The Soap Opera Effect – A Glass of Its Own

HDTVs are mired in controversy these days, not merely over their impressive technological specs, but in interpreting what those specifications mean to the person devouring content in front of a piece of glass. [organic glass will blur that line]

Glass on, Glass off

Frame rates [ 60hz vs 120hz vs 240hz refresh rates, “judder”, interpolation, 3:2 pulldown, etc ]. They contribute in part to “the soap opera effect”, derived from the fact that long before digital displays, soap operas were shot on Betamax video in studios rather than with 35mm film due to the prohibitive cost of material and editing. You could slot in the video tapes (called rushes) and another smaller cassette cartridge for audio (called a DAT), and lo and behold, you have a suite shot at a TV series setup. TVs were  mostly CRTs (cathode ray tube) with a curved surface for the dispersion effect.

Digital can always be recycled and reproduced, but not analog film. You would only have the negative of a photograph to manipulate and print from, not the photo suite software we are so accustomed to. A photograph [from film] is seamless and has no dots or pixels. Motion in a 35mm movie is comfortably smooth at 24-32 frames per second.

Let’s look at the physiological/psychological reasons behind the Soap Opera effect. As humans have analog eyes, we possess “persistence of vision”. We don’t have shutters that are either mechanical (film) or electronic (video, either analog or digital). To demonstrate this phenomenon, turn on an electric fan. When stationary, individual blades are visible. Turned on, they become a blur and disappear altogether, when in motion.

Traditional film, shot at 24-32 frames/second has a shutter speed of 1/48th second (this varies by film stock, aperture and other complicated variables). At this rate, fast motion becomes a blur on film (known appropriately, as “motion blur”). You can see that on a single frame of film shot of a fast-moving object like a runner or cyclist. Our eyes accept a long series of still images, projected rapidly in sequence, as motion. We accept the motion blur as perfectly normal phenomena.

Electronic images, especially those which are digitally captured, have much higher shutter speeds, resulting in such effects as "super slo-mo" up to 5000 frames per second, which eliminates motion blur so we can see what's happening by slowing down the world with clear images.

When we have the content shot at high frame rates, played on a TV on a fixed refresh speed, we encounter a surreal effect. Varying types of reactions come from viewers, one of which is vertigo. Some respond that the “fakeness” of colour makes breezy plants look artificially generated, while others love the detail in a sci-fi movie.

The “soap opera effect” is caused by fast refresh rates [TV] and high shutter speeds [shoot equipment] and interpolation by the electronics [player]. Suddenly, we see what we couldn’t before – and can’t with our own eyes. That’s why things don’t look “real”, or look “too real”. It becomes painfully obvious because we grew up in a soaps versus film era, that we prefer motion blur – in a slower refresh rate of say 60hz, shot in the “normal” frame rate of 24fps. This makes our reality more acceptable because it better matches what our eyes see.

Modern movie production, however, use this phenomenon to good effect. In Terminator, for example, battle scenes in movies become hyper-real when nothing goes soft with motion blur, where action is in high speed, jarringly hard-edged, and super sharp, from sparks to bullets and laser pulses. We accept this “suspension of reality” because sci-fi does not have a visual benchmark that we can call normal.

Ouch, my eyes hurt!

Love and human emotional scenes carry more expressive elements than pixels can evoke. Ironically, here is when the Soap Opera effect becomes disturbing for some of us. The scenery distracts us from the focus on lovers, protagonists, or central characters who are attempting to get you to rivet your attention on their conversation, the nuances by their eyes, lips and expressions. Instead, the fireplace becomes a light show, the bricks are so close, the reflection of his gold teeth beg for attention. When a character makes a sudden move, we feel a headache. Too much of that, and we feel like throwing up.

Soon, we will experience these issues on flexible organic glass as common as walls. Already Samsung is scaling up its manufacturing plant to hyper-AmoLED standards, planning mold size to exceed 8 metres per panel width. If content and display synchronize, they might pull off one of the greatest magic tricks ever – invisible walls.

But if content does not meet the expectations of display technology, we could all be throwing up!

About felix lee

a change agent and philosopher, I have been in corporate business for about 28 years chiefly in marketing, events, PR and IT. this is a small way of sharing wisdoms in starting and re-inventing your business and running it holistically like you do with your life. i am learning to write ebooks and welcome tips from anyone who is happy to share them. please drop me a line anytime. Kindly forgive the messy housekeeping...
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