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How to Avoid the “Soap Opera Effect” on Your HDTV … Or Do You Want to Avoid It?

Dec 19, 2011 1:39 PM, by Jason Bovberg

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Have you heard of the “soap opera effect” of modern TVs? You’ve probably seen it in action. I first observed it when James Cameron’s Avatar came to home video last year. I was walking through my local consumer-electronics superstore and came upon a large Samsung LCD display that was playing the movie. And as I drew closer to the TV, I felt an odd mixture of wonder and confusion. Because although the image was amazingly detailed and crisp, it was also decidedly…wrong.

It looked like video. More specifically, it looked like a soap opera filmed at 60 frames per second (fps) rather than film’s 24fps. The image had that hyper-reality that separates video from film. But, wow, was it crisp and clear! It was mesmerizing.

At the time, I chalked up the video look to James Cameron. I’d assumed he’d “pioneered” a new look for HD 3D filmmaking. I had seen Avatar in digital 3D, and I remembered a super-sharp, pleasing 3D image, and maybe this was the way that visual presentation translated to the smaller screen. Call it “the Avatar effect.” I remember standing there, marveling at the clarity of that image but also being a little put off by it.

Because it was a completely different experience from what I remembered in the theater. It certainly didn’t look like film.

You know what I’m talking about. Although the film we’re accustomed to seeing is recorded at 24fps, today’s incredibly capable LCD TVs can display imagery at 60fps or 120 hertz. (Hertz is a measurement of frequency per second.) There’s a technological revolution going on in home video, and most people are unaware of it or are assuming it’s the next great thing. But for purists, it could be more of a curse.

A year after my Avatar incident, I now own a new LED LCD Samsung display, and I can tell you that the effect is just as pronounced on older films such as the original Star Wars films. It is the combined effect of HD video (e.g., Blu-ray discs) and the 120Hz technology, as well as the motion-smoothing technology built into some 120Hz TVs. This technology essentially analyzes film’s 24 frames and generates new frames to fill in for the 120 refreshes. The simulated end result is a higher fps rate. So, the phenomenon is by no means specific to brand-new, shot-on-HD-video films such as Avatar.

I was particularly surprised by the discovery that the “soap opera effect” applies to older films, too. And disappointed! For many people, myself included, this effect can produce an image that looks fake. You might even say cheesy. Sets and props begin to look unrealistic, special effects become unconvincing, even acting starts to seem unconvincing. Movies appear more like TV commercials, or live programming. Rather than fictional stories on the screen, it’s as if you’re looking at actors on a stage, coated by a sheet of plastic. Your favorite movies have been dramatically altered, as if re-shot on a soap opera set.

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