Wednesday, December 31, 2014

HFR & 120Hz's Soap Opera Effect: Why We Don't Need It (& How To Emulate It)

Often times technology lurches forward and we get some pretty neat stuff out of it. But with the advent of 120Hz LCD televisions and HFR (High Frame Rate) movies, I see only a step backward. There are times when things need to change, but there are fundamentals that will never need it. I want to try to explain why I think these technologies are highly unnecessary, but can be useful for cinematic effects. However, I will mostly just be describing why I think these are two implemented ideas not worth your time.

What's In a Definition?
I first want to say that there are no true LED televisions. No TV is made of only LED technology, that are actually LCD TV's with one of three types of LED technologies. The only reason I bring up this detail is I will be using "LCD TV" for the rest of the article.

Plasma's Rule!
Plasma TV's were (and still are) awesome. They are argued to have better color-depth, but they also had a few downsides. Two being power consumption and heat related issues, as well as burned-in images. Yet, they still carry a strong advantage over LCD TV's in terms of speed. If a show or movie has high frame rates or quick intense scenes, a plasma has no problem showing that segment as it is meant to be seen. LCD's suffer from motion blur, which can obviously take away from the vision of the film and more literally the audience.

The solution was to implement was is often referred to as the "soap opera effect" on 120Hz LCD televisions. The effect is more appropriately called "motion interpolation", "motion-compensate frame interpoliation", or "motion smoothing". A frame would be created from a current frame and a following frame to make a third frame that would be placed in the middle of the two frames it was created from. This allows for a smoothing effect where blur becomes less obvious or non-existent. 60Hz LCD TV's are not capable of using this technology (thankfully!).

Move Over Standard Frame Rates!
Most movies are shot at 24fps (Frames Per Second). When movies were first created there was no standard frame rate and it took some time before it was decided that 24fps was an optimal standard. Since then it has always been considered the de facto standard when shooting a movie. On television you will see shows and movies at 30fps in the US, while it will be 25fps in the UK. These are different, but not enough to be highly noticeable.

HFR doubles the normal movie frame rate. It uses 48fps for a movie. People who have seen any of the new Hobbit movies can comment on the look of HFR. It is a lot like motion smoothing and both Peter Jackson and James Cameron claim it is the future of cinema...

My Arguments
The main reason I don't like either of these two technologies is solely based on aesthetics. I can get used to them, but why should I when so many people agree that they are worthless technologies. It's not like it's a battle between NTSC and PAL, where PAL had the better recording quality and therefore is better. No, it's just some preference some people think should be pushed on all others because they believe it makes things better.

3D Fad
Before I start in on either motion smoothing or HFR, I want to give an example of what I see happening. 3D is a horrible fad. It has been around a long time and really hit popularity in the 1950's. It later hid itself in educational museums before coming back in recent years.

3D is fun. I remember watching a shark, jaw agape, jump out of the screen as it tried to attack! But that's all it is, fun. It gives no additional emphasis to a story, it does not help develop a character, it doesn't do anything that would make a movie better. Think of a movie like Pirahna 3D (if you haven't seen it, don't), think about that movie without 3D. The only reason that movie made money was because it was in 3D, otherwise, it was just a horrible movie.

3D is a gimmick, there is no other way to put that. It has limited uses and I have yet to see someone use it to great artistic effect. Only then will I be able to say that there is a good purpose for 3D. (In case anyone is paying attention, the shark encounter I had successfully evoked an emotional response, but it was not trying to achieve an artist effect.)

My perspective on 3D is how I similarly view motion smoothing and HFR. They have both been around for a while in various forms, but only now are people trying to push it as some great feature to have. It does not add anything to a show or movie, but it does help weaken them. In time, I can only hope they are seen like 3D, as an optional feature.

Motion Smoothing, Ugh!
The first time I encountered motion smoothing was when my grandparents had gotten rid of their large projector TV for a slim Sony LCD TV. Immediately I was bothered by it. Why did it look so shoddy? Was something setup wrong? Is it just the channel or is everything like this?

It took me a matter of weeks to get used to their TV, but even then it never looked good. The reason people refer to it as the soap opera effect is because it looks as bad as the camera quality that the morning-time soaps use. A great show can look like junk when motion smoothing is enabled.

The sad thing here is that even though it won't cripple a story's content, motion smoothing will detract from it if you are not accustomed to it. It will give the appearance that the show is horrible because the look of the show is now horrible.

I rather have a 60Hz LCD TV and suffer the blur problems than opt for a 120Hz LCD TV and deal with motion smoothing. I have never once noticed any issues with any of my 60Hz TV's during action sequences, quick cutting, or high frame rates. And it always seems like motion smoothing makes people visually hyper-realistic. I always seem to pay more attention to an actor's face and see these blemishes or wrinkles, which starts taking me out of the story and making me lost interest altogether!

You're That Special Kind of HFR
HFR is no better. The way most of us see cinema is as an escape of some sort. There is a disconnect between the movie and reality. A feeling that it is just a movie, nothing more. It can be sad, enjoyable, confusing, exciting, but once you leave the theater reality sets back in. If this doesn't ring true for you, think about this: Why would the lights in a movie theater need to be dimmed or turned off when the movie would be almost as perfectly visible with the lights on?

HFR is said to be more realistic. Who said we need more realism? When 24p (24 progressive frames per second) first came to digital video camcorders, I was ecstatic. 30fps was fine, but 24p gave that cinematic quality we were all looking for. It's a perfect frame rate. It isn't choppy, it's smooth, and it gives just enough surrealism to know that it's fake but has its feet in reality.

There are movies where sequences are shot in 60fps to give a grittty, real-life feel. Many war movies (e.g. Saving Private Ryan) take advantage of this to put the viewer in the movie. A good scene I can recall is from Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. When the group brings the car into the tunnel and gets stuck, and the zombies begin running towards them at full speed. That scene is shot at 60fps. It is an artistic decision by the directory to help people feel like they are there. The effect is meant to be emotional, heightening awareness and getting adrenaline to release, the same process the characters in the movie are meant to be going through.

But HFR is not being used like this. It is just meant to be seem more realistic, not put you in the place of or alongside the actors. Not to attempt to get the audience to feel something that you only feel in reality. Why does the standard need to change? What makes HFR a definitive pick even if it does need a change? And why do the few decide when the many are the ones who will live with it? These are the questions that need to be asked.

Standards vs. Features
There have been many changes for film and video, many that have been good. From black-and-white to color is a large one. It gave us the ability to see things closer to a realistic perspective since we see in color. But black-and-white didn't go by the wayside. While not often used, it is still implemented for dramatic and artistic effect.

Resolution increases helped increase realism too. Compare a DVD and Blu-ray movie and you can easily tell how crystal clear the jump is. Even just 480p to 720p is an astounding difference. The jump from HD to 4K, 6K, or 8K is just as dramatic. Resolutions of old and new are still used a lot in today's media whether it be on the Internet or from your cable provider.

Letterbox used to be how all shows and movies were formatted for VHS or DVD. It was fine and did right by me. But widescreen started gaining acceptance because of how much more you could fit into the frame. It took some time to become a standard due to letterbox advocates, but eventually it became the new preferred standard. I was one of those who eventually came around to the idea and later had no idea why I had thought it was an issue to begin with.

These are standards, common standards that rarely change, and when they do, it is usually agreed to by the majority to be for the better.

We've already talked about a few features, the obvious being motion smoothing, and another being 3D. They are not set in stone as the only options available, and nor should they be. They can add an element of fun or realism to your viewing, but they do not need to be present to enjoy it.

Audio can be argued as a standard and feature. Many movies boast a standard 5.1 surround sound, while there are movies that can go up to 8.1 surround sound. But TV's are just stereo (2.0) output for the most part. So the standard is really stereo, while the features are varying degrees of surround sound which possess they're own set of standards. Will the surround sound standard continue to increase? I don't know, how many speakers do you really need to hear a movie perfectly? Stereo doesn't seem like it will change as the norm unless people start coming standard with three ears. Mono sound was the predecessor of stereo, but once stereo was introduced in 1984, everyone followed along and it has remained the standard since.

What I'm trying to get at is that something new doesn't have to become the standard. It can be a feature, something that people have a choice in selecting instead of being forced to have. It's a lot like the U2 mishap with iTunes. They're album was free and automatically downloaded from iTunes to your playlist of music. Numerous people were upset because they did not want U2's music forced onto them. I can't blame them, there's plenty of free music out there that I'm not downloading, or being forced to download, and I prefer it that way.

If you don't have motion smoothing on your TV, or you have yet to see a film in HFR, you can still emulate the procedure on your computer to see what all the fuss is about.

Download SmoothVideo Project, a free program that will allow you to experience motion smoothing from any video file. Install the program (I opted to install the MPC player along with every extension setup offered). Open up the MPC player and select a video file, anything you have seen before and know how it should play. Even animation will show the effect, although, to a lesser extent.

Money, Money, Money
While I don't think the motion smoothing was really an influential way to get more money from consumers, it can be argued that motion smoothing was created to get people to buy more expensive televisions that are produced at cheaper rates. HFR, on the other hand, is definitely a way for the movie industry to reign in more money from consumers.

Let's say that HFR does become the new standard in how to shoot and view movies. How will that affect consumers? Just think about the new standards that have come to pass: VHS/Betamax beget LaserDisc beget DVD beget Blu-ray. These were logical jumps as each was an increase in quality, save LaserDisc - which was an increase but never a true standard due to not gaining popularity worldwide despite its superior quality. I want to make it clear that HFR is not an increase in quality, because it's about frame rates, not quality.

However, if it did become a standard, the first thing to happen would be reprints of movies in the HFR format. There has been mention how certain software has problems with the 48fps of HFR, so this may mean not only having to get software that works with HFR, but having to repurchase Blu-ray players that have implemented HFR capabilities. And if this standard came on the cusp of the when the newest, better, digital media format battle began, you would have to ditch all your Blu-ray items and re-buy everything again in the newest medium.

Many of us have already experienced this type of situation with the jump from DVD to Blu-ray, echoing the pattern of history from VHS to DVD. I would hate to have to not only do it for HFR, but again when the newest medium cements itself as the new standard...

If I Had One Wish
Do yourself a favor and skip movies with HFR, or don't buy a 120Hz TV that has some proprietary motion smoothing technology. As I said before you can get used to the awful appearance, but why bother spending money on things you'll only hate? The only way we can make these technologies features instead of standards is to stop supporting them. If we stop buying into them they'll either go away, or more likely just stay as features. When you decide a standard needs to change, that is far different than somebody deciding for you that a standard needs to be changed.

One last thing, I feel like much of this is akin to a specific South Park episode. The one where Cartman defecates via his mouth. Then everybody starts eating through their butt and defecating with their mouth, despite there being no benefit to doing so. As disgusting as that sounds and is, the scenario provided a valid point. Why do something just because you can? If it provides no benefit then why change?

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