You’ve unpacked and installed your new HDTV, you’ve fired it up, and despite the expectation that everything should look magnificent on it, you can’t get over how everything looks uncannily smooth and downright weird. Read on as we explain why and show you how to fix it.
Dear How-To Geek,
I’m not even sure how exactly to ask this question, because it’s kind of a strange one. I just bought a brand new HDTV. It’s huge and gorgeous and I really want to love the picture, but watching it actually kind of makes me a little nauseous. For lack of a better way to describe it, everything looks weird and kind of fake. Even watching the news and such, the background of the studio looks overly, well, fake. It’s like everything displayed on my TV came from some sort of Pixar-level animation studio. Is this just what these new ultra sharp HDTVs look like? Why does watching it make me feel like I’m trapping in some sort of weird 3D CGI roller coaster?
What It’s Called
You are absolutely not imagining what you’re seeing. What you’re describing is classic “Soap Opera Effect”. Back in the day, television soap operas had low budgets and used low budget video cameras instead of the full fledged film cameras their better-funded television counterparts were using. Those cheap cameras imparted a stranger fluid/hyper-realistic appearance. This effect, now cropping up in modern sets, is the reason a lot of people complain about their new HDTV sets and can’t quite put their finger on why they don’t enjoy watching them as much as they did their old TVs (and even older HDTVs). Let’s talk about the effect before we talk about the solution so you understand why exactly your TV looks so strange.
Where It Comes From
LCD-based HDTVs suffer from motion blur. Every manufacturer and every design handles it slightly differently, but it’s inescapable. The way images are rendered on an LCD panel simply leads to blurring in many situations, especially when rendering high speed motion on the screen. Really nice sets with quality components and fast processing can largely minimize it, but it’s always there to some degree. The basic principle behind how the HDTV set deals with motion blur is by inserting additional frames in between the existing frames that are hybrids of the actual frames. The goal is to reduce any sort of judder or shake in the image by smoothing everything out.
This is why you see newer HDTV sets advertised as having 120hz and 240hz refresh rates. They’re trying to assure customers that the set can refresh fast enough to blend out those motion blur issues and keep the viewing experience crisp. When you’re watching newer HD content like sports broadcasts that offer 30 frames-per-second content, those motion-blur-fixing algorithms work really well. They have an abundance of frames to work with and the motion is fast and furious. When you’re watching a hockey match on a nice HDTV set with a high quality video feed, the action on the ice and the puck zipping about is going to look delightfully smooth, for example.
The problem, and where all those engineers’ hard work falls apart, is when you’re watching regular old content with traditional 24 frames-per-second speed. The vast majority of all sitcoms, dramas, news, and nearly all movies are filmed at 24fps. That frame rate was the standard for cinema and television throughout the 20th century and it’s still going strong in the 21st century. However, when you combine 24fps source media with the smoothing algorithms employed by new HDTV sets with the 120hz and 240hz refresh rates, there is too much interpolation going on between those 24 frames in an attempt to push them, artificially, to be smooth like native 30/60fps content. The end result is, as you described it, a sort of uncanny experience. The news studio looks too vivid and the motion of the news anchor is too smooth and almost CGI like. The living room on the sitcom you’re watching has a weird sort of fake-3D depth to it that many people find unsettling. The camera pans in a 24fps-shot film look oddly smooth. It just doesn’t look like the broadcasts and movies we’re all used to.
How to Fix It
So where does this leave you, the unhappy consumer? Fortunately, on the majority of sets it’s easy to fix the problem. Manufacturers are definitely not oblivious to the problems that their interpolation algorithms cause and understand that what makes an HD sporting event or high-frame-rate movie (like The Hobbit) look good, can make watching the evening news or The Graduate feel uncomfortable.
As such, there is typically an option on sets that have 120hz and above refresh rates to turn off the motion smoothing algorithms (and the more thoughtful manufacturers even include profiles wherein you can set up a Cinema profile the content you want smoothed, and a regular profile for the content you don’t want smooth). Every manufacturer calls their fancy smoothing algorithm something different. Samsung calls it Auto Motion Plus, LG calls it TruMotion, Sony calls it MotionFlow, and so on. Reference the manual for your set or simply poke around in the on-screen menu until you find anything close to the terms “motion smoothing”, “motion”, “judder reduction”, “smoothing”, etc. There you’ll find the option to adjust and/or turn off the feature and, in the process, get rid of that uncanny plastic CGI look that the ultra-smoothing imparts to 24fps broadcasts.
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Header image by Savio Sebastian.