Why movies and shows are so dark, and what you can do about it

game of thrones

Game of Thrones “The Long Night”
picture: HBO

We’ve all been there. You’re listening to a show, often something in the fantasy or sci-fi genre, and you end up staring at the screen because you can barely make out what’s going on. game of thrones He’s a notorious repeat offender (the Season 8 episode “The Long Night” is often cited as one of the most egregious examples of this), but he’s not the only show or movie to do so. from Batman to reckless to Ozark to The Mandalorian, the same complaints appear over and over again. Is this a creative trend, a consequence of technical progress, or just bad filmmaking? We reached out to some experts for answers, and while it turns out to be a combination of all three, it seems viewers also share some of the blame for the way they view this content on their home screens.

“Where does the responsibility lie?” asks cinematographer and colorist (or colorist, since he’s Canadian) Devan Scott. If you read his Twitter feed (@SadHillDevan), it’s full of keen observations on modern and historical cinema, but we were particularly interested in his take on the increasingly pervasive dark aesthetic. “Because you know, Arrival It’s often seen as one of the key works in the genre—I mean, I make up that term—the New Darkness movement. Bradford Young, cinematographer ArrivalShe is perhaps one of the most controversial figures in the field. He also fired single, which is often brought up as a particularly dark movie. If you watch Arrival In the cinema it looks great. I mean, assuming it’s a well calibrated monitor, it looks great. But watch it at home in a lighted room, it’s almost illegible. And I think it’s just like Bradford Young and [director] Denis Villeneuve’s right to make a film designed for cinema viewing, especially in the pre-pandemic era when movie theaters were still in business. But then you have something like that one episode of game of thrones, right? Where that’s probably the only thing brought up more. I think you have a lot of things going together there. It was like a perfect storm.”

Still out of reach

Still out of reach
picture: Paramount Pictures

Paul Maletich, a digital imaging technician whose resume includes films such as Blade Runner 2049 And sideways As well as TV series such as You are And Mayfair Witches, agrees that the darkness we see is a deliberate decision on the part of the creators. “It’s an artistic choice, for sure,” says Mallich, whose job it is to make sure everything is captured correctly in place and in the raw color feed before it moves on to post-production. “Sometimes the filmmakers don’t want you to see everything. If you just pluck a cheek or pluck an eyelid, that’s probably all they want you to see. You don’t have to see the whole face. It’s intentional. Is it intentional 100 percent of the time? No, of course not.” “

Entering the Dark Ages

Why would filmmakers do this if their work is so hard to see? The short answer is that they can. In the days of 35mm film, directors had to make sure they captured everything while shooting. Their ability to adjust the image was very limited. Some notable cinematographers have experimented with light and shadow – like Gordon Willis, who did his dark cinematography for films like The Godfather It earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness” – but in general everything was brighter in the old days. All this changed when digital cameras appeared on the scene.

Scott sums it up this way: “What do artists do when they’re introduced to the new toolkit? They’ll use it. But that’s also not inevitable, is it? It’s a trend enabled by the tools, but not deterministic by them.”

Although industry-wide digital transformation was well underway by the time the Arri Alexa camera debuted in 2010, its advanced sensor and image processing took digital filmmaking to a whole new level. With this new technology, creators could produce a higher quality picture, have more control over the final look of the movie, and everyone wanted to experience the latest games. Alexa quickly became the industry standard, but that didn’t happen until the 2016 movie Arrival– Shot with Alexa – That dark aesthetic is becoming really popular. You can credit (or blame, depending on your point of view) Villeneuve and Young for starting this trend in such an amazing way, but even before those films like 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty They were showing off what the camera could do in low light.

“I think we often underestimate artistic trends,” Scott says. “Those are just two great examples of very dark scenes that had a huge impact, for example, on my generation of cinematographers. Everyone was talking about them.” Arrival For a while and so those had an effect. I mean, I get asked, “How do I make my movie look.” Arrival? ‘For two years.’

There is one final factor that contributes to poor picture quality for viewers watching streaming content: compression. In order to efficiently transmit the original video feed, which contains a huge amount of data, some information needs to be stripped before it reaches your screen. This process is handled automatically by an algorithm that basically only guesses which parts of the image are important. It is not noticeable when the image is brightly lit, but dark scenes present a greater challenge to these automated processes.


picture: Universal Pictures

Fighting darkness with darkness

The “new dark” movement, as Scott calls it, isn’t going anywhere for the time being. This leaves it up to the public to ensure they have ideal viewing conditions in their homes. There are two main variables at play here – your environment and your TV screen. Not everyone can make all of these adjustments, but even small changes can improve image quality.

The first and easiest thing viewers can do is create an environment close to the one intended by the director and cinematographer, whether it be a movie theater or a darkroom in your home.

“Something prevalent, like A CSI, the ones you’ll always see because it’s the studio that dictates it to you,” Malic says. “And they know that not every TV is the same and not everyone has the same viewing room. You know, some people watch TV in a room with windows all around. Other people watch TV in the closet. So your viewing room also has something to do with it. Our TV is in a dimly lit room with curtains. And I have a calibrator at home, because sometimes I have to watch the dailies here at home. So I need to make sure that what I’m looking at is nearly as good as what I’m seeing on set.”

Consider limiting the amount of light in the room you’re viewing. Close your blinds or blinds as much as possible, and keep light sources to a minimum. This is how people used to watch movies – in darkened cinemas where the screen was the only source of light.

“Back in the day, I mean long before I was born, movie theaters were basically completely dark spaces, because there was no such thing as exit signs,” Scott says. “You didn’t have that. So, when movie theaters were completely dark spaces, you could, in theory, have a movie so dark the audience’s eyes could adjust to it. There are other reasons why you shouldn’t, but you can. Now movie theaters have changed.” Now we actually have, you know, legally-required areas of brightness that pin the eyes of the audience, right? I mean, for good reason. I mean, I’m all for escaping fire. But then, when we start watching home, it gets really weird, right. like that? “

HDTV calibration in 5 minutes

Don’t touch this request: Changes that (might) help

The other variable that you control as a viewer is your TV’s home screen. There are plenty of useful calibration tools out there – including DVDs, YouTube videos like the one above, and this—this will help you find the right display settings for even the darkest scenes. Some of the instructions you’ll find online are super technical in nature, but we love this simple list of tips from the journalist and author Neil Miller from Film school refuses And One perfect take. Here’s what he recommends:

  • Turn off motion smoothing. This is the setting Tom Cruise calls it “the soap opera effect.” Different brands have different names for it – LG calls it “TrueMotion”, on Sony TV it’s “MotionFlow” or “Auto Motion Plus” on Samsung. If you’re not sure what your TV is called, try searching for your make and model online. Listen to Tom and turn that shit off.
  • If your TV has a feature called Movie Mode, Cinema Mode, or Movie Maker Mode, this is the feature you want to turn on. It will automatically set the brightness and contrast for you, but you can usually still adjust them manually if the result is not to your liking.
  • Raise the contrast, but not too high. You want a big difference between black and white, but if you push it too far, you’ll get glowing brightness and lose some detail in the dark.
  • Do not tend to increase the brightness. Keep it at around 50 percent.
  • Check the color temperature setting. If it’s set to “Cool,” which is often the factory setting for displaying TVs in a brightly lit retail space, change it to “Warm.”
  • If your TV has an auto light sensor or a power saving mode, turn it off as well.

This should help you identify those dark scenes if you’re having trouble seeing them properly. We don’t let filmmakers off the hook to push the boundaries of what the average viewer can see, but as long as that aesthetic remains in vogue, we’ll have to make up for it. Only time will tell if this is a rapid trend or a more permanent development. Maybe some innovative cinematographers will come along and do some amazing things with light and color, and we’ll talk after a long time about how everything got so bright. Until then, we have to learn to live with the darkness.

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