With great technology comes great responsibility. Stripping away the cinematographic integrity and original artistic intention of filmmakers is the default “Smooth Motion” setting on new High-Definition television (HDTV) sets.
An ongoing Change.org petition established by cinematographer and director Reed Morano (Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings, The Skeleton Twins) urges television manufacturers to disable the default motion interpolation setting on new televisions.
So, what exactly is “smooth motion”? Also known as motion interpolation or motion-compensated frame interpolation (MCFI), smooth motion is a form of video processing that was initially created to reduce motion blur. A now default feature on the majority of 120Hz+ televisions, the technology inserts ‘fake’ frames between original frames which interpolate the movement of the picture, making the footage far more fluid. Sony calls their interpolation technology Motion Flow, for LG it is TruMotion, and Samsung, Auto Motion Plus.
Although many television watchers value the increased fluidity and definition of the footage on their screen, the smooth motion setting poses a number of technical and ethical problems. Firstly, the interpolated frames may contain distortions because they were computer-generated and not captured by a camera. Secondly, and most importantly, smooth motion destroys the intention of the filmmakers vision and obliterates the ‘film’ aesthetic, making footage look real to the point of artificiality – an occurrence which people have deemed the ‘Soap Opera Effect’.
Smooth motion is a very serious problem to filmmakers, whose integral artistic visions and intentions are obliterated by the setting. Morano’s petition explains the downsides of smooth motion from a cinematographic perspective: “A very unfortunate side effect of using this function is that it takes something shot at 24fps (frames per second) or shot on film and makes it look like it was shot on video at 60i. In short, it takes the cinematic look out of any image and makes it look like soap opera shot on a cheap video camera. It is unbelievable that this is a default setting on all HDTVs because essentially what it is doing, is taking the artistic intention away from filmmakers.”
“It actually is a great way to watch sports,” the petition adds, “[But] if you care about the artistic integrity of the visuals that you watch and appreciate cinematography and a cinematic experience, then you should sign this petition.”
The petition finally reminds the reader that films watched on television should provide a viewing experience as rich and beautiful as in movie theaters themselves: “As a consumer, you should know that this function is ruining the theatrical experience that you are supposedly paying for when you purchase these expensive HDTVs.”
In a guest editorial for Filmmaker magazine, Morano elaborates on her issues with ‘smooth motion’, both as a cinematographer-director and as a viewer. “If you took a photocopy of a painting and hung it up in a museum, trying to pass it off as a real painting, it would look cheap and lack texture.” She further recalls her “shock” when watching her film, Frozen River, on an HDTV television: “It was so disheartening to see that cinematic look I had put everything into completely eradicated – all my work ruined by the default setting of a television manufacturer… It’s not fair to the artist or viewer.”
Next time you watch a film on an HDTV, remember to turn off smooth motion as a tribute to the director’s artistic intention, and to avoid the dreaded soap opera effect. For now, the debate on whether technological advancements help or hinder art rages on.