The New Darkness: Why are TV shows and movies so dark these days?


It’s a perennial complaint that movies and TV shows are too dark these days. You might ask yourself if you’re imagining it; after all, don’t the people behind TV shows want us to see the content they create?

Well, you’re not imagining it. The phenomenon was dubbed “the New Darkness” by cinematographer and colorist Devan Scott. The reason for the New Darkness movement is complicated, but it comes down to one thing: technology.

Darkness has taken over our TV screens… why?

Back in the days of analogue film, if you wanted to show that something was happening at nighttime, you might light the scene dimly, but you’d lose detail. Detail disappears in darkness, so viewers wouldn’t be able to see subtle changes of expression on the actors’ faces or the designs on their costumes. But today’s advanced digital cameras can capture detail in even the lowest light. So nighttime actually looks like nighttime.

Filmmakers like Miguel Sapochnik, who directed some of the harder-to-see episodes of shows like Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, have used this technology to create dark, foreboding frames. But what, you may ask, is the point of realistic nighttime scenes if you can’t see anything? Well, in some situations, you can see something. Films that are too dark for your TV look fantastic in the cinema. Filmmakers want their movies to look as good as possible on the big screen. That can be a problem for series like Game of Thrones, which can feel like a movie even though it’s a TV show.

Then there’s streaming compression. In order to efficiently transmit the video signal, an algorithm cuts bits out. Ironically, this often means scrubbing the details out of the darkness.

Interestingly (for a given value of “interesting”), this dovetails with the reason why everyone mumbles on TV and movies now. Back in the day, recording dialogue for movies was a challenge, and required actors to enunciate everything clearly. You know that clipped vaguely New England-y manner of speaking people had in old movies? That’s called the Transatlantic accent, and it’s not a real accent, it’s an accent that was invented for the movies so the microphones could pick up what the actors were saying.

But today’s advanced microphones will pick up even the quietest of murmurs. And I guess there’s a perception that mumbling is a more naturalistic way of speaking. But again, what’s the point of being realistic and natural if you can’t hear anything?

I’d like to propose another reason for the New Darkness. This one is just my speculation, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think it’s intended to aid in the suspension of disbelief. A set is less likely to look like a set when it’s dimly lit. And on a fantasy show like Game of Thrones, you don’t want anything to look like a set.

What can we do about the New Darkness?

So, I guess the question that remains is why the New Darkness afflicts TV shows that were never meant to be seen on the big screen. Well, that calls for speculation. But I suppose it’s because the filmmakers think people can simulate cinema conditions in their living rooms. The ambient light in your living room is going to make a difference to what you see on the screen, and they can’t account for that, so they assume you’re going to shut the curtains and turn the lights off.

So, that’s the first tip to overcoming the new darkness: turn the lights down low.

The A.V. Club has a few more tips, but they mostly involve fiddling with the settings on your TV. But before you go trying to fix the darkness issue in the settings, turn off motion smoothing. Technically motion smoothing doesn’t have anything to do with the darkness issue, but it makes the picture on your TV look ugly.

So technology makes the New Darkness possible, but cinematographers are still choosing to make shows look as dark as they do. It’s a trend that could very well pass. And perhaps I am speaking too soon, but I feel like it is passing. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds recreates the primary color palette of the original series while also throwing in clean white lines, whereas the show it’s spun off from, Star Trek: Discovery, is figuratively and literally very dark. And then there’s the A24 look. The buzz-worthy production house’s signature look is pitch darkness broken up by brilliant flashes of neon color, which has inspired copycat production houses NEON and Blumhouse.

The New Darkness might be giving way to the New Color.

Next. What’s all this about Apple maybe buying Disney?. dark

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