Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Motion Smoothing' Makes Films Look Different On Your TV And Hollywood Is Not Happy


Your TV may be hard at work altering the Hollywood feature films you're watching, and many in the movie industry aren't happy about it. Here's Tom Cruise, in a PSA he created recently, warning viewers.


TOM CRUISE: The unfortunate side effect is that it makes most movies look like they were shot on high-speed video rather than film. Now, this is sometimes referred to as the soap opera effect.

CORNISH: The technical term for what your HDTV is doing is actually motion smoothing. Writer Bilge Ebiri of New York Magazine wrote about this phenomenon.

Welcome to the program.

BILGE EBIRI: Hi. Good to be here.

CORNISH: You've written extensively about this. I hate to do this to you, but how do you explain it to people who say, yeah, I didn't read all the way to the end? What is motion smoothing?

EBIRI: Motion smoothing, which is also called image interpolation, is a process whereby your TV takes individual frames of a film or show that you're watching, and it predicts, creates and inserts new frames in between those frames in order to give you what manufacturers - and, presumably, the engineers who developed this technology - hope will be a much smoother experience watching action on screen.

CORNISH: From what I understand, movies are shot at a frame rate of 24 per second. TV - it's 30 per second. Can you help us understand why that makes it look different or feel different?

EBIRI: Well, originally, TV in the U.S. was 30 frames a second. Today, HDTVs and high-definition cameras can do higher frame rates. In fact, a lot of sports and live shows that you're watching today are shot at 60 frames a second.

CORNISH: And that's why we have such crisp images when we're watching those programs.

EBIRI: Exactly. And that's also why, when you're watching sports, for example, you watch a slow-motion replay, it's a very smooth slow motion. Back in the day, if you watched a slow-motion replay, it wasn't nearly as smooth.

CORNISH: Why are the film people so upset about this?

EBIRI: Film people are upset because, just as a matter of course, their art form depends on 24 frames a second. The way actors perform, the way shots are composed, the way the camera is moved, the way narrative works - it's a language that's developed around 24 frames a second.

CORNISH: As we mentioned earlier, Tom Cruise filmed this PSA. Directors Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have reached out to television manufacturers directly to say, hey, can you not make this the default setting? But here's the thing - if we've all been watching already for many years on this default setting, is it too late?

EBIRI: It's interesting. When I published my piece, I got a lot of responses from people saying, so that's what's been going on with my TV. And a lot of people said, OK, now I'm going to try and turn this thing off. I didn't realize I could turn it off. You assume that the TV is doing everything right. So if you turn it on, and suddenly a movie looks like a soap opera, a lot of people just say, well, I guess this is the superior way of watching it. And they just don't - even though they don't like it, they just kind of sit there and watch it.

CORNISH: The hardest part of your article was the sidebar that explained how to turn it off.

EBIRI: Well, the problem with turning it off is it's different on every TV. In every case, motion smoothing is called something different. On Samsungs, it's called Motion Plus. On Sony, it's called Motion Flow. On Panasonic, it's called a motion smoother.

CORNISH: OK, yikes. Stop (laughter).

EBIRI: It just goes on and on. I can go all day (Laughter).

CORNISH: Bilge Ebiri - he writes for New York Magazine. And you can read his piece on motion smoothing in Vulture.

Thanks so much.

EBIRI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.