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How to Avoid the “Soap Opera Effect” on Your HDTV … Or Do You Want to Avoid It?

Have you heard of the “soap opera effect” of modern TVs? You’ve probably seen it in action.

How to Avoid the “Soap Opera Effect” on Your HDTV … Or Do You Want to Avoid It?

Dec 19, 2011 1:39 PM,
by Jason Bovberg

Have you heard of the “soap opera effect” of modern TVs? You’ve probably seen it in action. I first observed it when James Cameron’s Avatar came to home video last year. I was walking through my local consumer-electronics superstore and came upon a large Samsung LCD display that was playing the movie. And as I drew closer to the TV, I felt an odd mixture of wonder and confusion. Because although the image was amazingly detailed and crisp, it was also decidedly…wrong.

It looked like video. More specifically, it looked like a soap opera filmed at 60 frames per second (fps) rather than film’s 24fps. The image had that hyper-reality that separates video from film. But, wow, was it crisp and clear! It was mesmerizing.

At the time, I chalked up the video look to James Cameron. I’d assumed he’d “pioneered” a new look for HD 3D filmmaking. I had seen Avatar in digital 3D, and I remembered a super-sharp, pleasing 3D image, and maybe this was the way that visual presentation translated to the smaller screen. Call it “the Avatar effect.” I remember standing there, marveling at the clarity of that image but also being a little put off by it.

Because it was a completely different experience from what I remembered in the theater. It certainly didn’t look like film.

You know what I’m talking about. Although the film we’re accustomed to seeing is recorded at 24fps, today’s incredibly capable LCD TVs can display imagery at 60fps or 120 hertz. (Hertz is a measurement of frequency per second.) There’s a technological revolution going on in home video, and most people are unaware of it or are assuming it’s the next great thing. But for purists, it could be more of a curse.

A year after my Avatar incident, I now own a new LED LCD Samsung display, and I can tell you that the effect is just as pronounced on older films such as the original Star Wars films. It is the combined effect of HD video (e.g., Blu-ray discs) and the 120Hz technology, as well as the motion-smoothing technology built into some 120Hz TVs. This technology essentially analyzes film’s 24 frames and generates new frames to fill in for the 120 refreshes. The simulated end result is a higher fps rate. So, the phenomenon is by no means specific to brand-new, shot-on-HD-video films such as Avatar.

I was particularly surprised by the discovery that the “soap opera effect” applies to older films, too. And disappointed! For many people, myself included, this effect can produce an image that looks fake. You might even say cheesy. Sets and props begin to look unrealistic, special effects become unconvincing, even acting starts to seem unconvincing. Movies appear more like TV commercials, or live programming. Rather than fictional stories on the screen, it’s as if you’re looking at actors on a stage, coated by a sheet of plastic. Your favorite movies have been dramatically altered, as if re-shot on a soap opera set.

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How to Avoid the “Soap Opera Effect” on Your HDTV … Or Do You Want to Avoid It?

Dec 19, 2011 1:39 PM,
by Jason Bovberg

What’s interesting in this whole argument is that the “beauty” of film, historically, is the result of its relative expense. Film is costly, and for that reason it uses the lower frame rate: That rate was the lowest that was considered practical for smooth motion and sound. Video can afford to have a 60fps rate because it’s cheaper. But for movies, we’ve become accustomed to a certain look, thanks to nearly a century of film history. Film has a texture and grain that gives it a certain heft, a palpable artistic weight. Those attributes go away when film becomes more like video.

Now, if we’re talking about gaming or sports or concerts or other broadcast video programming, the capabilities of 120hz 1080p TVs are absolutely astounding. I can’t believe how far HD technology has come in the home. And how cheap it has become! Every time I think we’ve reached a zenith in HD capability in the home, we seem to break a new barrier in clarity and detail.

But for film purists, there’s a point where you can go too far. And we seem to have reached that point.

The ability to disable the “soap opera effect” is vital. If you have one of these LCD displays, look for some kind of “smooth motion” or “real cinema” interpolation feature that is turned on by default. It’s this interpolation that makes 24fps film look more like 60fps video. It’ll require some digging around in the TV’s menu. On the Samsung display I have, it’s called the Auto Motion Plus (AMP) feature, and it is set to Standard in the box—Standard being the “soap opera effect.” (On Sony displays, it’s called Motionflow.) In other words, you have to dig deeply into your menu to disable something that should not be the default, at least for movies.

And that’s a problem. On my display, I had to press buttons on my remote more than 20 times before I could switch off AMP.

The bigger reason it’s a problem? Most people won’t bother adjusting the setting so that films look more like films. The fact is, the motion-smoothing effect is simply spectacular for the other sorts of programming. I watched a football game last weekend, and I could hardly contain my awe. It’s so beautiful and clear that you become giddy. It’s involving, immersive, astounding. With TVs having such an effect on consumers, it’s only natural that they’ll want the same effect on the movies they love.

And so it’s easy to imagine that consumers will just accept the new look for all kinds of programming, and leave their TVs set to this “smooth motion” interpolation. I can’t deny that the effect remains mesmerizing, despite all my misgivings. But it’s wrong! It defies notions of tradition and art. But how many people share these notions enough to disable the feature? I fear that gradually acceptance will grow wider, and before you know it, the “soap opera effect” will be the norm.

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