VFX artists have to balance the use of HD, 4K, 6K, 8K, 12K footage and elements to create the perfect comp. Is there a resolution that’s better than others? Let’s explore here.

In researching some rental gear and resources for an upcoming project, I found myself falling down a VFX rabbit hole. There is a sequence in a upcoming project that will be relatively VFX heavy, and I wanted to find the best way to not only shoot the sequence, but also to assemble stock video elements, models, assets and textures. Then with that I would also know what remaining elements I would need to be create from scratch.

This got me wondering. What is the best resolution for VFX elements?

Shooting Live Action Plates

Let’s talk first about shooting. When you look at major motion pictures and some VFX heave television shows, a vast majority are shot on ARRI cameras whose digital cameras capture up to 4K. This is pretty much the standard.

There are some outliers though. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.  shot in 8K on RED cameras specifically knowing that it was going to be a VFX rich and intense film.

In an article breaking down Marvel cameras on PremiumBeat, Guardians DP Henry Braham says,

I was looking for something that could handle the large format but still be very intimate and physically small. That’s why I went to see Jarred Land at the Red Camera Company. I was talking to him about it and he kind of reached out and put a black box on the table and said, “Well, how about looking at this?” This was their new high-resolution 8K camera, which is a VistaVision camera and it was in a prototype form, but the idea of it seemed perfect for Guardians Vol. 2.

It provided this very high-resolution image to start with, but in a camera body that was pretty much the size of [the famed hand-held camera] a Hasselblad. What it enabled me to do was to mount the camera on a new form of stabilization head that could be handheld and was designed by a guy who used to work on torpedo guidance systems.

With RED investing more resources into their 8K cameras, other camera manufacturers have already went further. Blackmagic Design unveiled their 12K URSA Mini Pro, their new flagship camera that stands beside the URSA Mini G2 and Pocket Cinema Camera 6K and 4K.

Is 12K ahead of it’s time? Maybe for general content creators, but what about VFX artists? Having that much data to work with is pretty incredible.

Blackmagic released the URSA Mini Pro 12K camera, and the question was immediately raised, who even needs 12K footage? Well, let’s take a look at where Blackmagic’s cameras are mostly used. Content creators of all kinds absolutely love the Pocket Cinema Cameras in both 4K and 6K. What about the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K? Well I haven’t seen it on too many film sets, but where I do see it used heavily is in television but even more so in virtual production.

The URSA Mini is a staple of nearly every VFX and gaming studio working in virtual production and video games. You can even see Jon Favreau holding an URSA while doing tests for The Lion King in this shot from Disney+ Gallery series.

Screenshot via Disney+

Rather than forcing the filmmakers to adapt to digital tools, [VFX Supervisor Rob] Legato modified physical filmmaking devices to work within the virtual world. A crane unit was modified with tracking devices to allow the computers to recreate its motion precisely in the computer. Even a Steadicam was brought in, allowing Deschanel to move the camera virtually with the same tools as a live action shoot. The goal was to let production create in a traditional way, using standard tools that existed not just on a stage but in the computer. “In traditional pre vis you would move the camera entirely within the computer,” said Legato. “But in our virtual environment, we literally laid down dolly track on the stage, and it was represented accurately on the digital set.” Creative Content Wire

In this video from Am I A Filmmaker?, they talk about the benefits of having 12K plates for VFX. Having complete control over reframing any part of the plate that allow VFX artists to add camera movement or even just punch in on footage and still retain all the detail.

This 12K for VFX video raises some good points. The 12K resolution is an incredible way to capture high-resolution VFX plates. Not only do you have an insane amount of data to deal with, you have such incredible flexibility to take locked off footage and add some pretty intense camera movement in post. The 12K footage also gives your greater color and sharpness at 4K.

12K VFX plate via Am I A Filmmaker? 

12K VFX plate rendered to 4K sequence via Am I A Filmmaker? 

While 12K footage is pretty new to the masses, 12K images and renders (and even much higher than 12K) have already been a part of the industry for a while now.

Possible Studios just teamed with Riot to create a real-time broadcast with a stage displaying in 32K for the League of Legends World Championships.

VFX Video Elements

There are quite a few places to get great VFX video elements. For video elements I am talking about actual VFX plates, things like explosions, muzzle flashes, sparks, and even smoke, dust, and fog that are all captured in camera.

Digital elements are also readily available, things like models from Turbosquid, particle-driven explosions, or OpenVDB assets, but you often find yourself struggling to get the look just right unless its THE perfect element.

Rocketstock has quite a few real video elements like lens flares and muzzle flashes that were shot in 5K and are delivered in 4K.

Sites like Action VFX have options from HD to 6K.

There are even little boutique shops like Film Bodega that have 6K video elements.

Plus there are the infamous Action Essentials 2 2K elements from Video Copilot.

Every single one of these products comes in a different resolution, so does it really matter?

What’s the Best Resolution?

So what is the best resolution for VFX? Well it’s a combination.

For things like plates, anything above 4K is preferred. The higher the resolution, the more you can do with the footage vs having to digitally replace portions of the frame. Would I love to work in 12K? Absolutely. Can my current system and storage handle that kind of massive file type? Barely.

What about elements? To be fair, almost any resolution really works, especially when we are talking about things like blood splatters and small elements than will be so small on screen and have blend modes applied. Plenty of television shows still use Action Essentials, which are over 10 years old at this point.

But for bigger elements that take up more space on screen, the higher resolution the better. especially for large scale explosions or atmospherics that fill the whole screen like fog and dust.

It’s really going to be a combination of all the resolutions that allow you to create the proper render and comp. Don’t be afraid to mix and match, you just need to make it look good.

Cover image via Kaspars Grinvalds, Shutterstock.com.