I got a question from a friend of mine, and I thought it might be worth sharing my answer with a wider audience. He asks:
“What’s the short answer for why new 120hz screens make films look like video? I don’t know if you have had a chance to observe this yet, but it will effect you because it makes everything look like the ‘behind the scenes’ footage on a dvd, or raw dailies. People seem to love it.”
Well, I can attest to the fact that not everyone loves it, in fact the cinemaphile/home theater boards are filled with invective regarding how this feature despoils the cinematic experience, and I completely agree with them. I’m all about respecting the filmmaker’s intent regarding how they wanted the film to look, so whatever framerate they created their program using, that’s the framerate I want to watch it at.
The reason for the difference in “look” between 24p video viewed natively and 24p video that’s been converted via 120hz digital magic is virtually identical to the difference between 24p film and 29.97 video frame rates. We’ve all grown up with juddery 24p frame rates looking “cinematic,” even though the motion sampling is, strictly speaking, pretty crude compared to what is now possible.
On the other hand, since the motion sampling of interlaced 29.97 video is effectively 60 fps, “video” motion has traditionally looked much smoother, more “real life,” or more like a TV newscast.
The newer 120hz displays use motion estimation to generate/interpolate new frames in-between the original frames of the 23.98 image stream on a DVD/Blu-ray, and so the “cinematic” motion of 24p is changed into the “non-cinematic” look we generally associate with video, all because of the introduction of a smoothness of motion where there was none before. The result, to my eye, is that classic motion pictures end up looking like a shot-on-video sitcom.
Incidentally, speaking for myself I find that the reverse can also be distracting. I’m increasingly seeing 24p-acquired video used in programs like the PBS newshour, the result being a somewhat “cinema” look within traditionally interlaced video programming, which I confess looks a bit odd. I’m just not used to it, and I believe this effect is solely based in what we’re used to.
It’s entirely possible that, someday, the next generation may get so used to 60p that 24p will be looked upon as quaintly as silent film or black & white, (at least, if James Cameron has his way). However, there are so many advantages to the low-bandwidth of 24p that I suspect, similar to interlacing, 24p motion sampling will be around for a long, long time. (And I’m not even going to get into the debate over the “intrinsic” cinematic value of shooting one’s projects 24p and 24p only, this particular article is about watching movies, not making them.)
My friend went on to reply:
I can see that showing the same thing 5 times would look different than showing me the thing, and a thing, then a half a thing mixed with half of the next thing. [My note: this is a fantastic description of 3:2 pulldown insertion] I just wasn’t expecting it to change the character of the images so much. Seems like the old way is closer to what it looks like in the theater. I wish my dvd-blu-ray player could just do 24 frames without the pulldown. You kids, give me back my vinyl 78s!
I suspect most of you already know what my reply is, but for those who don’t, I’ll enlighten you.
If you’ve got a good flat-panel display (television or projector), and especially if you’re using HDMI (and really, who isn’t anymore), you should be able to set up your player/display combo to play back actual 23.98 right now.
You usually have to enable the settings manually within your gear’s menus, but the DVD specification (and now Blu-ray) has always allowed distributors to author a DVD with an encoded 23.98 video stream—all players are supposed to do 3:2 pulldown insertion when necessary in order to display content on a non-24p-capable TV. If the TV can handle 23.98, then the player can send it directly via Component or HDMI.
So there you go. If you get a new TV and your movies look like television news, do yourself a favor and disable that pesky 120hz interpolation mode. You’ll be surprised at the difference.
Added 1/12/11—There’s an interesting thread in the comments. Nothing is ever simple! Also, it was pointed out to me that Tom Lehrer, the mathematician, songwriter, and satirist, did not in fact host the News Hour. That would be Jim Lehrer. Of course, now it’s just the News Hour, so I’ve eliminated the names altogether.
…but 15 years ago it would’ve been.
First off, GWTDT (sorry, I just can’t keep typing the whole title) is an exceptionally crafted thriller and mystery that weaves in thoughtful characterizations and startling glimpses of grotesque horror and awkward sexuality. If you can’t tell from all that, I really liked it. However, I was reflecting this afternoon that the technology used for the digital research that was portrayed throughout, and which was a major motivator of the plot, wasn’t the focus of the story. In fact, the titular character’s skills with the computer were, within the context of the story, almost prosaic despite her clear virtuosity.
This stands in stark contrast to several high-tech thrillers I’ve seen in recent years wherein any portrayal of competent computer use continues to be some kind of hyper-realized graphics and animation extravaganza, with characters pulling off ridiculous hijinks with the wave of a mouse and a few taps of the keyboard. Furthermore, “hackers” and computer experts are usually shown having superhuman analytical skills, with individual characters finding hidden codes and patterns that rooms full of Pentagon or government analysts and IT types have somehow missed. Also, the hands-on computer whizzes are typically guys.
Not so in GWTDT. I’m no command-line jockey, but I’ve had just enough experience with terminals, Unix, c-shell, and perl over the years for the computer usage montages and onscreen closeups to ring true. Even the hacking of someone’s computer remotely that constituted a significant plot point indicated nothing more esoteric then someone logging in remotely using VNC (or Screen Sharing in the parlance of Mac OS X, which all the characters were using). Sure, some clever off-screen social engineering was probably required to get the password, but that’s not implausible.
Furthermore, it’s incredibly gratifying to see the portrayal of a serious-minded young woman with intense computer and analytical skills shown in a truly modern context. She’s not a nerd, she’s not a ditz, and her mastery of technology isn’t even what distinguishes her individuality—she’s a seriously-styled goth keeping the world at arms length. Computers are what allow her to do her work, and she’s good at what she does. What makes this even more effective is the direct analogy drawn between her and the other main character, a newspaper reporter with a slightly different skillset who does exactly the same thing—deep research—sometimes using computers. In this context, the tatooed heroine’s use of technology is not shown as an obsession or lifestyle, simply a skill used to advance her other activities.
I could also rave about the rest of her portrayal, and go on and on about other absolutely terrific facets of the movie (great script, performances, and direction throughout). Sticking to the point, however, it’s simply good to see technology portrayed not gaudily, but realistically, and to see it used as a tool that helps to drive the narrative forward, and not as the point of the story. Networked technology has finally been around long enough to not seem so unusual to the average consumer, it’s high time that the movies finally caught up.
I was watching Pulp Fiction on IFC the other week (in HD, thankfully), and was reminded about one of my favorite aspects of the movie; how the script takes potentially ordinary action scenes, and makes them compelling by making them unusual. The gunfighting chase culminating in the sword-wielding rescue of Marcellus from the “rape of the rednecks” is perhaps the best example. The surprise confrontation between Bruce Willis and John Travolta (who’s sitting in the bathroom) is another. Granted, these scenes were brief, but with swords being slashed and machine guns being fired, I say they’re action scenes.
All of which made me think of the Crank movies.
Outrageous as they are (Crank 2 more delightfully so then the original), they do make a point of staging each and every action sequence as unusually as possible. The result is an audience riveted as much by “I can’t believe he’s having a gunfight while experiencing oral pleasure from his girlfriend” as by Jason Statham in a sharp suit stoically employing firearms. To be frank, I had expected both of the Crank movies to be either a) terrible, or b) a guilty pleasure. But the imaginative (and hilarious) plotting, Statham’s complete commitment to playing it straight, and its highly unusual action sequences kept my eyes on the screen for two whole installments.
Which isn’t to say this notion of unusual action staging can’t be overdone. Speaking of another movie I had no business enjoying but kind of did, Shoot ‘Em Up employed the same idea, outrageous action sequences staged in ridiculous ways. However, whereas the examples I cite in the previous movies are (by comparison) down-to-earth sequences that could plausibly be performed by a fit and practiced marksman, the sequences in Shoot ‘Em Up are utterly beyond the boundaries of any possible human achievement. While the director get points for imagination (not to mention including Monica Bellucci), I take more points away for eliminating any hope of suspension of disbelief. (And yes, I do understand that the whole point of Shoot ‘Em Up was to be completely and totally outrageous. It was.)
Now, before you tell me I’m insane for even mentioning suspension of disbelief in a post discussing the Crank movies, please note, I’m talking about the action sequences themselves, not the overall plot.
While I find myself utterly engaged by action that’s imaginative and creatively staged, I’m only truly engaged if I’ve got an emotional investment in the scene, which usually happens if I believe, in the moment, that a character is trying really hard, and has an actual chance of dying (or at least being horribly maimed). If the action is so far over the top that it triggers my “no-fucking-way” response, emotional engagement goes out the window, and at that point I’m simply watching a well-choreographed routine. Maybe fun, but not stirring.
So that’s my personal take-away on action scenes, and what I try keep in mind as I write. Keep things plausibly within the capabilities of human physiology, but stage things interestingly, and hopefully the audience will get a ride they can connect to and enjoy.