Clearer, sharper, crisper, higher, ever higher, definition: Television technology has been on a mad dash towards letting us see anything and everything — not as if we were actually there ourselves, but if we were actually there ourselves and also had some sort of super-vision that allowed us to count every capillary in Andy Rooney’s nose. And at the risk of sounding exactly like said Andy Rooney, I have to question whether that’s necessarily a good thing.
At this point, many of us have gotten so used to watching television in HD that it has become the new standard. So much so, in fact, that programs that broadcast in actual standard definition, which served us perfectly well for years, now look like Vaseline-smeared terribleness. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with elevated expectations: Why have worse when you can have better? But what happens when that crystal-clear picture starts looking less awesome and more tacky?
Enter the soap opera effect. I first discovered motion interpolation — that’s the smart-person word for it — at my parents’ home. Because they are actual adults who buy their electronics from a store and not some creepy dreadlocked white dude they found on Craigslist, their new television was actually new. I was helping to set it up when I popped in a DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring and suddenly Peter Jackson’s multi-million dollar epic of sweeping New Zealand vistas and cutting-edge digital effects looked like a bunch of little people playing dress up.
Here’s the short explanation of how the effect works: Because films are typically recorded at 24 frames-per-second, and HD televisions display at a noticeably higher FPS, adjustments need to be made. Motion interpolation is one of the more recent techniques developed to deal with this, and it works by creating place-holder frames that are the visual average of the frames around it. This results in cutting down on juddering and motion blur and an increase in “realism,” but the unintended effect is a perceived mimicry of video as opposed to film. That’s what makes even a franchise like Pirates of the Caribbean, which spends fortunes on set design and eyeliner for Johnny Depp, look like a cheap telenovela that just happens to star Depp, Keira Knightley and Captain Squidface.
Essentially, we’ve reached such a pinnacle of visual realism, that movies end up looking exactly as fake as they are: The sets look like sets, the costumes look like costumes, and even the actors start looking more like actors than characters. Home viewing technology has gotten so good that it has punched a hole right through the screen and killed that shiny gilding known as movie magic. It’s like watching an illusionist’s routine from behind the stage.
It’s not like the effect doesn’t have its benefits — even if I have no use for it as an emasculated entertainment nerd, I hear it’s great for watching popular sports like batball and kickfoot. Even for general television viewing, they say you will eventually get used to it, but no matter how much I watched, everything still looked like community theater to me.
The obvious answer, then, is to just turn it off. Unfortunately, for a lot of TV models, it’s an unnecessarily complicated process. And really, it’s not necessarily the effect itself that’s the issue as much as the questions it raises: Does everything really need to be so clear and sharp? If we eliminate all film grain from old movies and give 1940s noirs the theatrically spotless black-and-white look of Sin City, are we really doing them, and ourselves, a service? It’s really the ultimate question of home viewing: Is it supposed to be a shrunken imitation of the theater experience, or is it something else entirely? Unfortunately the answer, unlike the picture quality, isn’t very clear.