FRIENDS IN HIGH-DEF PLACES

Tom Cruise’s next mission is to save us from our treacherous HDTVs

Here he comes to save the day.
Here he comes to save the day.
Image: Paramount Pictures
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He has climbed the Burj Khalifa, flown a helicopter through mountainous terrain, and jumped out of a plane 25,000 feet in the air. Now Tom Cruise is coming to change the settings on your TV.

Cruise and Mission: Impossible—Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie took a break from filming the Top Gun sequel to make a very important public service announcement about an issue filmmakers are increasingly raising: video interpolation, better known as motion smoothing.

If you have a modern hi-def TV set and you’ve ever noticed that the picture looks weird—like it was shot as a home video rather than on film—it may be because of video interpolation. In layman’s terms, that’s when your TV automatically creates fake frames to splice between existing ones in order to get rid of motion blur. These extra frames can be effective at reducing the blurry effect of movement in live sports, but it makes almost everything else look like it was filmed on a cheap video camera—thus its nickname, “the soap opera effect.” Naturally, filmmakers are not happy that their movies are being drained of their cinematic quality and made to look like a 1980s episode of Days of Our Lives.

While there’s nothing wrong with HDTVs having the option, the problem that Cruise and many others have with the digital effect is that it’s the default setting on most modern hi-def television sets. And not only does it go by a different name depending on the brand (“Clear Motion Rate” for Samsung versus “MotionFlow” for Sony, for instance), but manufacturers also don’t always make it easy to switch off.

Other filmmakers have made a crusade of destroying motion smoothing long before Cruise and McQuarrie. Director and cinematographer Reed Morano started a petition four years ago to ask TV manufacturers not to make motion smoothing the default setting on their TVs. She also suggested a way for TVs to automatically turn the feature on or off, depending on what kind of program someone is watching.

In September, the Oscar-nominated directors Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson reached out directly to TV manufacturers to see if they could resolve the problem. That followed social media campaigns by other filmmakers, including Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson (who once said motion smoothing makes movies look like “liquid diarrhea“) and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn.

Cinematographer Naim Sutherland has explained well why the extra frames can make a film look so much worse: “The goal of motion pictures is not to recreate reality, it’s not even to show reality,” she has said. “By not showing enough visual information, we force the brain into filling in the gaps…it draws you in even more. It’s part of how you let go to the point where you can laugh or cry or feel tense or afraid or elated.”

Wars over the best formats for watching video at home have broken out since the 1970s, when Sony’s Betamax vied with JVC’s VHS to become the standard for home-video entertainment. It happened again in the mid-2000s with Blu-ray discs and HD DVDs. That time, major movie studios such as Disney, Fox, and Universal took sides, choosing the formats they each preferred to show their films on. Today, Netflix publishes an annual list of recommended TVs by manufacturers like LG and Sony that it says its programs look best on.

Earlier this year, Sony introduced a TV setting specifically for watching Netflix, which automatically adjusts things like color and contrast to match the settings that Netflix’s creators use on their own monitors in post production. It’s meant to show the content the way creators meant for it to be seen.