Soap operas have a distinctive look to them in terms of motion and feel. It's a bit difficult to describe. What exactly creates this look?

I have heard it compared to High Frame Rate (HFR) films such as the 48 fps version of The Hobbit trilogy, with some describing it specifically as having a "soap opera" look to them. Is it the same thing that creates this appearance in both soap operas and HFR movies?

  • 1
    While there's overlap in answering them, this question distinctly asks regarding the soap look and HFR, while the "duplicate" one asks a different and more general question "why do soap operas have the soap opera look?" – Mr. Kennedy Apr 12 '17 at 6:22
  • @Mr.Kennedy It does seem to go into framerate issues too, though. – Napoleon Wilson Apr 12 '17 at 19:12
  • @NapoleonWilson mostly because the question is framed with a misunderstanding. – Mr. Kennedy Apr 14 '17 at 18:00

The "soap opera" look is mostly the result of budget limitations. The single biggest aspect affecting motion and feel is how the soap opera is lit.

The HFR look is just odd because we are used to 24-30fps (yes, 30i is technically 59.97 fields per second - two interlaced fields per frame - but even this looks different than 60 "progressive" frames per second). To trick the human eye into thinking an image sequence is continuous, the frame rate needs to be at least 12-18 fps to engage the persistence of vision. Film has a distinctive look not only because it displays at 24 fps, but also because of the shuttering effect where ~1/2 of the time the spectator is in darkness, such that the total cycle is 48fps, where every other "frame" is black. With video - whether progressive or interlaced - you are viewing a continuous steam of image change. You might notice that some fluorescent lights seem to flicker - they are generally cycling at lower rate than incandescents (around 18fps). The HFR look is odd in the same way that compressed digital music was odd when it first came on the scene because it was just different. Also soap operas were slow to adopt HD shooting strategies. The Guiding Light was the first to start shooting digitally in 2008.

Traditionally, the soap opera look has more to do with lighting and shooting to tape instead of film. In the analog days, shooting to tape presented some degradation of image quality with transfers prior to broadcast. A prime time series shooting on film also gained the advantage of a greater color and contrast range for the image available when shooting on film. By "lighting" I don't mean that soaps use low cycle fluorescent lights (tho fluorescents are sometimes used), I mean that instead of taking the time to light each scene and shot for consistent quality, soap operas simply light so that the scene is adequate for coverage. The main strategy here is basic three point lighting emphasizing a backlit scene such that the foreground is accentuated.

In todays production environment, the budget is the biggest contributing factor to the look, even when shooting in HD and a higher frame rate. By "look" I mean actual scene lighting, wardrobe, makeup and to a large extent, the production pace (fitting as much coverage as possible into the shortest amount of production time and doing so five days a week). In this aspect, the stage environment is similar to sit-coms which often shoot with 3 cameras in a studio, hence a limited visual palette. This alone creates a different feel than movies and some prime time shows. Also, soap operas have often developed idiosyncrasies to accommodate the constraints they are produced under, their particular use of the 180 degree line, blocking, the color palette of the scenery, the use of things like flower arrangements and crystal vases in between the camera and the actor, lots of close-ups on the actors - the idea being to accentuate the emotional impact of the performances.

See also my answer here.

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