You either notice it or you don’t. Most people don’t, but they probably should. If you do notice it, it drives you crazy.
It’s called “motion smoothing” — a.k.a. “the Soap Opera Effect” — and it’s a setting that comes as a default mode for almost every new television set you buy. If you’re attuned to it, it can ruin the experience of watching movies on TV, not to mention many television shows as well. And some filmmakers are fighting back.
So what is the Soap Opera Effect, exactly? And can you turn it off? (Yes, but I’ll get to that.) Motion smoothing is a technology by which modern TV sets artificially increase the frame-rates of films and shows. In the celluloid era, movies were shot and screened at 24 frames a second — one reason they were called the flickers — but digital “filming” allows for a frame rate of up to 60 frames per second, and modern LCD high-definition TV sets are capable of as much as 240 frames per second.
The manufacturers of the television sets you purchase at Best Buy and on Amazon assume the more frames per second, the better, especially when you’re looking at a sports event on a store’s display floor. So they’ve come up with technologies — all with different names, depending on the brand; see below — that “guess” what the intermediate frames would look like, then process and interpolate them, boosting the frame rate to the upper limit of the set. And they sell you the TV with that technology turned on as the default option.
Why does this matter? Here’s why: A higher frame rate doesn’t look like film, it looks like videotape: a soap opera, a newscast, or a live sporting event. The visuals are hot, crisp, “live”; the movements are smoothed out to the point of oiliness. This looks great when you’re watching the Patriots. It’s the death of cinema when you’re watching “Casablanca” or “Dunkirk” or any movie or TV show where the director and camera crew have labored over a 24-fps image.
Classic movies especially look grotesque — just wrong — when seen with motion smoothing turned on. The interpolated frames brighten the contrast until it feels like you’re watching a video of a film (you are); the characters move through the frame with a buttery hyperrealism that’s the antithesis of how bodies in cinema should behave. It’s the equivalent of seeing the corpse of a beloved old friend reanimated into a replicant.
But a lot of people don’t pick up on it, the same way most theatrical audiences don’t notice the dreadful projection and sound quality of your average multiplex experience. (The theater managers bank on that, in fact.) I stopped watching movies at my friend Eddie’s house for a while because he not only kept the motion smoothing default on, he and his wife couldn’t see the difference. (I finally wrangled his remote away and turned the option off — and they still couldn’t tell.)
You might argue that celluloid is dead and that since we can have all those frames, we should have them — that’s progress, and if you don’t like it go back to watching movies on a hand-cranked zoetrope. But watching films, especially older films, with motion smoothing turned on inarguably robs them of an essence — a visual sense of mystery. What’s poetry becomes prose, and graceless prose, at that. And moviemakers hate it.
Rian Johnson, director of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” has been going off about motion smoothing for years now — he called it “liquid diarrhea” in a now-deleted tweet — and Reed Morano (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) circulated a petition on Change.org in 2014 asking TV manufacturers to stop making it a default setting. Directors like James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) and Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”) and actors like Tom Cruise have registered their discontent, and the Twitter hashtag #tvninja lionizes those who surreptitiously turn off motion smoothing on public TV sets.
Now two Hollywood heavy hitters, directors Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk,” “The Dark Knight”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Phantom Thread”) have stepped in. The two sent out an e-mail last week to members of the Directors Guild of America, stating that they’ve opened a dialogue with TV manufacturers to help “ensure the home viewer sees our work presented as closely as possible to our original creative intentions.” A survey included with the e-mail is meant to fine-tune and draw further support from DGA members.
Essentially, filmmakers want TV manufacturers to ship their sets with motion smoothing either turned off or easily adjusted without drilling down through a baffling series of sub-menus. That’s currently the only way to watch a movie that actually looks like a movie instead of a ghoulish parody, and the manufacturers don’t make it easier by adopting a different brand name depending on who’s selling it.
It’s calledMotionFlow on a Sony, TruMotion on an LG, Auto Motion Plus or Clear Motion on a Samsung, ClearScan on a Toshiba. If you go to your basic “picture” settings, most TVs let you toggle between pre-loaded modes like “movie,” “sports,” “game” and others. Some of these turn off motion smoothing, some don’t.
If you’re serious about watching TV without the ghost frames added, though — meaning that shows shot on video will look like video and footage shot on film will look like film — you’ll need to burrow down with a sense of mission. On my living room LG set, for instance, I have to go to the Picture menu, then the Picture Mode Settings, then the Picture Options, just to find and turn off the default TruMotion setting. (If that doesn’t work for you, Google “how to turn off motion smoothing” and your TV’s brand name.)
Is it worth it? All that filmmakers like Johnson, Nolan, and Anderson are asking — as well as crusty purists like the #tvninja crowd and me — is that TVs either be sold with the Soap Opera Effect already toggled off or with the adjustment easily explained and accessible to the average viewer. Otherwise, you’re not watching images the way the people who created them meant them to be seen. You’re watching them the way the manufacturers want you to. There are worse things than training your eyeballs to notice the difference.