeper dive into ultrahigh-definition video as it comes out Friday with "After Earth," the first of Sony's three movies this year both shot and presented in the emerging 4K digital format. At a screening for journalists, I got a close-up look at even the pores on Will Smith's face as details were rendered with greater clarity on the big screen.

Sony and other consumer electronics makers are betting that 4K images will become the new standard, prompting consumers to buy fancier TVs just as they did when high definition, or HD, rolled out over the past decade. It could also entice more people to buy movie tickets to see for themselves what the super-clear format is like.

But the more detailed images present a host of problems. They use four times the number of pixels as the current HD standard, which results in larger data files. Budget-strapped digital effects companies are having trouble handling all that data. The cost and time to deal with the extra visual information means the majority of the special effects shots in "After Earth" -- comprising about a third of all the shots in the movie -- were actually worked on in lower-resolution HD.

At the screening I attended, I could see details I've never noticed before -- the actors' tiny skin imperfections, or Smith's salt-and-pepper whiskers. In a distant shot of Smith's son Jaden running down a riverbed, I was struck by how many small rocks were defined clearly from such a distance. Yet other shots that included computer-generated cityscapes or otherworldly creatures looked less sharp. I was sitting in the seventh row -- close enough to tell the difference. If you sit at the back of a theater, you might not be able to tell the difference between 4K and HD.

Sony has 15,000 4K projectors installed in theaters worldwide, with more than 11,000 in the U.S. Other manufacturers such as Barco, Christie and NEC also make 4K projectors.

So far, major theater chains Regal and AMC are not charging extra for 4K screenings. AMC says nearly all of its 344 theaters have at least one 4K projector. Regal says more than 300 of its 579 theaters have a 4K projector. You'll have to check with your local theater to see if the movie will be projected in 4K.

The push toward higher resolution follows the industry's emphasis on HD in recent years. Many TV sets tout the "1080p" resolution standard, so named because its images are 1,080 pixels high and 1,920 pixels wide. A slightly wider version with 2,048 pixels across is known as 2K. But 4K is 4,096 pixels wide and 2,160 pixels high. That gives 4K images 8.8 million pixels compared with roughly 2 million for high definition.

Higher-definition movies are a key component in Sony's strategy to maximize the benefits of both owning the Sony Pictures movie studio and making electronic gadgets.

Sony Electronics makes 4K motion picture cameras -- such as the F65 used to shoot "After Earth" -- as well as 4K movie theater projectors, 4K TVs, home media servers that play 4K movies and other technologies needed to get ultra-HD video from one end to the other. The camera-making division has even had talks with Sony Music Entertainment about shooting concerts in 4K.

"It touches an awful lot of the ecosystem," says Rob Willox, director of large sensor technology for Sony Electronics.

So far, 56 movies have been converted to 4K, the majority distributed by Sony. Those include ones originally shot on film, including last year's Oscar-nominated "Django Unchained." Sony's other end-to-end 4K releases planned for this year are "The Smurfs 2," due out in July, and "No Good Deed," set for release in October.

After Red Digital Cinema began selling a 4K camera, the Red One, in 2007, companies including Sony and Canon Inc. also began making them. Thousands of movies have been shot in 4K, but almost all of them have been shrunk down to HD format before being screened. One exception was Sony's 2011 remake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which was shot in 4K with a Red camera and also shown in theaters that way. Having "After Earth" and two others on the release schedule this year marks another milestone for the format.

"There is a new movement now where movies are actually being shot at high resolution and finished at high resolution," says Ted Schilowitz, a co-founder of Red. "We see huge advantages to deliver four times as many pixels on the screen as HD."