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Monday, July 22, 2024

Filmmakers Can Tweak Your TV Settings in More Ways Than Ever

Modern televisions are crammed full of features meant to enhance the picture. They brighten the image, hyper-saturate the colors, and smooth out the hectic onscreen action. It’s all meant to make the visuals pop when you first take the set out of the box, which is why television manufacturers often enable these settings by default. Everything may look great when you’re watching giant robots rip each other apart in a Michael Bay film, but when it’s time to settle in for a moody drama or sweeping epic, those high-octane effects can strain the eyeballs.

“Some TVs are just so overprocessed, and they’re over-brightened, and their colors are oversaturated,” says Jim Willcox, a senior electronics editor who tests TVs for Consumer Reports. “It’s fatiguing watching a TV like that. And it’s also not giving you a picture that’s really natural-looking.”

Those harsh colors and unnatural lighting effects can be toned down of course, but the settings options in modern televisions tend to be obtuse, and most viewers never take the time to navigate their set’s labyrinthian menus and dial in the proper picture.

In an effort to salvage the cinematic qualities inside the latest televisions, technical standards engineers and artists inside the film industry have developed a feature called Filmmaker Mode. It is embedded in certain models of TVs from manufacturers like LG, Samsung, HiSense, Panasonic, and Philips. The setting is meant to make movies look—as the name implies—like the filmmaker intended. No ultra-vibrant saturation, uncannily smooth frame rates, or other image-processing tricks. Just a picture that looks as close as possible to what you’d see in a movie theater, right there on your home screen.

The setting is not available on all new televisions yet, but it is gaining traction with manufacturers. Furthermore, the latest TVs can use ambient light sensors to fine-tune Filmmaker Mode’s output to make it look even better. These advancements, coupled with growing support from several major streaming platforms—which can automatically switch your television to Filmmaker Mode—have allowed the technology to proliferate.

I Feel Scene

Michael Zink is the vice president of technology at Warner Bros. He is also the president of the UHD Alliance, an industry group focused on setting standards for what constitutes Ultra HD video. For the soft-spoken executive, Filmmaker Mode has become something of a passion project.

“It really started with some of the filmmakers coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, we really have an issue with a lot of the things these TVs do,’” Zink says.

Consider motion smoothing, the cardinal sin of consumer TVs. Motion smoothing artificially boosts a TV’s frame rate to make the image, well, smoother. Most films are shot at 24 frames per second, but modern TVs can display as many as 120 frames per second; the motion-smoothing feature fills in the “missing” frames so the frames-per-second rate of the video matches what the television can display. That often gives the onscreen images an uncanny butteriness that has come to be known as the “soap opera effect.” The feature can be useful for some viewers, but most people hate it. There have been petitions for companies to ditch the feature, and celebrities like Tom Cruise have pleaded with users to turn it off. Unfortunately, the solution is nearly as complicated as the problem. Every TV manufacturer sticks motion smoothing in different places and calls it something unique, so the call to action of those PSAs essentially became “Google how to navigate your TV brand’s settings menus.” People needed a simpler option.

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In 2017, Zink met with Christopher Nolan, director of Inception, Interstellar, and a trio of Batman films. Nolan offhandedly bemoaned how terrible home TV sets made his movies look, and Zink took on the task of improving that situation as something of a personal challenge. The UHDA then reached out to dozens of directors, cinematographers, colorists, and other film industry experts to ask what would make their work look best on people’s TVs. The answer was simple: Turn off all of those post-processing settings.

“There’s no real reason not to just switch into Filmmaker Mode, simply because what it really does is it just plays the signal unaltered,” Zink says.

Filmmaker Mode eliminates motion smoothing, levels out brightness and contrast, and omits any color enhancements. It wipes those settings clean, leaving the video to play uncorrupted on your screen.

It’s one thing to get a bunch of creative types to push for a feature that would enhance their artistic visions. It’s another to go to a dozen different TV manufacturers and tell them the settings they use to market their products are in fact making movies look bad. But that’s exactly what Zink did, flying to meet with manufacturers to make the case that his way was better than whatever their marketing teams had cooked up.

It wasn’t an easy sell. TV manufacturers have all designed their own built-in settings for watching movies. As with their other modes, the names of these movie-friendly modes are all a little different: Cinema Mode, Movie Mode, True Cinema. The problem with every company calling the same thing a different name is that it leaves users befuddled. If the picture looks just good enough, chances are you won’t bother to hunt through the menu settings to make it look just a bit better.

“Companies need to do that to differentiate themselves,” says Michael Hoog, chair of the UHDA Promotions Working Group. “But on some level, we’ve got to have some sort of cohesion around some things in the industry.”

After initial industry resistance, a number of manufacturers got on board. LG, Panasonic, and Samsung have all released TVs with Filmmaker Mode built in, and support is growing with each product generation. Importantly, the feature has the exact same name across devices to boost recognition and make it easier for curious viewers to find. But some streaming platforms are taking things a step further.

Recently, services like Amazon Prime have started sending metadata that can force a compatible TV set to automatically switch to Filmmaker Mode when you start watching a movie. It makes changing modes as simple as Zink and the others pushing the setting hoped it would be. While it’s an optional setting, it's also liable to raise some hackles. For starters, some people will object to any changes to their picture settings. Even if the feature makes the image look how it is “supposed” to, it’s still taking control out of your hands and giving it to a company that decides how to fine tune it. And some people may not like how Filmmaker Mode looks.

Demo Graphics

Zink gave me a demonstration of Filmmaker Mode at the Dolby Labs office building in Sunnyvale, California. He played a movie on the giant wall-mounted TV, toggling the setting on and off to show the difference. The film, appropriately, was the Christopher Nolan war epic Dunkirk. When Zink switched Filmmaker Mode on, the picture grew dimmer. The colors took on a gray hue and became more washed out. When the characters on the screen moved about, there was no motion smoothing and no forced high frame rate. Filmmaker Mode also made it easier to spot the judder—the flickering between frames that comes at lower frame rates—but it looked quite nice and cinematic in the dark room. In a brighter setting, say, a living room with bad lighting, the picture might not pop off the screen the way it does when the saturation and frame rate have been ratcheted up to 11. If you’re used to that enhanced picture or you can’t control your lighting settings, it may feel like Filmmaker Mode is actually making what you’re watching look worse.

Willcox, the TV tester, says that in his experience, Filmmaker Mode makes the image look better. “There’s always a tradeoff with things,” Willcox says, adding, “I’m not always a fan of companies forcing consumers to watch things a certain way. But I think for the majority of consumers it’s a benefit.”

Earlier this year, the UHDA started working on a new component of Filmmaker Mode that uses ambient light sensors in TV sets to adjust the image to different lighting situations. The goal is to reduce the darker look in brighter rooms. The streaming services also make it possible to just turn Filmmaker Mode off yourself, though that does require the same kind of menu-diving effort Zink and the others sought to end.

Zink likens Filmmaker Mode to ordering a steak at a restaurant. The kitchen would prefer to prepare your steak medium rare—just as a good steak should be cooked—every single time. You’re welcome to order it well done, slop a little ketchup on there, or ruin it in some other creative way. But the chef wants you to eat it the way they know it tastes best.

Updated 11/29/2022 at 10:00am: Corrected some mischaracterizations of how Filmmaker Mode works. FMM is not yet available on Vizio TVs or HBO Max, and it is an optional setting in Amazon Prime. Also, Zink first talked to Nolan in 2017, and a broader conversation about the mode followed in 2018.

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