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 presented with the new toolkit? They’re going to use it. But that’s also not inevitable, right? It’s a trend enabled by tools, but not made inevitable by them.”

Although the industrywide transition to digital was well under way by the time the Arri Alexa camera came out 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, and had more control over the final look of the film, and everyone wanted to try out the newest toys. Alexa quickly became the industry standard, but it wasn’t until the 2016 film Arrival—shot with the Alexa—that the dark aesthetic became really popular. You can credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) Villeneuve and Young for kicking off the trend in spectacular fashion, but even before that films like 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty were showing off what the camera could do in low light.

“I think that oftentimes we just straight up underrate artistic trends,” Scott says. “Those are two just large examples of very dark scenes that made a big impact on, for example, my generation of cinematographers. Everyone was talking about Arrival for a while and so those made an impact. I mean, I got asked, ‘How do I make my film look like Arrival?’ for two years.”

There’s one final factor that is contributing to poor image quality for viewers who watch content streaming: compression. In order to efficiently transmit the original video feed, which contains a massive amount of data, some information has to be stripped out before it gets to your screen. This process is automatically handled by an algorithm that’s basically just guessing what parts of the picture are important. It’s not as noticeable when an image is brightly lit, but dark scenes present more of a challenge for these automated processes.

The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans
Photo: Universal Pictures

Fighting darkness with darkness

This “New Darkness” movement, as Scott calls it, isn’t going anywhere for now. That leaves it up to the audience to ensure they have ideal viewing conditions in place in their own homes. There are two main variables at play here—your environment and your TV screen. Not everyone is able to make all of these adjustments, but even small changes can improve the quality of your picture.

The first and easiest thing viewers can do is create an environment as close to the one the director and cinematographer intended, whether that’s a movie theater or a darkened room in your home.

“Something mainstream, like a CSI, those you will always see because the studio dictates it,” Maletich says. “And they know that not everyone’s TV is the same and not everyone has the same viewing room. You know, some people watch TV in a room that has windows all around it. Other people watch TV in a closet. So your viewing room also has something to do with it. Our TV is in a room that’s dimly lit with curtains. And I have my television at home calibrated, because sometimes I have to watch dailies here at the house. So I need to make sure that what I’m looking at is almost as good as what I see on set.”

Consider limiting the amount of light in the room where you’re watching. Close your curtains or blinds whenever possible, and keep light sources to a minimum. That’s how people used to watch films—in darkened cinemas where the only source of illumination was the screen.

“Back in the day, and by back in the day I mean long before I was born, cinemas were basically perfectly dark spaces, because there was no such thing as exit signs,” Scott says. “You didn’t have that. So, back when cinemas were perfectly dark spaces, you could, theoretically, have an extremely dark film that audiences’ eyes would adjust to. There are other reasons why you wouldn’t do that, but you could. And now cinemas have changed. Now we actually have, you know, mostly legally required zones of brightness that anchor the audience’s eyes, right? I mean, for good reason. I mean, I’m all for fire escapes. But then when we get into home viewing, it gets really, really gnarly, right?”

HDTV Calibration in 5 Minutes

Do touch that dial: changes that (might) help

The other variable you have control over as a viewer is your home TV screen. There are lots of helpful calibration tools out there—including DVDs and 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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