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You’re watching it wrong: Threats to the image in the digital age 

Your in-laws are watching TV wrong again, but this time, it’s going to be harder to talk them out of it. Back when letterboxing became a feature of some VHS tapes and most DVDs, the conversation was reasonably simple: 

“You’re watching TV wrong.”
“That’s pan-and-scan. You should watch the letterbox version.”
“But I don’t like the black bars. I didn’t buy this giant TV to have it cut off at the top and bottom.”
“But most of your movies are rectangles. Your TV is square.” 

Easy enough. But now that we’re in the glorious age of HDTV—and it is, on balance, glorious—the conversation has become immeasurably more complicated: 

“You’re watching TV wrong.” 
“Okay, you see how your Blu-ray copy of Jack And Jill looks like Melanie and Nathan eating Cheerios on Days Of Our Lives? That’s because of this thing called ‘motion-smoothing.’ You see, your new 120Hz HDTV has the power to take films and TV shows, which are shot at 24 frames per second, and ‘improve’ on them by displaying those frames at a higher refresh rate. It does this by interpolating frames in order to eliminate the ‘jutter’ effect, which happens when the old frame rate is unable to keep up with fast motions or camera moves. This is fine for sports, I suppose. But for movies and TV, it’s the death of all hope.”
“Go away.” 

The problems with motion-smoothing (a.k.a. “the soap-opera effect”) have been written about extensively in technical corners—here’s a really useful post from last year, by visual effects artist Stu Maschwitz—but I only became aware of it after buying a new LED TV recently. Out of the box, the picture looked so absurd that I nearly put it back in the box, but after poking around in a few Internet forums and working my way through the byzantine picture settings, I finally fixed the problem. (Though not before an online chat with a customer-support rep, who seemed to have no idea what I was talking about.) But the real problem is that there isn’t a problem at all. This is the way TV shows and movies are supposed to look—the way they should have always looked—and now that the great menace of juttering has been purged from our sets, The Tree Of Life can be transformed into the lusty telenovela Terrence Malick must have intended. 

My longtime cine-acquaintance Bryant Frazer, the editorial director of Studio Daily, sees motion-smoothing and other “enhancements” like added sharpness as a marketing issue. “As I understand it, the imperative from marketing is that the screen from Sony needs to pop. It needs to look really bright, it needs to look really colorful, and really smooth when it’s next to the screen from, say, Samsung or the screen from Panasonic. No one wants to correctly calibrate the settings at the factory, which would involve a darker picture, a more subtle picture, and more visible shadow detail, which is something you’re not going to see at a Best Buy anyway.” (His helpful advice: “The rule of thumb with features on a new TV set is that if there’s something that has an on/off switch, usually you want it turned off.” This includes noise reduction, motion-smoothing, added sharpness, etc.)

Frazer also hits on a key point about how the main selling point of HDTVs—a picture so clear it’s “like looking through a window”—is screwing with our perception of how films and TV shows should look. “If you think about it, there are so many aesthetic choices that go into any shot—the lens, the type of film that was used, the color the cinematographer went for, the lighting—that are so abstracted from reality, it’s weird to say, ‘I want it to be just like I’m looking out a window.’ You don’t, but you think you do.” What ends up happening, according to Frazer, “is an almost Orwellian world where motion-smoothing is destroying the actual look of a film, and increasing sharpness is removing detail from the picture.”

If solving image problems in the digital age were as easy as fiddling with the settings on the TV—it’s not that easy, with the insane multitude of options, but it can be done—then I wouldn’t have much cause for concern. As much as my inner dictator would like to slip into every home, Santa Claus-style, and adjust the settings on people’s TV sets, they have the right to watch things however they like. In hotels across America right now, people are watching stretchy analog signals on HD sets and even cable outlets are broadcasting old TV shows like Seinfeld at 16:9, lest they field complaints about the dreaded black bars that would frame the show as it was actually photographed. It’s not just that people are watching TV wrong—it’s that they’re being encouraged to watch TV wrong. Funhouse distortion has become the norm. 

The trouble is, this false expectation of how images are supposed to look feeds into how they actually get processed, and the result is a form of technical revisionism, where the texture and grain of older movies are scrubbed out of existence. Sometimes the touch-ups are well-publicized, like George Lucas’ repeated attempts to buff the imperfections out of Star Wars, as if the one thing fans lamented about the movie was that it was made in 1977. More often, though, the smoothing effects pass without comment anywhere but a few tech-minded DVD/Blu-ray review sites, where controversies flourish over botch jobs like Spartacus, The Longest Day, and Predator, where the freshened-up characters look, in the words of one reviewer, like a “presentation of wax figurines.” We recently ran an interview with William Friedkin where Friedkin denies responsibility for defacing his own The French Connection for Blu-ray, claiming that the playback copies in no way resembled the master he and his cinematographer personally supervised. 

For his part, Frazer remains optimistic that the studios and the filmmakers who supervise transfers are sensitive to getting the look right. (He tells me of visiting production bays where 35mm copies of movies are projected against the video transfer in order to make sure it’s properly duplicated.) But the pressure to make movies and TV shows conform to the standards of a Best Buy sales floor only stands to increase over time, especially if Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, shot in jutter-reducing 48 frames per second, turns into a standard-bearer. Not only will grain be seen as defective, but the very basic notion of persistence of vision, which has served the movies pretty well for a century, will seem woefully outdated. In the future, looking slick may trump looking true.