If you have a new television, or are thinking Santa may bring you one for the holidays, chances are you’ve been exposed to the newest way films can be screwed up between the time they’re finished and the time you watch them. “Motion Smoothing” is the newest, hottest feature found on televisions with increased refresh rates. This devil goes by many names, depending on manufacturer: Auto Motion Plus, Motionflow, Motion Enhancement, Motion Picture Pro 4, TruMotion, etc.
This feature takes your 24 frames-per-second films and “upgrades” them to higher frame rates, making those crusty, ol’ fashioned picture shows look like slick, newfangled HD video. Worse, this feature tends to be enabled by default in the presets of new televisions. If someone does not know what is making their movies look “weird” and does not think to look for the feature’s off-switch, this “Motion Smoothing” will continue to ravage every movie viewed on that TV.
A really great article about this – providing many details, including where exactly you’ll find those off-switches – can be delved into here.
By no means is this the first time expensive, meticulously-crafted motion pictures have been mangled just as they reach your eyeballs. In fact, defiling movies is a tradition as old as cinema itself.
For decades, movies photographed in focus by skilled professionals have been exhibited out-of-focus by lazy projectionists. Not on my watch. I was a theater projectionist when I was a teenager, and I refused to use the timers that started the movies automatically. I stood next to each projector and started each film manually to make sure it was in focus and framed properly. Seeing films at other theaters in subsequent years, and witnessing the less-than-impressive work of lazy or stoned projectionists, I came to understand that projectionists in my mindset were few and far between.
It’s not just focus and framing one needs to worry about in the projection booth. Seldom are projector bulbs putting out the proper foot-candles. A dim bulb makes the film projected much darker than it was intended. Many theaters reduce bulb brightness on purpose to keep their bulb-replacement costs down. A dimmer bulb lasts longer.
At the theater for which I worked, a problem with one of the projector’s lenses made it impossible to focus the entire image. If the middle and the right side of the screen were in focus, the left side of the screen was blurry. I requested that this be remedied, but the theater chain ignored my demands. This projector functioned this way on the day I arrived, on my last day at this job, and on every day in between.
I remember my parents telling me about going out to see Far And Away (1992), the epic Oklahoma Run drama directed by Ron Howard. They said the picture looked strange. Everyone on screen was squished skinny and their heads were cut off during the entire film. I explained that movies are in different aspect ratios which require different lenses on the projector. Their projectionist had screwed up and used the wrong lens. I asked my parents why they didn’t get up to complain about the problem. “We didn’t know it could be fixed,” they said. A nearly full theater auditorium sat and watched the entire two hours and twenty minutes without complaining. I bet a large number of them did not even realize something was wrong. Where the hell was the projectionist? Probably flirting with one of the girls behind the concession stand. He never even looked at that screen, and therefore had no idea he’d made a mistake that screwed up Ron Howard’s 60 million dollar film.
There are a multitude of smaller problems that can accumulate to distance a theatrical screening from the intentions of the filmmakers. Every time a 35mm print runs through a projector, some wear and tear occurs. A bit more dust and a new scratch or two will be added with each pass through the projector, even if the projector is meticulously maintained and cleaned. Generally, they aren’t.
Before digital sound became the norm in the early/mid 90s, 35mm film audio was printed on the film. (It still is – the optical track just isn’t used in theaters with digital audio.) The optical track took up a tiny slice at the edge of the celluloid and was read by way of an exciter bulb shining through this visual print of the audio. Therefore, when the exciter bulb was out of alignment, or if the film’s travel through the projector was in some way compromised, even slightly, the audio would be degraded.
Add to these worries the potential of vertical “ghosting,” splices that remain on a film print forever after a break is repaired, sound system issues, and even the possibility of the twenty-minute reels being shown in the wrong order. When screened via traditional 35mm projection, films have damn near zero chance of being seen the way the filmmakers intended.
Stanley Kubrick was one filmmaker notoriously frustrated by these problems, and he fought the good fight to minimize them. In addition to his meticulous quality control, he usually released his films in two-channel mono. His reasoning was that many smaller, more poorly maintained theaters might have malfunctioning sound systems that only delivered one channel of audio to the audience. Better to have all the audio delivered in mono in all theaters than to have stereo sound only in auditoriums with properly functioning sound systems.
Film purists will hate me for saying so, but the above-described projection problems are why I prefer digital projection over 35mm prints. With digital projection, the problems seem to have vanished. Yeah, okay, if I catch a midnight screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or I Spit On Your Grave (1978), sure, a beat-up, scratch-infested, magenta-shifted print only adds to the experience. In general, however, digital projection is the way to go. Disagree? Too bad, because 35mm film projection is nearly dead.
Tune in next week as I explore how television and home video have continued the grand tradition of ruining motion pictures. The good news is that there is more control in the hands of the viewing audience today.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze