Do HD movies look as bad as I think they do?
May 27, 2010 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Film geeks.. I'd like to know if I'm really in the minority here, since nobody else I've talked to understands. I find myself being able to quickly tell whether a major motion picture was shot on traditional film cameras or HD.. And it really bothers me.

When there is lots of movement, especially in low light, HD just looks like video. There's something about the motion blur that is so obvious and jarring, I find it looks cheap and unwatchable. I've heard others say they love HD for how real it looks, and I can't relate.

So, am I just being way too sensitive, or is this an understood problem?
posted by hanoixan to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think this is an understood problem. The technology is in its infancy and filmmakers are still figuring out how to shoot in HD. It requires different techniques, different lighting.

But as an example of good HD, I thought the movie Zodiac was shot beautifully.
posted by sharkfu at 9:10 AM on May 27, 2010

So, am I just being way too sensitive, or is this an understood problem?

This is not an either/or question. There is a difference, but the discrepancy is often not enough to lead to the conclusion that films shot on HD are cheap and unwatchable. For instance, do you not watch a Michael Mann [or insert other filmmaker here] movie because of how certain low-light or b-roll shots look? If you do, you're missing out on some good cinema.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 9:11 AM on May 27, 2010

I have this problem too, though I recognize that there is a place for the digital aesthetic in film (Michael Mann uses it well, for example, in his films that take place in modern cities - though I wasn't as fond of his use of it in Public Enemies). This is not to say that I don't find films shot (and, more importantly, projected) on film much more exciting and beautiful to watch! You are not the only one.
posted by bubukaba at 9:12 AM on May 27, 2010

Definitely not alone, but I think as was mentioned above, as the technology matures directors will use it to better effect. For me, there is a sort of uncanny valley property to most HD movies. It can be very jarring.
posted by wooh at 9:15 AM on May 27, 2010

Are you talking about the 120hz effect? Where some HDTV's look like weird soap operas? Because you can turn that off. And I do. It makes films look not like films
posted by lakerk at 9:20 AM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Many, many movies are shot digitally and relatively few go for an obviously "digital" look. Here's a small list:
posted by The Lamplighter at 9:29 AM on May 27, 2010

HD just looks like video

That's because HD is video.
posted by owtytrof at 9:35 AM on May 27, 2010

HD is video. But video shot at 24 frames per second, professionally lit, and generally treated with care looks a whole lot like film.
posted by The Lamplighter at 9:38 AM on May 27, 2010

I DEFINITELY see it. Some people don't though.

Motion, indoors, and shots of running water continue to be particular problems. There are some great video cameras, but let's face it, none of them equal film. If they did, film would be dead, because it's so massively expensive and inconvenient by comparison.

(There's a related problem, I think, where a lot of tv and filmmakers see "video" as a license to make all kinds of frankly awful artistic choices as some kind of statement. cf Soderbergh, Steven.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:49 AM on May 27, 2010

Zombieland, 2012, Get Smart, Superbad, Zohan, and other movies were shot digitally and look very film-like to me. I think directors like Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh are trying to make their movies appear video-ish for artistic reasons. With "Public Enemies" certainly, Mann wanted to make the past feel real in a way that's hard to accomplish with the standard movie look. This was done on purpose, however, and HD video doesn't have to look like that.
posted by The Lamplighter at 9:55 AM on May 27, 2010

I see it. It bugs me with certain motions. However it's confounded by the fact that the best cinematographer tend to work with film and there are lots of crappy ones using HD.

I watched THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE simply to see if the new Red systems were any better (imho, better than other things, but not perfect -- certainly not film).
posted by Gucky at 9:55 AM on May 27, 2010

Where some HDTV's look like weird soap operas?

Yeah, Sweeney Todd looked like this on my HDTV. Particularly noticeable since I'd already seen it in the theater. I notice it with other movies from time to time.
posted by hermitosis at 10:34 AM on May 27, 2010

I absolutely agree with sharkfu. Take a look at Zodiac to see HD done right. In the right hands, it's not only indistinguishable from film but gorgeous to look at.
posted by cazoo at 10:48 AM on May 27, 2010

Thanks everyone for your feedback. At least I'm not nuts. :)

For the criticism that I may be missing out on some great cinema just because I don't like the look of HD, well, sure that would be awful. I don't mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, and the quality of all the people that come together to make a film shouldn't be based on this weak link.

But, it seriously challenges my suspension of disbelief, as if the technology is continuously breaking the fourth wall. I want to say it shouldn't be the responsibility of filmmakers to be extra careful with HD to make it look good -- it should by default be as good as film, or else it's not progress. But, obviously it comes down to an investment tradeoff of whether the movie-watching public gives two shits. And from what it looks like, they're still going to buy the ticket. Sad face.
posted by hanoixan at 11:11 AM on May 27, 2010

Oh, and Zodiac is now on my list. I've already seen it, but I want to watch it again just to see how they handled it. Thanks!
posted by hanoixan at 11:12 AM on May 27, 2010

Are you sure you're not just so used to the 'film' look that you're simply being jarred by something that's different, rather than worse or better?
posted by pharm at 11:21 AM on May 27, 2010

It's an understood problem (as mentioned above.)

There is the camp of people shooting HD (usually at film frame rates of 24) to be inexpensive (or a bit more flexible).
There is the camp of people shooting HD for a 'look' (however you want to categorize that look.)

The issue is basically:
There's less dynamic range in Video (steps between black and white)
The response of video is different than film (less light capable, particularly in shadows.)

You've been educated your whole life that video = bad (low production values) vs film.

We think that the strobing that happens with a film pan = a good thing.

Don't sweat it. Good content trumps adequate production values.
posted by filmgeek at 11:24 AM on May 27, 2010

Not HD; digital. Film is as high or higher resolution that standard HD (1080P).
posted by blue_beetle at 11:41 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it's just a matter of what you're used to. Digital video is new -- most of us have been conditioned by a lifetime of watching film.

A movie which I think uses the "digital look" really effectively without trying to disguise it as film is Collateral (Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx).
posted by randomstriker at 11:57 AM on May 27, 2010

Video can actually be quite a bit more sensitive to light than film. There are ultra low-light scenes in movies now that would simply have been impossible to shoot on film. Digital does have a less dynamic range than film, and it's easy to clip highlights that film would handle much more gracefully.
posted by The Lamplighter at 11:58 AM on May 27, 2010

If you're talking about a posterization effect, are we speaking of watching movies in a theater or at home on cable television. Because the cable companies only think that we don't notice compression artifacts such as posterization of low light areas in their HD channels.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:18 PM on May 27, 2010

While I'll agree that maybe I'm just not used to it, it still doesn't feel good. I can't escape that. So I won't crap on digital anymore, and just chalk it up to aesthetic differences. After all, enough people liked the look of Collateral that my dislike of it might as well be a religious difference. :) If I wait long enough, I may accept it. But, that isn't any fun for me, and I'd like to solve it even if it isn't a "problem".

I would love to know if anyone has seen any frame-by-frame comparisons of current digital camera technology with traditional film. I found while searching, but I really want something where the frames are registered, showing the same motion/lighting.

From what I can tell, it's got to do with the response curve being very different, but more to do with film having a signature blur because of the way the mechanical shutter closes during motion. But, I'm not a DP so I can't really test that idea.
posted by hanoixan at 1:48 PM on May 27, 2010

The art of film has always involved a certain amount of deliberate distance from reality. The technology for color (of a kind) and sound existed before those things were actually implemented. To modern audience, the silence the black-and-white have a "best they could do at the time" quality. But at the time, those things were considered to be just a part of how the whole thing worked, and they helped to set the imagined reality of the created world a in a special place that, yes, made it easier for the viewer to believe in.

So yes, many people feel that DV often looks too realistic. Not in the sense of too much quality, but in the sense of reminding them too much of the reality that they actually live in.

There are ways to treat DV to make it look more like film, as well.
posted by bingo at 3:34 PM on May 27, 2010

I can also often tell if something is shot via film or digital media. Also, I don't know if this is the reason, but I find that Canadian shows (I'm CDN) look a lot "cheaper" than US shows--not sure if it's because we've been using digital (cheaper) for awhile or if it's some kind of general trend of not using filters or whatnot. Most US shows look a lot more cinematic to me than Canadian shows (which tend to look more like how US reality shows and some soaps appear).
posted by 1000monkeys at 4:23 PM on May 27, 2010

I guess I'm not clear on why you're classifying this as a problem. You seem to be pretty into film, so I would suggest that you get a book on the history of cinema and learn how technology in the medium has constantly changed. I like to watch movies from the 40s and see how they're using the new, smaller cameras on location, or noticing a very early use of a helicopter shot, or how a director uses widescreen like Cinemascope when Hollywood decided it needed that to distinguish its product from television.

Digital is really only one of many such shifts in the industry and the advantages to at least digital production are so obvious -- like color grading -- that seeing them used and how is itself part of my evaluation of a film. Being capable of noticing such things means you have some experience of film that can be an aid to enjoying it, rather than something off-putting.
posted by dhartung at 11:04 PM on May 27, 2010

On the other side of this issue, I've worked on a bunch of films in the last few years that are shot on film, but on the lowest-end film stock available - the grain is huge and the images really muddy. I think that the look is considered to be textured and gritty, but to me it looks like crap. I'll take a crisp digital image over that any day.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:46 PM on May 27, 2010

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