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Film Look vs. Video
24 vs. 60 frame motion smoothing
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I was watching a Hollywood movie DVD on the 65" Samsung HDTV my wife just carted home*, and I freaked out when I saw what looked like the picture flipping back and forth between 24 frame film capture and 60 field video capture. When you make movies, no one wants it to look like it was shot on video, and you certainly need the cadence to stay stable and not jump back and forth from one to the other.

It was really weird: things were moving around looking like normal 24 FPS film, and suddenly the motion was smoothing-out to look like video capture. This couldn't possibly be right.

I got curious and wanted to see if I was imagining this, or if the TV had some give-me-a-break motion smoothing mode that was doing its best to turn Hollywood film into amateur video.

I found some scenes that looked like video, and found where to adjust this motion foolishness (in our Samsung, it's at MENU > Picture > Picture Options > Auto Motion Plus). I turned it from "Standard" to "Off" and looked again. Bingo! I fixed it.

It turns out that this TV was screwing with the way the movie was supposed to look, and was trying to smooth the film-capture motion to look like video. The really bad part is that it is inconsistent, smoothing some things and leaving others alone. It smooths slow, easy motion, but can't do anything about big motion where it might actually be useful. If you have an eye for this, it's very unsettling.

Maybe most people wouldn't notice it. I notice it because I spent a lot of years in Hollywood studios working on all this, and we see this instantly. In fact, cadence really means how the 3:2 pull-down works, and that it should always be alternating like 3:2:3:2:3:2 and not flip like 3:2:3:2:2:3:3:2 which causes other problems, but that's a topic for a different day. Video runs 1:1:1:1:1:1 etc., while film should run 3:2:3:2, but that's again another story.

Two decades ago I had an idea to patent interpolating the motion vectors we derive when encoding film captures to smooth the motion to make it more lifelike, until I realized that the 24-frame juddering we see is a very deliberate part of the art of creating a movie. That patent would be a dumb idea, at least for playing movies.

It turns out you don't want the smooth-motion video look for works of fiction. Motion picture producers demand the 24-frame film look precisely because 1.) it shows people you shot it on film, meaning you're serious and don't shoot anything without at least three trucks of lighting, grips and generators, and mostly 2.) the unnatural juddering motion inherent in 24-frame capture takes the picture one subtle step away from reality, which is a critical point in abstracting the image and getting the conscious mind to start believing that the fictional work is actually happening, and isn't just actors.

This is too abstract for me to explain for people who aren't understanding this by reading it, but when we see smooth motion in video, we know it's just actors. Video is too real, and doesn't let our imagination take the step it needs to to see the actors not as actors on a set, but see that they are the characters in the location they're playing. The slight step back from reality lets our imaginations fill in the blanks and see the story the way the filmmaker wants it to be told, instead of our conscious brain stepping in and spoiling the film by telling us that it's just actors.

You might think I'm crazy, but this film look is so important that there is a company in Hollywood (OK, Burbank, which has been the new Hollywood for decades) actually called Filmlook which makes its business out of adding back in the motion artifacts of 24 frame capture to footage shot on video! They offered this service to people who had elements shot on video, and needed to make them look as if they were shot on film instead. (I'm unsure if they're still doing that, but they did when I was in Hollywood some time back. Today you can set your DSLR to 24 frames and you're most of the way there for free, at least if you can simulate a 180º shutter angle (1/50 second exposure).)

I've been to Fimlook, and Filmlook do a lot more than just adding motion artifacts, but let it be known that the motion artifacts we see in motion pictures are this way because that's exactly as the producer, DP and director intend for them to be seen. Smooth out the motion on a film, and you reduce it to a used-car-lot TV commercial shot on video. We in Hollywood go to a lot of effort to ensure that those "artifacts" are exactly as you see them - without being smoothed. News and sports are perfect for smooth 60 field video, since we want them to look natural, but for fiction, the subtle step back from smooth motion helps tell the story better.

Therefore, to see your movies as intended and make them more believable, be sure to switch off any of this foolishness if your TV is doing this. Be wary if your TV touts anything silly like "240 Hz," since these TVs are more likely to try to do motion processing.

 

* I can't figure out why otherwise reasonable people will think nothing of spending thousands of dollars on a TV they'll throw away in a few years, but freak out if you suggest they spend even half that on a decent pair of speakers. Good speakers last for decades and decades, so if you spend $5,000 on some decent speakers, you'll still be enjoying your $5,000 speakers 15 years from now after you've spent $10,000 on TVs you've already thrown away. Honestly, I love my B&W 801 and Quad ESL-63 speakers today more than anything else I've heard, and these were all made back in the 1980s and are still sounding better today than most of what people throw good money at in the form of cheap 5.1 systems, iPod docks and in-wall speakers. Your best deal in speakers is to spend as much as you can, since they'll last you ten times longer than an HDTV. Great speakers never go obsolete.

 

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