Have you ever enjoyed a movie or TV series only to suddenly squint at the dark screen? Recent releases like Euphoria, The Batman, and Handmaid’s Tale, as well as classic films like Alien, Taxi Driver, and Seven all use dark imagery, but what if the visuals are just too dark for it? see everything in the frame?
While dark scenes are usually due to the filmmaker’s vision, in both cinemas and the home there are several factors that affect the viewer’s ability to see what’s happening on screen.
According to digital imaging technician Nicholas Kay, one culprit for home viewers could be the viewing environment. Visiting his parents’ home, he is appalled at the butchered image quality on their TV screen, which Kay says should be as neutral as possible. As someone who spends countless hours perfecting visual effects on and off set, he feels personally offended by the settings on his parents’ TV, from motion smoothing to brightness, which Kay says shouldn’t be turned up or down .
“You look at this stuff and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, you’re killing me, please let me help you,'” Kay said. “And then I help them and they’re like, ‘Oh, what happened?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, what happened? That’s how it’s supposed to be looked at!'”
The settings on a TV are only one factor in how a movie is ultimately viewed. Other determinants can be the lighting in the room or the size and quality of the monitor.
Pictures in cinemas designed to offer cinephiles the ultimate viewing experience can be just as dark as a poorly adjusted home screen. Many projectors are not well maintained and even 4K resolution can fail.
But ultimately, a movie or series appears super dark because the filmmaker intended it that way.
A few years ago, the final fight in the Game of Thrones finale was criticized by many viewers for being so dark you couldn’t see what was going on. Cinematographer Fabian Wagner defended his work at the time, telling Wired, “Everything we wanted people to see is there.” He also pointed out that the scene was shot at night, saying the intention was to set the fight apart aesthetically from other scenes throughout the series. He also stressed that watching the show anywhere other than in a darkened room with a neutral, large monitor would be detrimental to the viewer.
Aside from the viewing environment, Kay, an industry veteran who has worked on films like Joker, Venom, and Black Panther for two decades, said there are practical and emotional reasons for dark images. Whether “dark” refers to a medium’s moodiness or its literal lack of light, the two often go hand in hand.
Matt Reeves’ The Batman is mostly set at night, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dark dystopia, and horror films like the Fear Street trilogy rely on the cover of darkness to keep viewers on their toes. These works and more have all been criticized for being too shady (the West Wind Drive-In in Las Vegas told guests that they couldn’t get a refund for “The Batman” if they found it too dark), but the alternative could be an unrealistic portrayal of the plot.
“I think a lot of cinematographers, when they’re doing certain things like that, try to make it feel extremely real,” Kay said. “I don’t think the intent is to fight to see, but there are times when I personally feel like I’m fighting, like, ‘Is it taking me out?’ My job is really to calibrate my eye to how the cameraman wants it to look.”
Of course, it’s not just newer titles that give viewers eyestrain. Over the years, films from Alien (1979) to the aptly titled Dark City (1998) have been presented with extremely dark imagery. One difference, says Kay, is that these movies were shot on film, while modern cinema is now shot digitally. Even the digital remasters of these classic films can appear much flatter than the original, as 35mm film has two to three times more grains per square inch than 4K film in pixels. This means cinematographers have to get creative when it comes to creating a unique and “organic” image.
“What they’re fighting against is the sharpness and crispness and perfection of the digital,” Kay said. “They’d all say that, and that’s why they want to shoot on film or that’s why they want to use a lot of smoke and filters — to basically take the perfection.”
‘Euphoria’s’ Special Treatment
One of the most notable departures from the digital landscape is Sam Levinson’s HBO teen drama Euphoria. The show’s second season was shot on a 35mm Kodak Ektachrome, forcing Kodak to rebuild part of its factory to produce the discontinued footage.
Euphoria has become known for its unique visuals, and cinematographer Marcell Rév said the stock’s 100 ISO film speed (the measure of how much light the film picks up) forced them to light the set “like we were doing a sitcom illuminate.” The result is an extremely textured final image that allows Rév to play with light in ways filmmakers can’t now, and he realized that contrast was an important aspect of his vision.
“We tried to make velvety deep shadows, but I don’t think they’re dark,” Rév said. They always have very bright reference points in each image. I don’t think there are pictures that make you wonder what’s in the picture.”
Rév said he doesn’t think films are getting darker or lighter in general, but noted one inspiration in the world of film noir: David Fincher – specifically his 1995 film Seven.
“It’s really dark [film]’ Rev said. ‘It revolutionized the way they made movies in the ’90s [cinematographer] Darius Khondji used film material and how he underexposed film material and how he lit this film. It was something so original and unique. This was in the 90’s and much darker than anything I can see in cinemas now.”
In “The Batman,” Reeves and cinematographer Greig Fraser used a technique similar to Khondji’s, in which they printed the film’s digital print onto film and used a bleach-bypass to achieve a higher-contrast image. the technology combines aspects of film and digital and creates a more structured look than now digitally shot superhero films would allow.
A technician who entered the industry as it transitioned from film to digital, Kay’s job often involves helping directors and cinematographers capture the essence of the films they grew up watching and trying to match the look and feel of films without imitating any special treatment by Kodak.
Kay said that since digitization has taken hold, studios have also gained more control over the end product. As a result, they believe that many films are actually brighter than they need to be, except for the works of well-known writers and cinematographers, who have full control over their films’ resolution and coloring. He cited the work of his friend, cinematographer Bradford Young, who has directed films such as Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), Arrival (2015) and the 2019 mini-series When They See Us, which Kay also worked. These works all use dark imagery, but Kay said that was entirely intentional.
“He likes darker things, as an example of people who like to be more honest with the picture, and certain scenarios and scenes are dark,” Kay said. “‘When They See Us,’ I know it was dark and smoky, but it should be that organic, visceral experience that these kids suffer from.”
Lighting darker skin tones can also cause problems for cinematographers, and the industry has only recently begun to recognize the injustice black actors and other people of color face on screen. Many of the technologies used for lighting have historically been calibrated for whites, which is why the work of cinematographers like Young and Ava Berkofsky on “Insecure” added so much to the craft.
Referring to his work on Joker (2019), photographed by Lawrence Sher, and Venom (2018), photographed by Matthew Libatique, Kay said the dark images were justified.
“The ‘Joker’ wasn’t even that dark to me,” Kay said. “The subject was darker. I don’t feel you have trouble seeing it. It’s more that it often takes place at night or on subways or something. You know, the lights go on and off… It’s all practically motivated.”
Aside from the aesthetic or practical motivation, however, the reason a scene is dimly lit is sometimes much more mundane. When a film uses special effects makeup, or when a shot includes lighting wires in the background, darkness provides a great solution for hiding things that filmmakers don’t want audiences to notice. The modern techniques of CGI and VFX editing can fix the problem, but for lower-budget projects, the old-school route is often much easier.
“‘Just Paint It Black’ is literally the answer to everything,” Kay said. “Alien is a great example of hiding things like prosthetics and all that stuff. These prosthetics look real because they are in a real environment and are realistically lit. To ignite them more, you start revealing that they are fake. ”
Adjust your TV
But regardless of why an image seems faint, Kay has a few tips to ensure you have the best chance of seeing a movie the way it was intended. He suggested Googling your TV’s make and model to learn how to neutralize the settings, adding, “If there’s a window outside pointing at your screen, you’re fighting an uphill battle.”
When it comes to your local cinema, watch out for smudged screens or washed out picture quality and notify the cinema manager. Be sure to patronize cinemas that prioritize the viewer experience, like AMC’s Dolby Cinemas or Alamo Drafthouse.
When it comes to a lack of control over how someone looks at one of the projects he spends months perfecting the imagery on, Kay takes on the challenges of his work with ease.
“Most people are going to watch this on a plane or on an iPhone anyway,” Kay said, “but that doesn’t stop you from trying.”