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Soap opera effect: Tom Cruise wants you to turn it off. Here's how

If you have a newer TV, chances are it's smoothing out your movies in a way that makes them look like daytime TV.

Getting the best picture sometimes requires delving deep into your TV's menu system.

Top Gun is taking aim at a "feature" that makes cinematic movies look more like cheap YouTube videos.

Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible - Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie want you to turn off the soap opera effect when you watch movies. They even made a video about it and appended it as a sort of video quality PSA at the beginning of the Blu-ray.

So what's the soap opera effect?

The soap opera effect 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. Judging from the ratio of Cruise's tweet, it seems most people hate it.

It looks like hyperreal, ultrasmooth motion. It shows up best in pans and camera movement, although many viewers can see it in any motion. The effect is potentially welcome for some kinds of video, such as sports and reality TV. But movies, high-end scripted TV shows and many other kinds of video look -- according to most viewers, and directors like McQuarrie who actually create the movies and shows -- worse when it's applied by the TV.

Now playing: Watch this: Tom Cruise tells you the best way to watch Mission: Impossible...

TV makers: 'It's a feature, not a bug'

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. 

Read more: What is refresh rate? 

The short version: In order for high-refresh-rate TVs to be most effective, they need new, real frames to insert 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 30 and 60 frame-per-second content, this is great. Content like sports has better detail with motion, and there are minimal side effects, beyond errors and artifacts possible with cheaper or lesser motion interpolation processing.

Soap opera effect smoothing tom cruise Vizio

On Vizio TVs you'll find controls for the soap opera effect under Motion Control.

David Katzmaier/CNET

However, with 24fps content (namely Hollywood movies and most nonreality, 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). 

How to turn it off

The bad news: Every TV company has a different name for their motion interpolation processing. And in most default picture modes it's turned on. Why? Maybe because TV makers want to justify the extra price you paid for a TV with this feature built-in. Ah, progress.

The good news: With almost every TV on the market, you can turn it off. 

Step 1: Put the TV in Movie, Cinema or Calibrated mode. On most TVs this will not only eliminate or greatly reduce smoothing, it will make the picture more accurate in general, particularly colors. If Movie looks too dark, feel free to turn up the Backlight (on LCD TVs) or Brightness (on newer Sony LCD TVs) or OLED Light (on OLED TVs) until it's bright enough for you.

Step 2: Make sure smoothing is actually off. Some TVs keep the soap opera effect turned on even in Movie or Cinema mode. Not cool. CNET checked out a few of the 2018 TVs in its lab -- here's what we found, and how to make sure it's off.

  • LG: Picture settings menu > Picture Options > TruMotion: Off. On the 2018 B8 OLED TV we checked, smoothing is enabled in Cinema mode (TruMotion: Clear) but disabled in Technicolor. Expert mode.
  • Samsung: Expert settings menu > Auto Motion Plus > Off. On the 2018 Q9 we checked, smoothing is largely disabled in Movie mode (Auto Motion Plus: Custom, Judder Reduction: 3). 
  • Sony: Picture adjustments menu > Advanced settings > Motion > MotionFlow: Off or TruCinema. On the 2018 X900F we checked, smoothing is disabled in Cinema Pro mode (MotionFlow: TruCinema).
  • TCL: Picture menu > Advanced picture settings > Action smoothing: Off. On the 2018 TCL 5 series we checked, smoothing was disabled in Movie mode.
  • Vizio: Picture menu > More Picture > Motion Control > Reduce Judder: 0. On the 2018 P-Series Quantum we checked, smoothing was disabled in Calibrated and Calibrated Dark mode.
Soap opera effect smoothing tom cruise LG

In LG's high-end 2018 OLED TVs, smoothing is enabled by default in Cinema mode.

David Katzmaier/CNET

Most of these names have remained consistent over the last few years that smoothing features have been around, so if you have an earlier TV from one of these brands, you should be able to find the smoothing function with some digging.

CNET's picture settings forum is also a good way to research your particular TV's settings. Our reviews generally recommend turning the soap opera effect off entirely, although some models with custom settings adjustments can deliver improved motion resolution with no smoothing.

No matter which TV you have, it's worth getting to know where this setting is. 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.

Originally published in 2013.
Update, Dec. 5 2018: Fully updated with instructions for 2018 TVs.

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 or Google+.