Game of Thrones: ‘Let me give you some advice, bastard: There’s a sale on at Beacon Lighting.’Halt and Catch Fire is one of the most dimly-lit dramas of recent years.
Over the years, Home and Away, and many other Australian dramas, opted for darker lighting.
A scene from the critically acclaimed HBO drama True Detective.
To many fans, Game of Thrones is too dark. Not figuratively – they literally can’t perceive what’s happening on screen. so many scenes in game of thrones are too dark and I can’t see what the hell is going on— just ty (@tysechler) May 16, 2016
In fairness, GoT’s characters don’t have cheap lighting solutions at hand. (And most are pre-occupied with bigger problems.)
But the show symbolises a bigger problem: modern TV drama is too dim. Too inky. Can someone please switch on a lamp?
There is now a whole cohort of under-lit American shows, as Kathryn VanArendonk writes in Vulture, including Mr Robot, a “murky”-looking The Americans, and Halt and Catch Fire, set in “the darkest, gloomiest California imaginable”.
Here in sunny Australia, we’ve followed suit.
High-brow thrillers such The Code on ABC opted for a grey, washed-out palette. But even our soapies have toned themselves down.
When Lynne McGranger blew into Summer Bay in 1993, taking over the Home and Away role of Irene from Jacqui Phillips, she was a peroxide blonde – and the show was equally bright. But now, Irene’s diner is lit with all the moodiness of a dive bar.
Over in Erinsborough, Neighbours producers have also ripped out the high-wattage bulbs. Even dramas such as House Husbands – while not exactly dark – can seem muted at times.
All this is especially noticeable in contrast the reality genre, which prefers bright, bold colours.
But when – and why – did TV drama kill the lights?
A lot can be traced The Sopranos – itself modelled on the moody look of The Godfather, as Matthew Dessem explains in Slate.
Compared to more recent shows, The Sopranos might not strike you as dimly-lit. But, inspired by its success, others tried to replicate its look. “Dark” became synonymous with “quality” – then everyone got carried away. Now, we need to close the curtains and squint when we watch Hannibal, True Detective or Marvel’s Daredevil.
VanArendonk argues the dark = quality device has been over-used. Besides, Mad Men was awash in brilliant colour at times and even Breaking Bad, with all its moodiness, used colour effectively.
In contrast, she says, the determination of Halt and Catch Fire producers to mute everything lends a “weirdly gloomy” feel to the series. (She singles out a scene in which a family eats breakfast in an obviously sunny kitchen that is also inexplicably grey.)
Of course, dim lighting isn’t the only technique to have its moment in, erm, the sun.
Several years ago, as hand-held technology improved, film-makers went mad for the “wobble-cam” effect. Any script with a whiff of gritty realism had to look as though it was filmed in an earthquake. But for viewers, there’s a difference between “raw” camera work and needing motion sickness pills.
Technology has also been the biggest enabler of dark TV. Indeed, the reason TV was so dazzlingly bright, for so many years, is because it needed to be.
Our old 20-inch cathode ray sets had a clarity intolerable to modern eyes. To make images seem sharper, producers filmed everything under blazing lights.
It was safer that way, too. With digital cameras, a director can instantly review her work – something that’s impossible on film. And a poorly-lit scene was damn hard to fix in the editing suite.
But one show, above all others, defined the look of 20th century television: I Love Lucy.
Bright and low-contrast, that look was invented by Metropolis cinematographer Karl Freund to solve a problem. The program’s stars, Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz, wanted to shoot on film – with a studio audience, no less. Except film was tricky, as was keeping an audience in constant laughter.
Freund found a way to allow multiple 35mm cameras to film together, without spoiling the lighting. He hung overhead lights from catwalks, hiding the cables, and attached others to the cameras themselves. Dessem explains: “The result was a show where everything was plainly illuminated, with very little shadow, and characters popped cleanly from the gray background thanks to backlighting.”
Until the explosion in high-definition TVs a decade ago, there was little motivation to play with lighting. On an analogue screen, an under-lit scene would look invariably awful.
Of course, just because a scene appears dark, it doesn’t mean it was shot that way – advances in post-production have also tinged our dramas.
Still, results vary.
Watching Game of Thrones on a 4K set, in a darkened room, is vastly different to seeing it on a glossy-iPad, on a plane, as your neighour’s reading light intrudes onto your screen.
Cheap televisions can have terrible reproduction. Poor eyesight makes a difference. And some of us are just over our favourite characters wandering around in near-blackness.
VanArendonk puts it best: “So-called ‘serious’ TV has so many tools to communicate complexity and bleakness … If the goal is to make a series hard to watch, there are lots of ways to do it. It does not also need to be hard to see.”