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Why Films Look So Cheesy On Your Fancy New TV

Hollywood is furious about “motion smoothing,” a high-tech default setting on most new TVs. But do electronics manufacturers care what auteurs think?

Bilge Ebiri

Not so long ago, I found myself at a Best Buy in Brooklyn, mesmerized by a wall filled with giant TVs, all seductively state of the art. Each was playing, on a loop, a demo designed to showcase its quality and cast a spell. I was drawn to a massive Samsung QLED TV displaying unnervingly vibrant images of sizzling butter, exploding flowers, yellow snakes, and various colors of rippling fabric. Another was airing a soccer game, and, despite being in a scentless commercial non-place of a big-box store, I felt as if I were on the pitch with the sweaty players. It all looked quite amazing, a reminder of how high-definition digital technology has upped our tolerance for the hyper real onscreen to the point where sometimes it can feel more real than, well, reality. As I wandered, however, I noticed another, smaller TV off to the side, showing a couple of film trailers—Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road—which, by comparison, looked curiously cheap and lifeless. If I had to watch all of these clips on the same TV—the exploding flowers and sizzling steaks and stretching fabrics and soccer players and then the film trailers—I might have come to the conclusion that movies today, by and large, look like crap. This is because TVs now deliver images faster than movies do, and TV manufacturers have tried to make up for that discrepancy by souping up films through a misbegotten digital process called motion smoothing.

Whether you’ve realized it or not, you’ve likely watched a movie in motion smoothing. It’s nearly impossible not to, as it’s now the default setting on most TVs sold in the United States. And however well-intentioned it was, most people hate it. Motion smoothing transforms an absorbing movie or narrative TV show into something uncanny. And something startling happens when the very texture of what you’re watching changes. You suddenly sense that something is off: The acting feels stiff and phony, the drama you found convincing in the movie theater now reads as manufactured, and everyone moves like they’re on a daytime soap—which is why it’s sometimes called the “soap-opera effect.” In other words, motion smoothing is fundamentally ruining the way we experience film. Hollywood hates it because it digitally adulterates filmmakers’ work.

The first time many Americans heard of motion smoothing may well have been in December, when Tom Cruise, decked out in a flight suit on the set of his Top Gun sequel, stood alongside his Mission: Impossible—Fallout director, Christopher McQuarrie, and issued a PSA imploring viewers to turn off motion smoothing. Here was the normally press-shy Cruise showing up in a video not to promote a new movie but to tell us to change a setting on our TVs.

Other filmmakers had been protesting the technology for years. In 2014, the director and cinematographer Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale, I Think We’re Alone Now) started an online petition calling on TV manufacturers to stop making it the default setting. Martin Scorsese wrote to encourage her. Other directors, such as Edgar Wright (Baby Driver), Peyton Reed (Ant-Man), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), and the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things), have slammed the technology in interviews and on social media. “I see those images, and my brain, my heart, my soul shuts down,” said Karyn Kusama, director of Jennifer’s Body and Destroyer, earlier this year. In a 2017 tweet, The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson likened motion smoothing to “liquid diarrhea.”

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July 22 - August 4, 2019