Have you ever been enjoying a film or TV series, only to suddenly find yourself squinting at the dark screen? Recent releases including “Euphoria,” “The Batman” and “Handmaid’s Tale,” as well as classic films including “Alien,” “Taxi Driver” and “Seven” all utilize dark imagery, but what if the visuals are simply too dark to see everything in the frame?
While dark scenes are usually due to the filmmaker’s vision, there are several factors both at movie theaters and when viewing at home that will affect the viewer’s ability to see what’s going on onscreen.
For home viewers, one culprit could be the viewing environment, according to digital imaging technician Nicholas Kay. When he goes to visit his parents’ house, he’s aghast at the butchered image quality on their television screen, which Kay believes should be as neutral as possible. As someone who spends countless hours perfecting visuals on- and off-set, he feels personally offended by the settings on his parents’ TV, from motion smoothing to brightness, which Kay said shouldn’t be turned up or down.
“They watch this stuff, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you’re killing me, like 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? This is how you’re supposed to see it!’”
The settings on a TV are just one factor when it comes to how a film is ultimately viewed. Other determinants might be the lighting in the room or the size and quality of the monitor.
Images in movie theaters, which should provide the ultimate viewing experience for cinephiles, can be just as dark as a badly adjusted home screen. Many projectors are not well maintained and even 4K resolution can fall flat.
But ultimately, the reason a movie or series seems super dark is that it’s how the filmmaker intended it to look.
A few years ago, a final battle in the “Game of Thrones” finale was criticized by many viewers for being so dark that it was impossible to 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 and said the intention was to differentiate the battle aesthetically from other scenes throughout the series. He also stressed that watching the show anywhere other than a darkened room with a neutral, large monitor was a disservice to the viewer.
Other than the viewing environment, though, Kay, a two-decade industry vet who has worked on movies including “Joker,” “Venom” and “Black Panther,” said there are practical and emotional reasons for dark images. Whether “dark” refers to the moodiness of a piece of media or its literal lack of light, the two often go hand-in-hand.
Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” takes place largely at night, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in a gloomy dystopia, and horror movies like the “Fear Street” trilogy rely on the cover of darkness to keep viewers on their toes. Those works and more have all faced criticism for being too shadowy (the West Wind Drive-In in Las Vegas told patrons that they couldn’t get a refund for “The Batman” if they found it too dark) but the alternative might be an unrealistic depiction of the plot.
“I think that a lot of cinematographers, when they do certain things like that, they’re trying to make it feel extremely truthful,” Kay said. “I don’t think the intention is to struggle to see, but there are times where I personally feel like I’m struggling, like, ‘Is it taking me out of it?’ My job really is to calibrate my eye to what the cinematographer wants it to look like.”
Of course, it’s not just newer titles that have viewers straining their eyes. Over the years, films from “Alien” (1979) to the aptly titled “Dark City” (1998), have been presented with extremely dark images. One difference, Kay says, is that those movies were shot on film, while most modern cinema is shot digitally. Even the digital remasters of those classic films might appear much flatter than the original, because 35mm film has two to three times more grains per square inch than 4K has in pixels. That means cinematographers have to get creative when it comes to crafting a unique and “organic” image.
“What they’re fighting is the sharpness and the crispness and the perfection of digital,” Kay said. “That’s what they would all say, 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 away the perfection.”
‘Euphoria’s’ Special Treatment
One of the most notable deviations from the digital landscape is Sam Levinson’s HBO teen drama “Euphoria.” The show’s second season was shot on 35mm Kodak Ektachrome, which forced Kodak to convert part of its factory to produce the discontinued film stock.
“Euphoria” has become well-known for its unique visuals, and cinematographer Marcell Rév said the stock’s film speed of 100 ISO (the metric for how much light the film picks up) forced them to light the set “like we were lighting a sitcom.” The result is an extremely textured final image that allows Rév to play with light in ways most filmmakers can’t, and he acknowledged that contrast is an important aspect of his vision.
“We were trying to do like velvety deep shadows, but I don’t think they are dark,” Rév said.” You always have very bright reference points in every image. I don’t think there are images where you’re wondering what’s on the image.”
Rév said he doesn’t believe that films are trending darker or lighter in general, but noted one inspiration in the world of film noir: David Fincher — specifically his 1995 film “Seven.”
“It’s a really dark [film],” Rév said. “That revolutionized the way they shot movies in the ‘90s, the way that [cinematographer] Darius Khondji used film stock and how he underexposed film stock and how he lit that movie. It was something so original and unique. It was in the ‘90s and it was way darker than anything I can see now in the cinema.”
In “The Batman,” Reeves and cinematographer Greig Fraser employed a technique similar to Khondji’s, where they printed the digital print of the movie onto film and used a bleach bypass to achieve a more high-contrast image. The technique marries aspects of film and digital, and creates a more textured look than most digitally shot superhero movies would allow.
As a technician who entered the industry as it was transitioning from film to digital, Kay’s job, he said, is often to help directors and cinematographers capture the essence of the films they grew up watching, trying to emulate the look and feel of film without any special treatment from Kodak.
Kay said that ever since digital has taken hold, studios have also gained more control when it comes to the final product. As a result, he said he believes many films are actually brighter than they need to be, with the exception being the works of well-known auteurs and cinematographers who have full control of the resolution and coloring of their movies. He referenced the work of his friend, cinematographer Bradford Young, who has shot films including “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018), “Arrival” (2015) and the 2019 mini-series “When They See Us,” which Kay also worked on. Those works all utilize dark imagery, but Kay said that’s entirely on purpose.
“He likes things darker, as an example of people who like to be more honest with the image, and certain scenarios and scenes are dark,” Kay said. “‘When They See Us,’ I know, was dark and smoky, but it was meant to be this organic, visceral experience where these kids are suffering.”
Lighting darker skin tones can also lead to problems for cinematographers, and the industry has only recently begun to acknowledge the inequity faced by Black actors and other people of color on screen. Many of the technologies used for lighting have been historically calibrated for white people, which is why the work of cinematographers like Young and Ava Berkofsky on “Insecure” has contributed so much to the craft.
In terms of his work on “Joker” (2019), photographed by Lawrence Sher, and “Venom” (2018), photographed by Matthew Libatique, Kay said the dark visuals were justified.
“‘Joker’ wasn’t even that dark to me,” Kay said. “It was more dark in theme. I don’t feel like you’re struggling to see it. It’s more like it takes place at night a lot of times or on subways or things like that. You know, the lights are going on and off … It’s all practically motivated.”
Beyond aesthetic or practical motivation, though, sometimes the reason for a scene’s dark lighting is much more mundane. If a movie utilizes special effects makeup or if a shot picks up lighting cables in the background, the darkness provides a great solution for hiding things that filmmakers don’t want the audience to notice. The modern techniques of CGI and VFX editing can fix the issue, but for lower budget projects, the old-school way 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, all that kind of stuff. Those prosthetics look real, because they’re in a real environment and they’re lit realistically. To light them more, you start to reveal that they’re fake.”
Adjust Your TV
But, regardless of why an image seems dim, Kay has a few tips for making sure you have the best shot at seeing a film the way it was intended. He suggested Googling the make and model of your TV set to learn how to neutralize the settings, adding, “If a window outside is pointing at your screen, you’re fighting an uphill battle.”
When it comes to your local movie theater, keep an eye out for smudged screens or washed-out picture quality, and alert the theater manager. Make a point of patronizing cinemas that prioritize the viewer experience, such as AMC’s Dolby Cinemas or Alamo Drafthouse.
When it comes to lack of control over how someone will watch one of the projects on which he spends months perfecting the imagery, Kay takes the challenges of his work in stride.
“Most people are gonna be watching this on an airplane or an iPhone anyway,” Kay said, “but that doesn’t stop you from trying.”