(DISCLAIMER: Due to technical limitations, shots presented from the feature are not captured in HDR.)
Being the resident “tech geek” of the site means that I have a major responsibility to be in the know with the ever-growing advancements in the tech world, be it for the inner workings of the next generation of video game consoles or the latest trend of music streaming platforms offering “hi-fi” quality. You know, as if most people can tell the difference on a pair of $20 earbuds. And being the head producer of our anime podcast, PodcastONA, this means I need to stay in the know with any new advancements coming out of the anime production world. And yes, it is a slower cycle than you’d expect it to be. But going back to last year, word began to spread of a new project between Netflix and Production I.G., an anime project entitled Sol Levante that is being touted as the first-of-its-kind production to be produced with high dynamic range and in 4K (ultra high-definition) resolution. And me, being a true tech geek that is incredibly fascinated by the development of growing technologies, I found myself interested in this project from the outset.
I only wish that someone would have told me this was just a four-minute short film.
Admittedly, the narrative and story of this miniature feature is immaterial to the rest of this discussion. Picture a basic fantasy setting with our main heroine traversing a mystical phoenix that also protects her from a giant blast of fire, which also takes said heroine into another dimension of space and the etherial plane of existence. It’s anime, it doesn’t have to make a lick of sense.
As a project two years in the making between I.G. and Netflix, the main selling points of this short film are the stunningly gorgeous animation quality on display, with Akira Saitoh sitting in the director’s chair to work her magic alongside Haruka Miyagawa, the creative technology engineer from Netflix, as the supervisor for the short, as well as the enhanced resolution of the production. The visuals on display are absolutely stunning, with a wide color palette popping through the screen in every key shot, combining fantastic hand-drawn digital animation with some of the best CG work that Production I.G. has produced in quite a while. The amount of detail that went into this short is truly amazing to look at, as it takes great advantage of the higher amount of resolution made available to make this the visual marvel that it has been touted to be.
Therein lies the ultimate catch-22 of this project, because in order to view it as intended, you need to have, at the very least, a 4K television or monitor display. For some full disclosure, I watched this short on my living room television, a 50-inch Toshiba Fire TV, through an Xbox One X for what I call the “maximum” output available: Dolby Vision 4K resolution and Dolby Atmos spacial audio. To make a long-winded tech explanation short, if you’re watching this on a mobile screen or a “standard” HD television, you’re not getting the full experience, though I imagine there will be a good number who won’t get the full experience as 4K output is locked to the $16/month “super premium” tier of Netflix. Coming from someone who does have access to 4K content on Netflix, there is a growing assortment of programming that takes full advantage of the higher-end output, but that array of content doesn’t cross over very well into Netflix’s not-so-acclaimed library of anime content. Sure, it’s cool to see the gorgeous opening to Altered Carbon and the sexually intense thrill ride of The Witcher presented in ultra high-definition, but as far as anime is concerned, the same option for presentation barely exists.
This poses an interesting question: is 4K quality worth it for animation?
Citing a February 2019 report from the Animation Business Journal, the demand for anime in 4K and HDR is reportedly going to increase, with projects such as Sol Levante serving as the first look of what anime can be, or even will be later in this decade. There are a few issues that may conflict with this claim, though, with this very project having one such issue; despite being a four-minute short, this was a project that spanned two whole years of production with various issues getting in the way. In a blog post from Netflix’s media center web page, a big requirement for a 4K production like this is to work as an all-digital production to implement a larger color range for the need to supply high dynamic range and be presented in a native 4K, or 3840×2160, resolution. Note that the key word in that last sentence is “native,” because there is a notable difference in terms of production for content that is, and is not, produced natively in such a format.
As it pertains to home video, to keep this section more condensed, films that are released on 4K Blu-ray are either presented in a native 4K format or an upscaled 4K format. A film like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is shown as being in “native 4K” for its usage of actual film cameras in its production before being transferred to a 4K digital intermediate, while a film like Avengers: Endgame is “upscaled 4K” as a large bulk of its production was handled through digital cameras and further digital tech, and transferred to a 2K digital intermediate which is then upscaled for its 4K Blu-ray release. (If you’re interested in the inner workings of how these things operate for films on home media, thedigitalbits.com supplies a wide array of columns and reviews of a wide assortment of Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray releases.) For anime, however, the pickings for observation and comparison are not as plentiful; while older films such as Char’s Counterattack and Space Adventure Cobra, which come from master film sources, can be restored to a full native 4K presentation, newer films stemming from digital sources such as Your name. are raised to an upscaled 4K presentation.
So, native versus upscaled, what’s the difference to the average viewing audience? Generally speaking, there are a good amount of people who won’t even notice a difference in presentation aside from the enhanced color palette with the shift to HDR. Netflix has made a note to implement HDR tech into a select few of their anime titles, namely the ones produced by Polygon Pictures such as Knights of Sidonia and Levius, but as far as more “traditional” series are concerned? A full series being produced in 4K is not only far from attainable, it is a very long time away from even being remotely possible to pull off. But that’s a hinderance that is not exclusive to the realm of animation, the growth of 4K content has been a slow progress that is still only limited to premium home media content, and while the adoption rate for 4K has been growing at a faster pace than standard-fare HD, don’t expect a gigantic overhaul and shift to 4K as an industry standard until – at the earliest – the year 2025.
In closing, while the dream of animation reaching the wonderful heights of native 4K resolution with eye-popping HDR is certainly nice to imagine, we’re not at the point to where this will be a basic commodity for any and all productions to achieve. For the record, some shows that seem to commit “seven” kinds of “deadly” faults, or even “sins,” can barely maintain a constant production in their base resolution, so to try and achieve a spectacular 4K presentation might be going too far with ambition. And this brings us all the way back around to the question posed in the title of this piece: is a work like Sol Levante going to be remembered as the start of a 4K revolution for animation production, or will it be known as merely a tech demo to show off what can be, if not necessarily what will be? Time will be the answer to this question, but I wouldn’t bet on a revolution happening any time soon.
And, if nothing else, at least it looks pretty.
Sol Levante is produced by Production I.G. and is available for streaming on Netflix with 4K HDR optimized equipment recommended.