“Let our rigorous testing and reviews be your guidelines to A/V equipment – not marketing slogans”
Facebook Youtube Twitter instagram pinterest

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey...into Bad HT Video Technology

by March 06, 2013

These days special effects in movies aren’t limited to what’s happening on-screen but rather how a film is presented at the movies and on your TV. But are some technical advances ruining video quality at the movies and in your home theater system? TV manufacturers are embracing any new technology in their quest for the next feature that will entice us to replace our aging TVs. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was filmed in High Frame Rate 3D (HFR 3D). Of the moviegoers lucky enough to view Peter Jackson’s giant film in a theater capable of displaying the elevated frame rate, many complained of an artificial quality to the video and said that the so-called enhancements only made the film look suspiciously like a soap opera. LCD displays have been employing artificially enhanced frame-rates for years with features bearing such inventive names as "Motion Flow" and "Clearframe". Many of us find it annoying. So, let’s take a closer look popular video effects you’ll find on new TVs today and we’ll leave it up to you to if you see "Flowing Motion" in stunning 3D, or if your eyes only see a cheesy soap opera effect.

When the new digital 3D movies started hitting theaters, the visual effect was an interesting curiosity for films that had little else going for them. When Beowulf came out in ’07 we asked if 3D was the shape of things to come.

As it turned out, yes. And now we can’t escape 3D movies.

Indeed, the effect seems to be slapped on to nearly every new film. I didn’t expect much from 2011’s Thor, but as one of the ramp-up movies to The Avengers - I couldn’t wait to see it. About halfway through, however, I wanted to pull my eyeballs out of my head and stomp them into the margarine-soaked theater floor.  Thor was a murky mess! The 3D effect detracted so much from the brightness you couldn’t make out many of the details of the special effects. Okay, I get it – they can’t all be Avatar.

ThereminIt turns out that 3D isn't the revolution in television viewing manufacturers and marketers hoped it would be. It's certainly not comparable to color or high-definition. Why? Because creating three-dimensional perspectives on a two-dimensional canvas (or LCD panel) has been mastered as far back as the 16th Century by guys like Raphael during the Renaissance (not the Ninja Turtle, the other Raphael.) It’s called perspective and every seventh grader learns about it in middle-school art class. Those 3D glasses were about as revolutionary to movies as the Theremin was to music.

Think of some of the best movies you've seen, and ask yourself how many could be potentially ruined by 3D. Eastern Promises, that Russian gangster flick starring Viggo Mortensen was an instant classic with its cold brutality and detached violence. But add 3D to the shower fight scene and you’ve turned one of the most vicious and frightening scenes in movies into a lewd comedy featuring Viggo’s junk jumping at the audience in mid-fisticuffs.

But not all display technology experiments in cinema are bad. Filmmakers do great things with digital cameras and effects without spilling into the goofy. Robert Rodriguez made Sin City on groundbreaking non-3D digital that made the graphic novel adaptation memorable. And of course, James Cameron has actually given us some of the best in digital and 3D effects we’ve ever seen.

HFR 3D and the HDTV Soap Opera Effect

One of the interesting side-stories from the film adaptation of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was its digital effects. Rather than limitless praise for shooting the film in groundbreaking digital style using High Frame Rate 3D (HFR 3D), it was criticized for looking too real—so real, it looked artificial.

When Peter Jackson began filming The Hobbit in high frame rate, using cameras that elevate the frames per-second from the 24 fps standard to 48 fps, there were no theaters capable of presenting the movie in HFR. At the time of release there were only 1000 worldwide.

The effect of shooting at double frame-rate was to create a sharper, brighter picture. More frames also means more detailed motion. Unfortunately, many who got to see The Hobbit in full HFR 3D complained that the hyper-realism of the movie actually made it look fake. The over-smooth motion and crispness of the images lent a video-taped documentary or soap opera look to a film that should be anything but a reflection of reality—it should be an escape into cinematic fantasy.

LCD HDTV manufacturers have been presenting viewers with enhanced frame-rates for years. Once improvements in LCD display technology lent themselves to the newer generation of 120Hz and 240Hz displays we see today, manufacturers also started adding motion smoothing features.

Plasma and CRT images never had the problems LCD had with presenting a perfectly smooth rendition of the 60Hz NTSC video standard. The original problem with LCD (particularly those LCD rear-projectors of the early 2000s) was that the pixels that couldn't move across the screen in sync with the original source material. So, a live football game shot in 60Hz might result in a jittery kick-off rather than a smooth flow of action across the screen.

Plasma and CRT are often referred to as fast display technologies and never really suffered from this problem. As a result, you’re not as likely to see motion smoothing features on those types of displays (but you WILL see marketing that takes advantage of these displays' inherent features.)

Motion smoothing goes by many different branded names depending on your LCD’s manufacturer. But technical terms for it include built-in motion interpolation technology or ME/MC – motion estimation/motion compensation. But all you really need to remember is that, when it comes to motion smoothing:

Sports = Good. Movies = Bad.

As outlined in this infographic from Panasonic, motion smoothing literally means adding artificial frames in between the frames of your 24-fps movie. It (artificially) gives your home screening of any movie the same effect viewers of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey got to witness at HFR 3D capable theaters.

Cinema Smooth Panasonic

Honestly, if the motion smoothing effect doesn’t bother you, more power to you. Some people can’t even tell if it’s switched on or off in their display. Those would be people with slightly slower sensory uptake. Physiologically-speaking, if you can’t see the effect you’re probably not genetically descended from a hunter class of stone-age man. Different people’s capacity to see things like flicker in computer monitors varies, because some of us have "hunter" eyes—like someone who can catch the merest glimpse of an animal from the corner of their eye and instantly fill in the detail that it was a white-tailed deer that disappeared into the trees. If you can’t see flicker or were never able to spot motion imperfections in older LCD panels, then maybe your ancestors were just people who were gastronomically content picking berries or scraping exotic fungi from inside the bark of trees...just a theory.

When it comes to motion smoothing: Sports = Good. Movies = Bad.

Many of us are annoyed by the motion smoothing effect and just want to make it stop. It’s so annoying the look is dubbed by many as the “Soap Opera Effect”.

The first time I saw it demonstrated at a Future Shop store in my neighborhood, I immediately felt something was wrong with the picture, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was a demo of Spiderman 3 on Blu-ray, and while the action sequences didn’t look bad, I still get chills thinking about how gaudy Tobey Maguire looked in a scene where he was just sitting there talking then standing on his feet and walking. It was the saturation of detail in the innocuous scenes that had the look of something shot on a Beta Camcorder. But it’s worse than that. The detail saturation of ordinary actions impart the hyper-vigilance you feel in the midst of a nightmare. Something terrible is going to happen, you just know it, because you’re seeing reality at far greater than 24-frames per second.

If you share my disdain for motion smoothing and love your home screenings to be as close as possible to the pure 24-fps cinematic experience, the good news is: You can shut it off.

What are you waiting for? Shut it down! Shut it all down now!

Sharp calls it Motion Enhancement, Sony calls it Motionflow and Panasonic’s name is Motion Picture Pro. You may also see names like ClearScan 240Hz on Toshiba HTDVs or CleanFrame on others. All these effects can be turned off from the regular user menu settings.


You can’t blame manufacturers for looking for the next killer-app in display technology. TV sales skyrocketed ten years ago when flat panel HDTVs became more and more affordable. The average American household with 3.1 televisions endeavored to replace them all with new HD flat panels. The TV bubble has recently deflated as most major TV manufacturers claim to be losing money, and Sony is considering getting out of the TV business completely.

It turns out that 3D has yet to be the panacea that manufacturers are looking for. It’s projected that in 2013 less than 2 percent of TVs sold will feature 3D.

But bad news for Sharp’s bottom line is good news for us consumers. Today we can buy better-quality, lower-cost TV sets than ever. I just hope TV manufacturers’ desperation for the next golden goose in the display market doesn’t have them cramming features down our throats that are supposed to fix what’s not broken.

Want a simple tool to gauge the next big-thing in video? Just picture yourself explaining its merits to Raphael.


About the author:
author portrait

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

View full profile