Acclaimed National Theatre production captured in 4K for UK cinema audiences

Tomorrow (2 April) will see Vue International cinema audiences around the UK being given the opportunity to view the National Theatre Live production Behind the Beautiful Forevers, projected in Sony Digital Cinema 4K.

The 12 March performance was specially recorded in front of an audience at the NT’s Olivier Theatre using six Sony F55 4K cameras. Mastered as a 4K DCP (Digital Cinema Package), the show will be screened as a series of exclusive 4K presentations across the whole of Vue’s 83-site estate.

Staged by the NT’s incoming artistic director, Rufus Norris, Behind the Beautiful Forevers stars Meera Syal and was adapted by acclaimed playwright Sir David Hare from the book by Katherine Boo.

“We’ve been broadcasting theatre productions into cinemas since 2009, and we’ve really learned how to create an absorbing experience for cinema audiences,” says NT Live producer Emma Keith. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a natural choice to get the 4K treatment. It’s a huge production, with lots of scene changes, complex on-stage action and colourful costumes. We immediately knew it would look great on camera.”

NEP Visions added a 4K layer to its NEP 1 OB truck for the outside broadcast element, once more pushing the technology boundaries of 4K coverage that the company provided on the NT’s pioneering War Horse broadcast in February 2014. Led by Tom Giles, the NEP Visions technical team worked hard to ensure that the workflow was maximised, improved and streamlined to make it as easy as HD.

Brian Clark, commercial director, NEP Visions, said: “We pride ourselves on pushing the boundaries of live broadcast coverage and the use of 4K technology. 4K is a major focus for the NEP Group, and combining this with working on such a prestigious project for the National Theatre culminates in the perfect balance of premium content and cutting edge technology.”

Presteigne Broadcast Hire supplied a total of six Sony F55 Super 35mm 4K CMOS sensor camera chains, including the CA-4000 camera adaptor for 4K fibre transmission and BPU-4000 4K base band processor.

One F55 right by the front of the stage was complemented by three further cameras near the middle of the stalls. An additional pair of F55 cameras fitted with remotely-controlled Fuji lenses were jib-mounted, grabbing dynamic tracking shots right over the audiences’ heads and into the performance space itself. Wide-angle establishing shots helped capture the mood as the audience passed into the Olivier auditorium. But once the curtain rises, the half-dozen F55 cameras were focused entirely on the stage action.

“We’re doing this as a totally end-to-end 4K production for the benefit of Vue audiences,” explained technical producer, Chris Bretnall of Creative Broadcast Solutions, which has been intimately involved in the realisation of every NT Live project since 2009. “We’ve put in 4K cameras, and the whole infrastructure is native 4K, with simulcast in HD.”

Signals from each camera chain in the auditorium were routed via fibre to NEP Visions’ OB truck, where they were recorded to a Sony PWS-4400 server. As Chris explains, the production workflow differs in one key aspect from traditional live TV broadcasting: “The enormous colour space we’re capturing with the Sony F55s is far in excess of the Rec.709 standard for HD TV. And by mastering in UHD (3840×2160 resolution) and then creating a 4K DCP for cinema projection (4096×2160, via the addition of horizontal blanking), we’re fully exploiting what this camera is capable of.”

With native projection in Sony 4K, Vue audiences will be able to experience the show with more colour, detail and contrast than they’d ever see on TV.

“Our job is to accurately translate the National Theatre’s creative vision, exactly as it’s meant to be seen in terms of lighting and colour grading,” says David Margolis of Soho Digital Cinema (SDC), NT Live’s preferred mastering ‘lab’ for its cinematic productions.

“We want to give cinemas a great-looking product – and for Behind the Beautiful Forevers we’re working with the ‘as-live’ signal coming straight from the OB truck, completely uncompromised,” notes Margolis.

Encoding for the 4K DCP takes places at 250Mbps, the upper limit of the DCI standard. The master is carefully QC’d in SDC’s viewing suite by the NT Live team, prior to its final transfer to a ruggedised 500GB hard drive that’s replicated for distribution to cinemas.

“Sony is proud of its unmatched heritage in 4K live production,” adds Norbert Paquet, strategic marketing manager live production, Sony Professional Solutions Europe. “And now with simulcast production in HD and 4K a practical reality – as we’re demonstrating with the National Theatre – this opens up exciting new commercial opportunities for content creators everywhere.”

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