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20 Dec 2021

How to make films look better on your TV

Our TV expert reveals which settings and features will get your favourite films looking and sounding their best
Man watching film on TV

It doesn't matter how many games you buy, quizzes you print and naps you take, there will come a time over the festive period when a film is what's required to keep everyone settled and entertained with minimal effort.

Broadcasters love to fill Christmas listings with premieres of films that aren't long out of cinemas and it's the perfect time to set your TV up to make the most of them.

It's a gift to yourself that you'll benefit from into 2022 and beyond, as your TV makes the most of the dazzling visual feasts on offer from the great auteurs of the movie world (we all know you're just going to watch Beethoven and Home Alone, but you should do it anyway).

If you're in the market for a new TV there are hundreds to choose from and we've reviewed almost all of them. We'll help you easily find the right model for your budget - see our TV reviews to find your next telly.

Filmmaker mode

TV screen showing filmmaker mode logo

Speaking of great auteurs of the movie world, some of them really don't like what modern TVs do to their masterpieces.

The likes of Christoper Nolan, Paul Thomas Andersen and Tom Cruise think the processing done by TVs makes their films look overly smooth and less cinematic.

You don't have to agree, but if you have the right TV you can easily turn off all those settings and see for yourself.

If your TV has Filmmaker mode then turn it on and you'll see films as the creators intended. If you prefer the picture without Filmmaker mode, then turn it off again. Just don't tell Chris and Paul.

What if you don't have Filmmaker mode?

It's a fairly new feature and people keep their TVs for around seven years usually, so there's a good chance your TV doesn't have it.

Never fear, you can make some tweaks to simulate what Filmmaker mode is doing. The simplest one is to turn off any motion-smoothing effects. Different manufacturers have different words for these settings, but it should be easy to tell which they are (they usually include 'motion' in their name).

It gets trickier after that and you need to start tinkering with aspect ratios and more granular picture effects. It's impossible to know if any tweaks you make here are the right ones, but motion smoothing tends to be the main bugbear, so turning that off is a good start.

The other exception is sharpness - turn that to 0.

Find out which TVs excel in our tough, independent lab tests - see our pick of the best TVs for a range of budgets.

Get your base picture settings right

Take the time to set your TV picture up right and you shouldn't need to make many tweaks at all. There's always going to be some personal preference to picture settings, but we like to think we know what we're talking about.

Before you start making your own changes, we recommend adjusting your picture to our recommended settings. Do it now, we'll wait, then we can get into the weeds if you still want more advice.

Use our free picture settings tool - it has our recommended settings for every telly we've tested.

Step-by-step picture adjustment

TV screen showing picture settings

Now that you've set your picture to our recommended settings, you're probably thinking 'Wow, this is perfect'. But for those of you who want to see if you get that picture even better, follow our patented eight-step program for better picture quality.

1. Make the picture black and white

Turn off as many picture enhancement features as you can, just like Filmmaker mode does, and adjust the colour till the picture is black and white.

2. Adjust the brightness

Pick a film you like with plenty of dark sequences - a horror film is perfect, or something like Batman if you're a chicken. Next, start increasing or decreasing brightness until you can only just see detail in darker parts of the picture.

3. Sort out your contrast

It's time to move out of darkness and into the light. Choose a bright scene and start adjusting the contrast until the picture is bright without looking washed out.

4. Find a middle ground

TV picture, like life, is all about compromise - so it's time to find some. Keep switching between your bright and dark scenes and tweak the brightness and contrast until it's comfy to watch while still being able to make out detail in dark parts of the picture.

5. Adjust the backlight

You might not have a backlight if you've got an OLED, but if you do then you need to adjust it.

If your backlight is too bright, then you'll undo all that good work you did with brightness and contrast. It should look punchy and objects should pop and stand out. But you don't want anything, like river water, for example, to be glowing like they've been exposed to something radioactive.

6. Get the skin tones right

You don't want every character on screen to look ill and pallid skin tones are all too common, particularly where a TV has a propensity for yellow in its colour mix. Pause on an actor's face, ideally where there's plenty of natural light illuminating it in the shot, and adjust the colour setting until the skin looks natural and healthy.

7. Try out some colour tone presets

Neutral, vivid and cool are common colour tone presets. Give them a try to see if you have a preference. Neutral or natural will likely be the best pick, but if you prefer a warmer or cooler picture then you'll find these presets help achieve it.

8. Turn the picture enhancements back on

Do it one at a time and watch some content to see if you like what changes. Again, if you want your viewing experience to be as close to the director's as possible, then you may want to keep them turned off.

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Don't forget the sound

TV screen showing sound settings

Those precious film makers love dynamic range, which is the difference from the quietest to the loudest parts of the sound mix. To make explosions and gunshots sound beefy without blowing your eardrums, they tend to reduce the volume of things like dialogue in the mix - this increases the difference, or dynamic range.

This is great, until you can't hear what people are saying. If that's an issue for you, or you don't like those loud volume extremes, then choose a sound mode that's more balanced, or try one that increases the clarity of speech.

As with picture, it's worth experimenting. Find a film scene with quiet and loud points and pick a mode where you can hear everything clearly, but you still get as wide a range as possible between the quietest and loudest parts of the scene.

To a degree your TV is still somewhat at the mercy of how a film is mixed. Films are, understandably, mastered with a cinema in mind. Cinemas have many more speakers than a TV, so your living room experience is already at a disadvantage, but experimenting with these sound modes can help.

A Best Buy sound bar will always have a TV beat when it comes to sound, so take a look at the best sound bars to find one that will boost your TV sound. You can also use our top tips on how to hear your TV better.

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