Winter 2019

Directors Tackle Motion Smoothing

Faced with TV technology that casts their work in a distorted light, DGA members work to influence a more faithful representation of their work

By David Heuring

Illustrated by Stuart Bradford

Motion interpolation, or "motion smoothing" as it is commonly called, is the video processing done by today's television screens that claims to increase perceived frame rate and alleviate motion blur. The wide variety of trademarked names—Reel120, Digital Clear Motion Plus, TruMotion, Digital Movie Mode, HD Digital Natural Motion and Perfect Motion Rate—all sound innocuous enough to the proverbial viewer in Peoria. But for many DGA members, the process does ruinous damage to their intent. For filmmakers whose sensitivity to the subtleties of motion pictures is the foundation of their creativity and livelihood, the effect can be literally nauseating. An effort is now under way at the DGA headed by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Mostow and Paul Thomas Anderson to address this issue.

Karyn Kusama (The Man in the High Castle, Halt and Catch Fire, Destroyer) says, "I cannot tell you how many late nights in a hotel, when I'm on a TV job, I'm just wanting to watch 20 minutes of high-quality television, and it just all looks like some bizarre soap opera. I have to just turn off the TV in frustration when it could just be the click of a button on the remote. I see those images and my brain, my heart, my soul shuts down, because we're not supposed to be seeing Taxi Driver or Persona look like that. Directors of photography must feel agonized."

By inserting interpolated, "fake" frames between the originally captured frames, motion smoothing can benefit sports viewing, delivering a crisper, clearer and more saturated and contrasty image that alleviates the loss of sharpness that results from quick movement. But in narrative visual storytelling, that same crispness contributes to an unsettling "hyperrealism" that is anathema when the goal is a "dreamlike" state in which the viewer is less emotionally guarded. Feature films are usually photographed at 24 frames per second, and images shot at (or artificially bumped up to) higher rates sometimes provoke the effect to which Kusama refers.

"I can't even tell you how deeply upsetting it is," says Ana Lily Amirpour, the director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. "I was just in Zurich for a film festival, and in the lobby at one of the main movie theaters, all of the flat screen TVs were showing trailers in TruMotion. What you see is not even those movies. The beauty of the artists' work is hideously disfigured."

The DGA's Creative Rights Committee has been working with the UHD Alliance to gather information from the creative community regarding ways of maintaining creative intent through to the home viewer. In a recent survey of DGA directors, not surprisingly, more than 90% of respondents were in favor of a consistently named reference mode that is easily understood and accessed by the viewer. By starting a dialogue with the manufacturers, the committee hopes to quantify issues of importance, and to use that information to continue discussions, giving directors a voice in maintaining technical standards in the home.

"We got a great response from DGA members," says Nolan. "A lot of people responded to the survey with a lot of in-depth knowledge expressing their concerns. I think it's a great step forward and I think the manufacturers are now seeing an opportunity to really collaborate with filmmakers on getting the most out of the next generation of television sets."

"We want to get to a place where we can say we feel great about the way this stuff looks. Because if you see a well-aligned HDR image, it looks spectacular."
—Christopher Nolan

Director John Hillcoat (Black Mirror, The Road) ties the issue to the director's stock in trade—the ability to engage the viewer's emotions.

"Watching a film with motion blur or the sports setting is so heartbreaking because it looks like moving plastic sludge," he says. "Digital has plasticity even at the top end [that] we're all working to break it down or to add texture. So we shoot with old lenses. But the worst thing of all is just intuitively, if you aren't a tech person, and you just happen to watch something, experientially and emotionally there is an alienating effect. It's diminished in its power to reach you. To me, that's the biggest heartbreak of all—audiences are being duped. Other forces have taken over and are not addressing the fundamental issue of maintaining quality."

Director Jason Reitman serves on the DGA's Creative Rights Committee. "There's a reason we spend so much of our lives trying to make things precise in how they look and sound," he says, "and that goes back to our choices in performance and edit and production design and color palette. The purpose of filmmaking is to evoke a feeling, and that is a result of all these minute choices. We've all had the feeling when a movie is suddenly not as evocative as it otherwise was.

"The whole job of the director is to make the right selections that result in emotions and feelings as you witness the work. For all of that work to be for naught is just truly dispiriting. And it's not necessary. It's a fixable problem."

Motion smoothing and similar processing can be shut off on any set that comes with the capability. But many, if not most, consumers—already overwhelmed with dizzying layers of menus—simply assume that's how television looks now. And crucially, many televisions now come with motion smoothing "on" as the default setting.

For many, the only action to take—quixotic as it is—has been switching the function off on family members' sets during holiday gatherings. "It should be easy and it's not," Kusama says. "I'm very passionate about it. If we could get people to realize that the TV they paid a lot of money for has a default setting, and that they may want to experiment with seeing the image differently, with the click of a button, I think they would get it. I can't believe this hasn't been addressed yet."

DP-turned-director Reed Morano began a noble crusade to gather signatures to petition the television manufacturers in 2014. She eventually reached 12,878 signers, supplemented with letters of support from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Rian Johnson and cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki. She found some interest in a solution at the American Society of Cinematographers, but several directing jobs in quick succession slowed momentum.

Motion smoothing involves inserting extra, or artificial, frames into the image, to make quick movement less blurry.

"I'd be glad if we could join forces on this," says Morano. "I support the DGA's efforts completely. It's tricky getting all the major manufacturers and the streaming services onboard with a solution, but I think you have to start with one. At one point, I had some interest from Sony. I think it could be a selling point—perhaps saying that this new setting is endorsed by film directors as the way to watch movies as they were intended."

Nolan notes that the forthcoming televisions will incorporate technology that is significantly more sophisticated, with the potential to further re-interpret imagery absent appropriate input from creatives—a double-edged sword.

"The televisions themselves have tremendous potential to present our work well and correctly," says Nolan. "But, of course, the power of those devices means that they can also misinterpret your work. And motion smoothing is one area in which the television manufacturers seem genuinely pretty unaware of how frustrated filmmakers are.

"This goes back to [when] many of the conversations were between studios and broadcasters," Nolan adds. "Paul (Thomas Anderson) and I realized that we now need to involve television manufacturers. For example, with high dynamic range, in the timing suite you are in a way suppressing some of the range so that when the television expands it, it looks correct. So it's a complicated process."

Asked whether public awareness is an important aspect of the effort, Nolan says, "It's a component, but by dealing with the manufacturers directly, we're hoping to avoid putting that burden on the consumer. Even with public awareness, changing settings can be very complicated. The long-term goal is for television sets to be essentially automatically displaying the work correctly."

Nolan suggests that when it comes to the TV manufacturers, showing support is just as important as crying foul. "Looking to the future, I think there's going to be a point where we're going to want to involve DGA members with talking about whatever positive changes we've been able to introduce with the manufacturers—something the DGA members can get behind and be excited about rather than us just having to complain," he says. "We want to get to a place where we can actually go out there and say that we feel great about the way this stuff looks. Because the truth is, if you see a well-aligned HDR image, it looks spectacular—the best version of the home video experience that we've had. And we want to maximize that potential."

The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.

More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly includes The DGA Interview featuring Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a look into motion smoothing technology on television sets, stories featuring directors Nora Gerard, Robert Aldrich, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, George Tillman Jr., Elma Garcia and more!