Many '4K' iTunes movies upscaled from lower resolutions, but does it matter?

Some of your 4K movies might not really be true 4K. But does it matter?

Apple has at last brought 4K content to the iTunes Store with the launch of the Apple TV 4K. But are you really getting what you're paying for (or being upgraded to for free)? Some of the movies advertised as 4K titles have in fact been upscaled from a lower resolution and retouched for 4K screens. As noted by Ruari Robinson on Twitter:

Here is an incomplete list of "4K" movies available on iTunes that have been upscaled to 4K from a lower native resolution:

  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Deadpool
  • Baby Driver
  • John Wick
  • John Wick: Chapter 2
  • Wonder Woman
  • Logan
  • Creed
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service
  • T2: Trainspotting
  • La La Land
  • Arrival
  • Kong: Skull Island
  • The Lego Batman Movie
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Moonlight
  • Star Trek Beyond

So you're probably asking yourself, "Why aren't these movies in true 4K?" The answer really depends on the movie. The movies in the list have all been mastered at 2K, even though some, like Wonder Woman, were shot at greater than 4K resolutions. For one reason or another, likely cost, studios have elected to go with upscaling rather than true 4K, whether it's for streaming from iTunes or 4K UHD Blu-rays. While you'll still notice improvements over, for instance, 1080p resolution, these movies won't achieve the same visual effect as those shot in and mastered at 4K.

Is it possible that these films will see true 4K releases if studios decide to remaster them? Again, it depends on the movie. As noted above, Wonder Woman was shot at resolutions exceeding 4K (35mm and 6K), so it's conceivable that someday, yes, it and some other films like it could see true 4K remasters. However, many more of these upscaled titles, like Spider-Man: Homecoming and John Wick were shot at resolutions below 4K (often 2.8K or 3.4K). You can't offer movies like that in 4K without upscaling.

But the real question is this: does it matter? After all, all of these films are shot, mastered, and shown in resolutions higher than standard 1080p HD, and most if not all support HDR, either through HDR10 or Dolby Vision. HDR films offer notably better color ranges over non-HDR films, and even Apple has called HDR "even more important" than 4K. Given the typical viewing distance between a couch and a TV, are you even going to be able to tell when something's upscaled and when something is in true 4K? Probably not.

The fact is that we're still in a transition period from HD to 4K, and some compromises in offering viewers higher resolutions were inevitable. As 4K becomes more popular among mainstream consumers, we'll hopefully see more productions elect to shoot and master their films in 4K and beyond so that we can put discussions like this behind us.