Filmmaker Mode is the Easiest and Fastest Way to Watch Movies as Their Creators Intended

Filmmaker Mode is the Easiest and Fastest Way to Watch Movies as Their Creators Intended

February 27, 2021

Is there another high-tech device other than televisions that habitually have terrible performance when you just plug them in? The reasons for TV’s default settings travesty are manifold, but the simple answer for why “dynamic” or “vivid” are often the default are so that those panels look to outshine their competitors when viewed at a big box store under garish lighting or plopped into a sunlit living room. In a world where “brighter is better” and brightness is determined by a cranked-up blue channel that trades impact for accuracy, who can blame the manufacturers for catering to the lowest denominator?

Back when we would be allowed out of doors and in community spaces, I’d be that schmuck asking the local bar or restaurant for their remote control, showing the owner how turning off motion smoothing or changing the picture setting to something a bit less jarring would be no bother to casual viewers and would help sate the likes of this author. Like many, I remain simply appalled to see these abortive attempts at picture processing being implement by default.

Even modes titled “standard” and “cinema” often crank up some of these settings ostensibly added to take a regular image and make it look like some video game. Beyond motion smoothing that interpolates frames, generating a sickly and plasticy look (not to be confused by natively captured High Frame Rate photography, of course), there are numerous gradient smoothing, de-noising and other post-processing settings meant to “fix” a native picture by glossing over perceived imperfections, smearing digital Vaseline over whatever image is being presented.

Enter Filmmaking Mode, a relatively recent development from the UHD Alliance, a group made up of television manufactures, major studios and other content producers and streamers. The intent is to have an automated process whereby when a given title is played on your TV set this mode kicks in, giving you the best possible picture without having to dive into the labyrinthine menus or to memorize esoteric settings naming conventions.

In other words, we’ve finally got a “just press play” method to get the most out of your fancy new TV.

How does it work?

All digital content has embedded meta-data, or small lines of code that are part of the stream of ones and zeros that make up the signal. Some of this data provides title or timecode information, while other elements ensure the signal synchronization. It’s relatively trivial to send an additional bit of code that flags the television set to say what kind of content is being presented, just as it does all the time with elements such as colour space to delineate between, say, Dolby Vision and generic HDR video.

On many new TV sets, Filmmaker Mode automagically switches from whatever previous setting you had dialed in to a picture setting that, basically, makes things as good as they’re going to get out of the box. This means things like aspect ratio (whether the image is zoomed or stretched), disabling overscan (a CRT-era setting where the image edges are cut off to get rid of analogue nonsense), setting the correct colour mode (often “Warm2” or some such setting that gets the closest to D6500K whitepoint, AKA not having the blue channel cranked), disabling all unnecessary elements like noise reduction, gradient smoothing or, above all, motion interprolation (the bane of all modern televisions).

Essentially, this is a purist mode, at least as intended, where you get what the filmmakers/colourists indented when they made the picture look a certain way. In a darkened room, when trying to replicate the movie theatre experience, you’re going to get as good a picture from your television as has ever been possible right out of the box without having to do anything more than leave a checkbox on to kick in Filmmaker mode when that type of content is detected.

You have two ways of implementing it – you can manually select it from your list of picture modes, or on most sets there’s an automatic setting whereby when that content is recognized it switches over, and then switches back so that your other viewing uses whatever else you’ve dialed in.

Note that Filmmaker Mode is only really standard with high dynamic range content – Dolby Vision modes on compatible sets use their own tone curves and setting to provide a different, branded method of essentially doing a similar thing. Think of Filmmaker Mode as making SDR/HDR look the best out of the box, and DolbyVision adding its own special sauce into the mix.  

Can Filmmaker Mode replace professional calibration?

For the vast majority of users, the very notion of paying someone to come in with expensive equipment to dial in specific colour levels to determine accuracy is already alien, so for the 99.9% of TV purchases, Filmmaker Mode really is a game changer. Beyond the settings it also makes the tone curves (those bits of processing code that take what’s on disc/stream and make it work with the limitations/capabilities of that particular unit) as dialed in as possible.

For those wanting the absolute best out of their set, you’re still going to want to have things dialed in even closer to the same standards used to create the content. This means you can make things pretty damn good with one click.

Why can’t my TV just look awesome without all this nonsense?

That is a more complicated question than it might first appear. Even within the same model lines, television panels have sometimes subtle and sometimes major shifts in how imagery is represented. This means there really isn’t a true one-size-fits-all for TV colour accuracy, hence the need still for calibration (either using prosumer methods or hiring a professional calibrator) to ensure that the settings of your particular set are dialed in correctly.

That said, Filmmaker Mode at the very least gives you a very good foundation, comprised (mostly) of just turning off all the bullshit. Save for what’s being done on the tone-curve front, it’s basically what anyone with five minutes in the menus can accomplish themselves by disabling the majority of post-processing.

As to why the default modes have them implemented, the fact of the matter is that in bright rooms with lots of light pollution interfering with the picture, or with bitstarved broadcasts of sporting events over broadcast, there are many that will actually prefer the lipstick-on-a-pig madness of some of the other picture settings. For movies, at least, Filmmaker Mode means that you can watch your daytime programming with the cranked brightness and blue levels, with the surreal smearing of motion interpolation fully intact, but when it comes to something cinematic, you’re treated to what’s meant to be seen.

Should I buy a TV because it has Filmmaker Mode?

Again, turning off all the nonsense doesn’t magically make a mediocre set into a competitor to the multiplex. Many other considerations are still at play, from peak brightness to black levels, from local dimming options to concerns about image persistence. Yet for an audience that’s often averse to touching a thing when unveiling their latest purchase (how many times have you seen the shipping plastic still intact along the edges of a set when visiting someone?), this picture mode does wonders to help out the set-it-and-forget-it crowd.

So, what TV should I buy?

I’ve discussed that before, but it really comes down to how big can you fit, how much can you afford, and how much movie watching means to you. Purists lean towards OLED for the latter, though there are some exceptional LCDs that often have a bigger screen for less money. Any technology can benefit from Filmmaker Mode, especially for sets where the post-processing nonsense is particularly egregious. What’s key, above all, is that what you’re watching is presented in a way as close to what’s intended as possible.

Are there any drawbacks?

For some, setting your TV to the proper default will result in what they believe to be a “worse” picture. Things that were bright and flashy now may appear a bit dull, or whites will appear a bit ruddy or muted compared to previous viewing. Viewers may be tempted to revert, going back to the amped-up imagery they’re used to. This is, of course, their prerogative, even if it gives some of us hives even thinking about making this decision.

The fact is that when you’ve been used to the amped-up, blue-ized whites and settings that crush detail and TURN EVERYTHING UP TO ELEVEN it takes some adjustment to get used to how things are supposed to be. Again, these elements aren’t up to opinion – there are clear and specifically mandated standards and benchmarks that the entire industry follows. No consumer television is going to match a professional grading monitor, but in 2021 it’s never been easier to spend a few thousand bucks and get something damn close out of the box to a pro unit that can run for many tens of thousands of dollars.

Filmmaker mode, above all, may be the best way so far of teaching viewers (through automatic switching) what things are supposed to look like, and encouraging them to acclimate to accuracy over any other consideration.

Now, go watch stuff!

Above all, you should be encouraged to explore the decades of films and programmes that you can screen on your set, ideally with the best possible picture settings dialed in to replicate the theatrical experience as close as possible. You’re never going to have the equivalent of a Cinerama or full-IMAX screen at home (though, again, we’ve never been closer to be able to do so). At its best, Filmmaker Mode means you’re going to get to see stuff looking like it should, leaving the only drama with your television set to be one of the genres of the title you play, not due to navigating the nonsense to make the movie look the way it should.

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