Directors Lobbying Manufacturers To Rid TVs Of ‘Soap Opera Effect’

pPefKGKkTRMeWjH-800x450-noPadBy James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)\

I remember when I saw Star Wars for the first time on an HDTV with a high refresh rate defaulted to ‘on.’ It was like watching a new performance with the original actors, which was recorded on video (60i) and put on PBS. Seriously. It looked plastic-like with high key lighting, and not like a movie at all. It’s called the “soap opera effect,” and it happens when TVs smooth out the action difference between the frame rate the film was shot in, and the frame rate shown on the TV (it’s ideal for sports). The result is so unsettling, that directors are calling on TV manufacturers to end the feature.

Image: Wikipedia

Technically, the process is called “frame interpolation,”  “motion interpolation,” or “motion smoothing,” depending on who made your TV, and the idea is to smooth out the motion to make the image look crisp and sharp.

The idea came because when TVs made the transition from Standard Definition to High Definition, but those higher definition screens made film motion look too muddy and blurry, ruining the image. Many complained it looked worse than VHS, so TV manufactures invented frame interpolation, which would insert additional frames into the image to smooth it out.

Frame interpolation is a great feature when you’re watching football and you want to see if the receiver got both feet in bounds, or in baseball, to see if a pitcher clipped the corner of home plate for a called “strike three!” I also like it on documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth 2, where you want to see every detail of those wonderful earthly vistas.

But as is often the case, the solution became way too aggressive — TV manufacturers love to market very high refresh rates of 240 Hz — and as a result, we got a 24p image that looked like it was shot in 60i video (soap opera effect). And for movies, that destroys the aesthetic that filmmakers, and lighting directors, have labored hard to perfect. Admittedly, it does look cool for high action scenes like this one:

The soap opera effect becomes more pronounced as a TV becomes higher in frame rate (expressed in Hz). So if a TV’s refresh rate defaults at 120 Hz or up to 240 Hz, it looks worse. Toss in the transition towards 4K, where the resolution makes the sharpness even more pronounced, and you can easily see how watching a movie on these TVs makes them darn near unwatchable by comparison to how you saw them on the silver screen. Of course, you can go in and switch it to 60 Hz (the ideal setting), but this is the default.

Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48 fps high frame rate.

Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48 fps high frame rate.

You may have noticed something similar when director Peter Jackson decided to shoot The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, giving it a own soap opera-like look. There are some filmmakers who like high frame rate, including Ang Lee, James Cameron, and visual effects legend Phil Tippett. But many others, myself included, simply HATE the ultra detailed look of HFR, which often makes effects, props, sets, and costumes look fake, and takes the audience out of the story. And actors, well, they don’t like how it exposes every detail of their face.

So @rianjohnson, @edgarwright, @mattreevesLA, @chrismcquarrie, @TomCruise & I are all on board the anti-motion-smoothing campaign. Who else? – James Gunn, Twitter

So this week, directors including Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson, along with Baby Driver’s Edgar Wright, Matt Reeves, and Chris McQuarrie, have all taken to twitter in an “ice bucket challenge” like nomination to call on TV manufacturers to get rid of frame interpolation altogether. They’ve even gotten star Tom Cruise on board to join the challenge. You can even join the movement by signing this petition over at Change.org.

“You want movies to look like liquid diarrhea, fine. But it should be a choice you make, not a hoop everyone has to jump through to unmake.” – Rian Johnson, Twitter

It’s one thing for Jackson or Lee to decide that’s the look that they want and make their movies that way. But it’s quite another that all movies get shoehorned through the soap opera rate and ruin a film’s look on today’s modern TVs. So I can understand why directors have been pushing to end the feature, some for years (doddleNEWS included). But then we get back to sports, and I honestly like it for sports.

But while calling for an end to the practice is understandable, it can easily be solved by merely turning the feature off in your TV’s menu settings. The solution really is that simple, and chances are, if you had your TV calibrated, it’s already turned off. But to do so, it can be a bit confusing as TV manufacturers use different nomenclature. Basically, it’s under MENU>PICTURE>ADVANCED CONTROLS> or something similar, and then from there, look for frame or motion interpolation.

While you’re in the settings anyway, if you haven’t calibrated your TV, change the picture settings from “Dynamic” to “Movie,” (again, your mileage may vary). By default, TV manufacturers set your TV for “dynamic,” so it looks good under the bright lights of the showroom floor. But at home, where you’re in a darkened room, at night, I think it’s far too harsh. The Movie Setting is much better, but experiment with it.

These two settings will make your TV look about 80% closer to what the film looked like in theaters.  You can take the next step by getting a copy of the Disney WOW HD optimization disc or Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics by Joe Kane. These will get you even closer in fine tuning the image to just how you like it. The rest comes from professional TV calibration.

Hat Tip: Digital Trends

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.