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Display Of Horror – Part 2 Of 2

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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.  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.

Defiling movies is a tradition as old as cinema itself.  Part one of my exploration into this tradition is here.

Now on with the horror show…

Television and home video have been notorious destroyers of cinema from the onset.  The first and most obvious maiming (aside from creating family-safe “edited for television” versions) came with the dreaded pan-and-scan cropping.  After enduring this, a movie had to suffer in the realm of NTSC video, the North American television standard that reigned until dethroned by High Definition.  TV broadcast signals and all home video formats before Blu-ray were NTSC, which stood for National Television Standards Committee.  The common industry joke was that it stood for Never The Same Color.  A film’s brightness, black levels, color hue and saturation were impacted by a hundred variables at multiple stages, insuring that, indeed, nothing ever looked the same.  As with 35mm film prints, it was impossible for films to be presented as the filmmakers intended.

The worst headache born of the switch from Standard Definition to High Definition was the swap from the 4x3 aspect ratio to 16x9.  Many years ago, when I saw this transition from 4x3 to 16x9 on the horizon, I knew it was going to be a very bumpy road.  I was correct.  Today, I routinely see televisions in homes and restaurants displaying the image incorrectly.  If I walk into a room where a TV is on, in about six nanoseconds I can note that the aspect ratio of the image is wrong.  In fact, I’d say that even here at the end of 2012, the aspect ratio is wrong on approximately half of the televisions I place eyes on, meaning – sadly – very few others even notice.

Not being aware of the problem – or not caring – is a big part of the meltdown.  When nobody complains, nothing gets fixed, and a general apathy takes root.  A few years ago, I was finishing up a film project (I don’t remember what it was or who it was for).  I was using a waveform meter to make sure the black levels were where they were supposed to be.  A friend and associate of mine, Jim, rolled his eyes at me and said, “People watch crap all day on the internet and they’re used to it.  Nobody cares about black levels anymore.”  I resisted the urge to throw something at Jim.  Instead I gave him a passionate speech about how important black levels are to me, dammit.  

Unfortunately, Jim’s stance on the subject reflects how most of the world views movies and television today.  New whistles and bells are more important than a movie being seen the way the filmmakers intended.  YouTube is a great example of this.  There’s always something new and exciting about the way YouTube can be used, but picture and audio are still out of sync much of the time.  If nobody is complaining, why fix it?  It is much more financially viable to continuously dangle new, shiny, jingly things in front of consumers.

Film collectors who seek perfection, or the nearest they can get to it, now can choose DVD and Blu-ray discs.  This may be the closest we’ve ever come to seeing movies the way they were intended in our homes.  

Of course, nothing is safe.  Consider that classic film you have come to love.  You first saw it chopped up on television through poor reception.  Years later, you added the VHS to your collection, but the source was a muddy, scratched 35mm print with cigarette burns at the reel changes.  Next came a beautifully restored, anamorphic version of the movie on DVD, enhanced for widescreen televisions.  Now you own that film on Blu in all its widescreen, high definition glory…  and at this moment in time, when the most perfect version of that film is finally in your hands, HD television manufacturers are trying to change the way that film looks.  Filmmakers and film fans just can’t win.  But we can keep fighting.  Turn the damned “Motion Smoothing” off, enjoy watching movies on your new TV, and keep your eyes open for the next sucker-punch to the proper display of motion pictures.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze

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