HD? 3D? No, the future of television is 4K – and it’s brought to you by some very sharp meerkats

Ultra-high-definition technology is on the way (but for now a set to show it will cost you £25,000)

Ian Burrell
Friday 25 January 2013 20:42 GMT
Sony's 4k TV
Sony's 4k TV

Prepare for meerkats as you’ve never seen them before.

The BBC is filming its next blockbuster wildlife series in ultra-high definition 4K video – producing images with four times the number of pixels as traditional high definition. And the pioneering production, which will be the UK’s first 4K natural history series, features the nation’s favourite curious mammals.

But you will need a 4K television to watch Survival in all its 8.29-megapixel glory. If you have a living room large enough, Sony has an 84-inch version retailing at £25,000 and only available in Britain from Harrods. George Michael has reportedly already bought three and a Gulf prince has placed an order for six.

Those preferring something more discreet might wish to wait for the 65-inch version or even the dinky 55-inch, which will be in the shops this summer.

The BBC is committed to exploiting the opportunities offered by the 4K revolution, which has been tipped as offering a better viewing experience than 3D TV. Several feature films – including The Amazing Spiderman and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – are being re-mastered in 4K but Survival is set to be the first wildlife blockbuster filmed in ultra-HD.

The series, being made by the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU) in Bristol, will attempt to show how animals go through the same basic life stages as humans. “We are looking at six ages of man as seen through animal lives,” said Mike Gunton, creative director of the NHU. “It’s looking at the trials and tribulations that animals face at different stages of their lives and how different species have different solutions – from birth, to growing up, to adolescence, to finding their first home, to finding their place in the social hierarchy, to getting a mate and finally having offspring of their own.”

Gunton expressed excitement at the prospect of the series being shown in 4K. “There’s a new reality which those images give. I think it makes the images more engaging. You feel you can almost touch them and get into the heads of the animals.”

Sequences from the early stages of filming delighted a select audience of potential buyers and production partners at a recent open day held by the NHU. Among the most spectacular footage was a sequence filmed at a meerkat colony in the Kalahari where the animals have been sufficiently “habituated” by the long-term presence of a team of scientific researchers that BBC cameraman Toby Strong was able to film them at close quarters.

Shooting in 4K and using a Steadicam to film at the eye level of the animals, Strong captured one of the meerkats at a critical moment as it faced down a cobra approaching the colony.

“We were able to get the Steadicam behind him and the cobra so we could see it from both perspectives, over his shoulder and the cobra’s shoulder,” Gunton said. “The meerkat was calling in recruits and there was this lovely moment when we pulled round from behind the cobra and you see the cavalry have arrived and one by one these meerkats all surround the cobra – you almost feel sorry for it.”

Shooting in 4K gave the sequences “a more cinematic look”, said Gunton, who admitted that the huge size of ultra-HD files had slowed down the post-production process.

Another highlight from the series, produced by Rupert Barrington, features a caracara, a bird of prey native to the Falkland Islands, as it enters adolescence through a violent power struggle with its father.

“The young bird pushes his claws down on the chest of the adult to say, ‘No, you are not going to push me around any more’,” said Gunton. “It’s a great moment in this young individual’s life that he’s able to stand up to his father and fight back and it’s all shot in this beautiful slow motion and real detail.”

And with 4K, you don’t need to wear those hideous 3D glasses.

‘Pushing the boundaries’ - Why 4K is so good

4K television offers four times the sharpness of standard HD resolution.

The handful of 84-inch monster sets so far sold in Britain have been aimed very much at the “early adopters” of new technology, and many consumers will be alarmed that their new HD and 3D televisions are already out of date.

But 4K was the talk of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month.

“We are always trying to push the boundaries and when you see 4K for the first time you instantly get it,” said Paul Gyles, head of home entertainment at Sony UK, which is offering an 84-inch set for £25,000.

Prices are expected to drop sharply during this year with other Japanese manufacturers developing their own 4K products – LG already has an 84-inch model in Currys at a knock-down £22,000 – as the consumer electronics industry looks for a new sales pitch to follow the launches of HD and 3D television.

“It’s another step up in terms of really lifelike pictures,” said Dan Hastings, head of television at Currys PC World.

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