Q&A: T3Media’s Lemmons on 4K and Its Potential for Sports-Media Management

Just over a month after the 2013 CES came to a close, 4K is still a buzz-worthy topic. Although the battalion of monitors on display at the show offered breathtaking images, there remains a dearth of 4K content and several gaping holes in the 4K-production ecosystem. With that in mind, SVG tracked down Mark Lemmons, CTO of T3Media, which provides video-management and -licensing services to a variety of sports-content owners, to address the potential of 4K and how it could affect the media-management and archiving segment of the industry.

Mark Lemmons, CTO of T3 Media

Mark Lemmons, CTO of T3 Media

How far away are we from a true end-to-end 4K production ecosystem?
HD and the move to file-based workflows over the last few years significantly broke the monolithic end-to-end support vectors for a given format. We already store 4K all the time. That said, our clients aren’t necessarily asking for 4K because their deliverables are typically in HD, but we still store it.

We have petabytes of 4K material, but these [clients] are mostly not in sports. If I take my sports hat off, though, I would say we’re already there. We’re just waiting on more customers. I think that will come with consumer adoption of Ultra HD.

From an archive standpoint, I always point to the Lawrence of Arabia rerelease [in November 2012]. This is a film that was produced 50 years ago but was able to be remastered in breathtaking 8K. Now, the deliverable I have at home is Blu-ray, which is only 1080p. But, once the customers [adopt 4K], we already have the technology to facilitate content for that.

How does the migration to 4K compare with the SD-to-HD transition?
I think it’s very different, but there are some similarities. At CES this year, there were a bunch of [upconversion] technologies that were pretty impressive. They were very reminiscent of the HD [upconversion] that a lot of sports content went through when HD first came out. Initially, there was no content being produced in HD so they went to the archive and [upconverted] stuff. That got enough content out there to raise the customer’s interest.

I don’t feel that this is like the HD migration, where we had decade upon decade of SD. Then, all of a sudden, everyone said we’re going to go file-based and we’re going to change the format on you and then said, “GO!”

So you see this as an easier transition from an archival point of view than SD to HD?
Yes, definitely. But that’s not to say there are no challenges at all. From a monitoring standpoint, last year at this time, you could produce 4K content, you just couldn’t see it because all your monitoring infrastructure is in HD. But look how different that is from the HD transition. In that case, not only could you not see it, you couldn’t even [produce the HD content]. The whole ecosystem had to change.

Now, we’re saying, I need a new monitor and a new display card. But Avid supports it, Final Cut supports it. It’s a lot less far to go to support a 4K workflow. From an archive standpoint, we are there: I can already store the files. From a transcoding standpoint, there is some work to do, but we’re on the way. My point is that this feels a lot more like any discussion we have about a new format. It just doesn’t feel like such a Herculean task as HD did.

And where does sports content come in to this 4K equation?
I saw an absolutely magical sports display of soccer in 8K at Sony’s IBC booth. I saw that and realized that 4K is so much more important to sports than people think it is. Do I think it’s going to happen overnight? No. But it’s inevitable that it’s going to play a huge role in sports.

This is where sports hasn’t led for us so far, though. On the studio side is where we see the demand for 4K and higher resolutions for production and archiving. What happened there was the disappearance of film as an option — both because production was going digital and because labs are disappearing. Kodak went out of business. The film workflow just isn’t what it used to be.

Film was this great long-lasting archive format that had 4K built into it. You shot on film and threw it in the vault, and you technically already had a 4K archive. That goes back to my Lawrence of Arabia example. But those days are over. While film production is still occurring, there is no monolithic guaranteed workflow now [in the film industry].

As a result, that is where the petabytes of 4K are coming for us: archiving, mostly for studios.

Have you received interest or officially signed on sports clients looking to develop a 4K archive yet?
Yes, we have gotten some interest and had discussions, but we have yet to receive our first 4K archive [client] for sports. Why? Because sports is largely television production. But I expect to see that changing. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an NFL Films or Augusta National or an equivalent high-end [sports-production house] do some super-high-end stuff like 4K. Would I be surprised to see them do Ultra HD? Not at all.

I don’t think sports production will drive 4K. Studios will drive it, and 4K monitors will start to be deployed in the home. That’s when you will start to see sports content getting [upconverted] to 4K to fill that niche. Then you will see opportunistic examples of people taking particular events that merit doing a special production in Ultra HD. That’s how it will emerge.

So you see sports-postproduction entities like NFL Films as the early drivers of 4K in sports?
I definitely see those [high-end production entities as the early adopters]. It will be one step at a time, but that will be the gateway. I think there is a valuable opportunity for sports here. When people get a taste of what sports can look like in 4K, there’s going to be much more demand for that than there has been for 3D content.

Once you see 4K, you immediately say, ok, you have my attention. Now, am I going to run out and spend $20,000 on a television? No. But that doesn’t mean that it’s going to take as long as the time period [from] when we first saw NHK’s HD back in the late ’90s. The technology and all the backend infrastructure are much further along.

What is T3 Media’s strategy when it comes to 4K over the next one to three years?
Our strategy from an archive perspective — which is one of the hats that we wear at T3 Media in addition to our licensing business — we are focusing on long-term storage of the highest-quality elements from [our clients’] productions over the multidecade horizon. Our strategy is to do what we’ve always done, which is respond to our clients’ needs and maintain the highest-quality archive possible.

Resolutions higher than HD are already part of that mix on the film and studio side. That means we can already offer that same support for sports clients that opt to go in that direction. When they’re ready, we are there.

NHK recently announced plans to begin broadcasting its 8K Super Hi-Vision format in 2016. How can we prepare for 8K when 4K is still in its infancy.
From a planning standpoint, [8K] is just too far off for us to worry about right now. That said, I think we already broke through that hurdle of understanding that it is a multiformat world. We fully expect that 4K won’t be the only [format] we see the market add over the next six years. This has unlocked the ability for innovation to return to this industry in a way that it was locked out of during the SD decades.

If NHK does do Super Hi-Vision in 2016 or whenever, you could also conceivably [upconvert] 4K content and still be happy with that experience.

Philosophically, do [these next-generation formats] scare us? No. It’s inspiring us. We see innovation coming from that, and we think quality matters. Even in areas where budgets are constrained, there is still a qualitative concern that people have even decades after the event.

Take the 1982 Michael Jordan buzzer-beater [when North Carolina beat Georgetown in the NCAA Championship Game], for example. Do we wish we had that in 4K? Yeah, we do. But it was shot with an SD broadcast camera so there’s only so much we can do with that. But back to Lawrence of Arabia. It was shot on a production means that is still valid five decades later, even though there has been all that innovation in the meantime.

My point is that anything we can do from an archive standpoint to encourage people to continue to pursue quality — especially now with file-based workflows that are more resolution-independent — it will only make the archive more valuable. That makes the rights more valuable and allows the ecosystem to function.

How can sports go about taking the 4K torch that the film industry has pretty much carried alone thus far?
We can learn from each other across the media spectrum. Studios have always done a great job caring about their archive; sports, maybe not as much. But sports has always done a great job of taking advantage of technology innovation, more so than almost any other area. Witness the 3D proliferation. I think sports can take that same kind of leadership in 4K but with much more success than in 3D.