Do movies look weird on your new TV? Does everything have a hyper-real, ultra-smooth motion to it? Are you sure something is happening with the TV's image you don't like, but you can't figure out what?
Chances are, what you're seeing is called the "Soap Opera Effect," as descriptive a moniker as we get in tech, in that this feature makes everything on your TV look like a cheap soap opera.
Here's what it is, what it does, and how to turn it off.
The Soap Opera Effect, or SOE, is actually a feature of many modern televisions. It's called "motion smoothing," "motion interpolation," or "ME/MC" for motion estimation/motion compensation. Some people don't notice it, some don't mind it, and a few even like it. From e-mails and article comments I've read, it seems most people hate it.
This motion "whatever" was ostensibly developed to help decrease apparent motion blur on LCDs. All LCD TVs have difficulty with motion resolution. Which is to say, any object onscreen that's in motion will be less detailed (slightly blurry) compared with that same object when stationary. High-refresh-rate LCDs (120Hz and 240Hz) were developed to combat this problem. Check out "What is refresh rate" for a more in-depth description of this. The short version: in order for high-refresh-rate TVs to be most effective, they need new, real frames to insert in-between the original frames.
Thanks to speedy processors, TVs can "guess" what's happening between the frames captured by the camera originally. These new frames are a hybrid of the frame before and the frame after. By creating these frames, motion blur is reduced. With 30fps and 60fps content, this is great. Content like sports have better detail with motion, and there are minimal side effects (beyond errors/artifacts possible with cheaper/lesser motion interpolation processing).
However, with 24fps content (namely Hollywood movies and most nonreality, prime-time TV shows like sitcoms and dramas), there's a problem. The cadence of film, and the associated blurring of the slower frame rate's image, is linked to the perception of fiction. Check out the scathing reviews of the high frame rate version of "The Hobbit" for proof of that. Even if this perception seems grandiose -- the look of 24fps is expected with movies and fiction TV shows. Even though the TV and movie industries have been moving away from shooting on actual film, the new digital cameras are set for 24fps because the audience for fictional programming expects that look.
SOE messes with this cadence. By creating new frames between the 24 original frames, it causes it to look like 30fps or 60fps content. In other words, it makes movies (24fps) look like soap operas (30/60fps). And thus, a name is born.
By any other name
Every TV company has a different name for their motion interpolation processing. A sort list: Sony MotionFlow, Samsung Auto Motion Plus, Sharp AquoMotion, Toshiba ClearFrame or ClearScan, Vizio Smooth Motion, and LG TruMotion. I sense a theme.
While reducing motion blur is the main reason this processing exists, the (possibly) beneficial side effect is reducing the 2:3 judder noticeable on fast pans in 24fps content. The process of converting 24fps content for 60fps televisions involves a 2:3 sequence. The first frame is shown twice, the second frame three times, the third twice, and so on. Check out "1080i and 1080p are the same resolution" for a more detailed description. Because this sequence is, well, weird, camera pans can look jerky or juddery. Motion interpolation smooths this out. This is one of the reasons why some people prefer the SOE.
Nearly all companies allow you to disable SOE, and most allow you to adjust its intensity. Some separate out the blur reduction from the judder reduction, though personally I've found SOE at any level to be distracting.
Up until recently SOE has been an LCD-only "issue." In the effort to make plasmas more competitive in a retail store, motion smoothing circuitry has found its way into plasmas. Because plasma TVs don't suffer from the motion blur problems that LCDs have (or at least, not to the extent), motion smoothing is largely superfluous. For that matter, plasmas aren't increasing their refresh rates to insert new frames, so all that's really happening is the TV is creating new frames to insert in-between the film frames, just to make the motion smoother.
Panasonic, for example, calls its version of this Cinema Smoother. On its LCDs, you can find it under "Motion Picture Setting."
The best part about the Soap Opera Effect is if you don't like it, you can turn it off. A few minutes digging though your TV's picture settings, and you should be able to find it. Get to know where this setting is (it's probably on the remote, too). It's possible you'll want it on when you're watching sports, or other "video"-based content (30fps or 60fps). Then, for movies and fictional TV programming, you can turn it off. This will give you the best-of-both worlds approach with minimal motion blur with sports, and no SOE with movies.
With plasma TVs, though, there is little penalty to turning this "feature" off. So go ahead.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like HDMI cables, LED LCD vs. plasma, Active vs Passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you which TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.