April 29, 2019

Was the Battle of Winterfell Too Dark?

Many fans and critics complained that the battle of Winterfell was "too dark to see what was going on," but was it?

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.]

Last night's episodes of Game of Thrones, "The Long Night," detailed the final battle against the Night King and his army of White Walkers, an army of undead snow zombies determined to eradicate mankind.

Taking place over one very long night, the battle left many fans complaining that the battle was too dark and that they couldn't see key information during important sequences. While some of the disorientation was clearly deliberately included to help with the sensation of an overwhelming battle, it is showing up in practically every review of the episode. 

So what was going on?

The HBO Now thumbnail for the episode is perfectly visible.

Shot by Fabian Wagner, and likely graded by longtime colorist Joe Finley of SIM/Chainsaw, who has been the colorist for the majority of the show up to last weeks "A Night of the Seven Kingdoms," under the direction of Miguel Sopachnik, the episode was visually stunning throughout.

While nighttime episodes are always tricky, especially in "historical" projects lit entirely by firelight or, in this case, the fire of dragon's breath, this episode did have something going for it in that the enemy is defined by its shiny white look, so white it's even in the name: the "white walkers." 

That bright reflective white can be very helpful in night scenes since the contrast between the shiny white reflection and the night around it needs less backlighting (and light, in general) to be seen. For instance, the dragons against the night sky were harder to view than the night king.  

The reason?  Because most TVs are terrible, and almost all come setup wrong from the factory.

Many readers are likely arguing right now. "But, most things look fine! Football always looks okay on my set!" And they might be right. 

The problem is that "brightness" isn't linear. You can have a TV that shows the "brighter" parts of frame at the right brightness level, but the way it handles the shadow area of frame isn't the same as the way it's handled on the calibrated monitor in the post suite. While "contrast" controls can help this somewhat, it generally involves a complicated process of manipulating all the picture controls in your menu in order to see the darker areas of frame properly.  If not set correctly, the black areas of an image can "crush," with information disappearing into the shadows.

This image of Davos illustrates this well.  While on two differently setup TVs the fire might look identical if they are putting out similar brightness, the way their gamma curve is mapped can make the shadow areas wildly different. 

On properly setup TVs, you can see detail and expressions on Davos's face. On other TVs, the former smuggler is a silhouette. 

Many users turned their TV to "Vivid" mid-episode to compensate and ended up with an overall brighter image that likely didn't look more like the image was intended to look, but at least let them see story information. Post pros try to compensate for this, but there are just too many different TVs and ways for them to be set wrong to possibly make it look good on every single one.

The good news for viewers is that modern TVs are getting much, much better. There are many televisions under $1000 that are capable of displaying images somewhat accurately, which was something that just wasn't true even 2 years ago. And any TV, with some time and a good calibration disc or system, can get much closer than the "out of the box" settings, though even the factory default settings are better and better if you turn off "motion smoothing." 

This is also something post professionals understand and it's a constant balancing act. For instance, on our well-calibrated home TV, most of The Long Night looked too bright, and I found myself thinking, "Oh, I bet they watched this on a dozen different home TVs to find the right balance of looking too bright on a calibrated monitor and too dark in some home setups."  Especially since things often look a little dark on a computer monitor, it's always exceptionally hard to find the right balance and often you make it brighter in the grade than you would ideally want to be "safe" for other situations. 

It is one of the major frustrations of filmmaking to not be able to control the home experience with the consistency that we see in proper theatrical projection.

From where we stand, watching on an affordable TV, we didn't think the episode was too dark at all and thought it occasionally was too bright. But, we understood they were playing it safe.  However, these frame grabs, from a desktop computer playing video through a web browser, are obviously too dark to really see what is going on. 

What do you think? Was the episode too dark on your screen? Will you be calibrating, or at least turning your monitor to "vivid," before the rest of the season?     

Your Comment

41 Comments

I thought it was the most beautiful episode of the series. If it had suffered from bad editing (it didn't), the occasionally near-silhouetted shots could have been difficult to follow. But the lighting made sense for the setting, and when watched in the dark on a decent TV, it looked excellent. Unrealistic lighting and CGI takes me out of the action fairly quickly, and I thought this episode shined in both departments.

April 29, 2019 at 12:04PM

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Totally agree with your astute comment and said so in my comment
Adrian

May 6, 2019 at 10:03AM

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If there are a ton of people complaining and there are articles written about it here and on not only entertainment, but also news sites like The Washington Post, then the answer is: yes, it was too dark.

April 29, 2019 at 2:00PM

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Brian Paris
Digital Storyteller and Trainer
10

Amen

April 29, 2019 at 4:35PM

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If decisions were made using that criteria the world would be mad and run by idiots... oh wait....

But I hope to god they don't "fix" it as it was gorgeous on my properly setup rig. Just because everyone is wrong does not make their wrong right.

April 29, 2019 at 7:37PM

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Stephen A van Vuuren
Filmmaker
491

Ageed. Just because there is a lot of idiots, doesn’t mean they’re not idiots

April 29, 2019 at 8:28PM

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Marcus Cropp
Cinematographer
21

If you had trouble viewing then one solution is to increase the contrast of your TV, but only just a fraction. Ironically this makes the dark parts even a little darker but the brighter areas slightly brighter. It improves overall viewing perception and eliminates some of the banding issues. Don't try to increase the detail in the blacks, it only makes it worse.

May 1, 2019 at 4:45AM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1757

Okay. Be persuaded by multiple "news" sites rather than take it for what it is. A new and realistic way to show battle (do you think they had spot lights back then??) that was pretty aesthetically pleasing. Seems most people are happy.. perhaps you should stick to your Ice Ages and SpiderMans if you want glammed up trash.

May 6, 2019 at 3:17PM

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Yes it was too dark on my 65-inch television compared to windows surface or apple mac. Overall I had tough time watching some scenes on the TV. How do we fix it ? Is there a TV setting or is it possible to fix it during the rendering or color grading ?

April 29, 2019 at 4:05PM, Edited April 29, 4:05PM

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Kalyan Palla
Producer/Director/Screenwriter
106

calibrate to Rec709 2.4 gamma and watch in low light per Rec709.

April 29, 2019 at 7:38PM

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Stephen A van Vuuren
Filmmaker
491

Blaming televisions?
D!€K move.
I have a color grading monitor i watched it on and it was DARK
Dumbass

April 29, 2019 at 4:24PM

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You have a color grading monitor and you've never had to deal with incorrectly set tv's or monitors your clients have and them complaining about images that look great on your setup? I watched on my flanders and an LG c7 both calibrated and I thought it was well done dark grading. From an intent perspective, the whole point is that it's a battle at night with sequences where the characters couldn't see everything they needed to. Was it dark? Yes, but if we just avoid ever doing dark content that's a shame for storytelling.

I actually have another theory, that there were multiple encodes done of the episode and some platforms were way worse than others. Streaming it live over crave(canadian provider of HBO for streaming) it was incredible, but rewatching at my friends place it was macroblocking like hell in the blacks. The crypt scenes were particularly bad.

April 30, 2019 at 12:50PM

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Brendon Rathbone
Colorist
172

This. I also have a properly calibrated LG C7 OLED, but I found the episode horribly dark and of awful visual fidelity. The banding was the worst banding I've seen on a television scene for years and completely spoiled the episode

Why? Because NowTV in the UK provides a terrible low quality compression codec and sadly one of only two ways to view it right now.

I at least understand that on Blu-ray this would be totally different experience that would much more closely represent the DP's vision. Sadly a huge amount of viewers facing this issue won't undertand that and all they'll see is a murky, pixellated, banding image through which following the action becomes incredible difficult.

Frankly I'm very suprised that NFS is blaming TV's. Whilst an issue, from everything I've read online the issues and major consensus pointa towards terrible compression being the issue and even buying a state-of-the-art new OLED screen wouldn't help those people, like me. The pressure here needs to be on distributers on streaming platforms to make higher fideltiy options available, even at a potentially high cost if needs be e.g. offline, multi-gigabye downloads.

As an aside I thought the whole flow of the episode, the narrative it told and the excitement it lacked equally problematic but that's a whole other story! Battled of Basterds was vastly more impressive.

April 30, 2019 at 5:49PM

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James Malamatinas
2nd Assistant Camera
94

Interesting read! I didn't think about tv settings actually. It was dark but in a right way, telling the story of a battle during the night, so great that I didn't have the time to think about changing anything. It was a dark episode anyway. So no it wasn't "too dark", it was perfectly dark.

April 29, 2019 at 4:40PM, Edited April 29, 4:41PM

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Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer
407

Watched on my laptop using HBONow. I was disappointed. Reminded me of Alien vs. Predator

April 29, 2019 at 5:20PM

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Color is a super difficult thing. Even keeping color fidelity throughout your encodes is a tedious process. Then factor into it that they are likely making one deliverable file for upload. TVs and computer monitors tend to default to different color spaces (a lot of computers are at P3 while TVs tend to be rec 709) so they are not covering all their bases. Then lets say for example you take a still and put it into your news story like you did above, that still is likely sRGB which puts it into another color space making that representation even further from the correct setting. So for example the stills in the story above are likely a sRGB still of footage graded for a rec 709 displayed that you are seeing on a computer monitor that is P3.

April 29, 2019 at 6:21PM

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Joe Hughes
Editor / VFX
168

I'm glad they didn't shoot in widescreen......there'd be plenty of complaints about top and bottom black bars from the same mentally challenged folks with a)......a bad tv b)..... bad streaming..... or those who have just become far too used to watching the current trend of flatly graded meh and are simply lacking taste..... and an appreciation of other people's choices (who ARE in a better position to be making them).

They should just make a Game of Thrones "Choose your own adventure" series featuring a Kardashian as the main 'actor'.

April 29, 2019 at 6:44PM

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We watched it where we watch all GOT - on our 110" screen served with a Sony 4K HDR projector in our basement studio post screening setup that is calibrated. It was f*****ing beautiful and never occurred to us that "too dark" complaints would be coming. The episode was called "The Long Night". But hopefully it motivates a lot of folks to get their TV's setup and starting watching in lower light.

April 29, 2019 at 7:34PM

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Stephen A van Vuuren
Filmmaker
491

For me the problem was the horrible banding I got.

April 29, 2019 at 7:57PM

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I loved the episode and I didn't think it was to dark for my or any TV set, but it was too heavily compressed there were parts where all I could see was compression artifacts! This is was real issue that has to be adressed by the content distributor, in my case it was sky germany. But for example I've never had this issue with Netflix or amazon prime!

April 30, 2019 at 2:16AM

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I’ve seen it in a calibrated good TV and it was too dark. You can do very artistic cinematography with silouetes, rim light, eye light, etc but if you have a mass of black and no difference between characters and background it just look BAD. Seems like one of those student films that shoot night scenes straight in the open with no light whatsoever. Besides, when I think the amount of money invested in the battle scene, extras, equipment, directing, etc, etc in such a top TV show to see NOTHING, it makes me thing I’ve been conned. Either is a stupid stylistic decision or there has been some big problem that had to be darkened. There are many night scenes in GOT in previous episodes that are not this crap. Very disappointed. Hope the Bluray edition corrects that.

April 30, 2019 at 4:09AM

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Javier Diez
Director/Writer
204

It wasn't too dark. It was too compressed

April 30, 2019 at 10:09AM

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Totally agree. Some episodes of Twin Peaks S3 were also really dark and looked like blocky storms of noise. The Blu-Ray looked perfect, which i knew it would simply because for the compression ratio.

April 30, 2019 at 12:45PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
244

Just throwing it out there, if you've ever been somewhere its snowed over, even with a small amount of moonlight, reflecting off the white snow it is anything but dark.

April 30, 2019 at 11:14AM

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rehan
81

If it's graded dark (which it was), then the way to watch it was with the lights out.

Thats a big ask for a TV show, but I heard about all this before I watched, turned out the lights, and all was fine.

It had the added bonus of making any scenes with fire all that more impressive, which I think was another intended effect.

So yes, it was too dark for viewing on your phone in daylight while waiting to get your car washed. Or daylight viewing in your living room. Or most casual viewing cases. But they made a creative decision that required some cooperation on the viewers part. I back it.

April 30, 2019 at 11:42AM

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I'm of mixed feeling about this. On one hand, maybe it's better to cater to what the majority of viewers have (but never to phone watchers!). It sucks how badly manufacturers set of the default settings for almost all TV screens. Why? Why make it so hard to get an accurate picture?

But for me, none of the show I watched looked anything like the dark frames shown in the article. But then again I have one of the last great plasma screens and have spent MANY hours tweaking the hell out of the display (and at least once a year re-visit to check for drift). I always use really dark movies as my reference points; The Matrix is always a good one.

That said, the show also was (as almost streaming shows are) pretty highly compressed, and certain scenes had some pretty ugly noise and dropped off hard to black. I'd bet if you viewed the same ep on Blu-Ray it'd look great and not nearly so dark. Mostly I fault the editors here and not the DP- they should know better and plan for screens that are less than state of the art, at least a little! Doesn't anyone do some reviews beforehand on other screens?

April 30, 2019 at 12:42PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
244

I think the biggest problem was the compression of TV broadcasting and online services. Whilst alot of countries may have had access to some high bitrate, better compressed outputs of GoT, many outlets did suffer from the shadow detail being absolutely lost in compression, and I think this is where that "too dark" feedback was coming from.

May 1, 2019 at 12:10AM, Edited May 1, 12:10AM

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Shayne Archer
Director Of Photography
80

If you had trouble viewing then one solution is to increase the contrast of your TV, but only just a fraction. Ironically this makes the dark parts even a little darker but the brighter areas slightly brighter. It improves overall viewing perception and eliminates some of the banding issues. Don't try to increase the detail in the blacks, it only makes it worse.

May 1, 2019 at 4:44AM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1757

I think the "rage" of ton of people isn't about the darkness level more about that HBO made a content that wasn't 'available' for everyone who paid for it...I couldn't watch the stream on laptop, I had to switch to tablet where it was crushed also...If they would have sell tickets to cinema, sure be as dark as hell, but if it's an online stream and TV make it visible for everyone!

May 1, 2019 at 11:13PM

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If you want to see dark/night scenes graded well, watch episodes of the two season Netflix drama, "Marco Polo." Exquisite on my ten year old middlin' LG TV!

May 2, 2019 at 2:15PM

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Rob Reiter
Commander Of The Realm
162

Yes.

May 2, 2019 at 2:35PM

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Mickey Rodriguez
Senior Colorist
1

It is the Cinematographer and Colorists' responsibility to ensure that the majority of the public can view their product. And while it is always challenging to crush the dynamic range into the range of a standard home television- that is their #1 goal. If the audience can't see it, who cares what is shot. If half the audience can't see it, then it is a fail.
So yes- it was too dark and it was a fail by the crew. Putting the blame on the fact that I don't have a super high def TV and super high dynamic range on my computer monitor, only plays into the mistakes made.

May 2, 2019 at 3:17PM

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The way your TV is calibrated is not as important as the codecs and compression used by your service provider. All the comments attest to that. Putting it in film terms, it's like blaming the DP because the trainee delivering the print to the cinema fell over with his scooter and scratched the print.

May 2, 2019 at 3:30PM

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Roger Simonsz
Director / DoP
6

Yes.

May 2, 2019 at 4:41PM

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I was torn on this. I have a very nice 65" 4K setup and nothing has ever looked too dark in nearly 2 years of wondrous viewing. So I don't buy the "everyone's TV is setup wrong" argument. This was the darkest thing I've seen on my TV, full stop.

That said, it was beautiful and in many places, it feeling too dark was clearly intentional, as it contributed to the chaos of particular scenes very well.

But it was still the darkest thing my TV has rendered. And several times I thought, "I can't even make out who that was supposed to be" for an extra second or two, and it did distract from the viewing.

May 2, 2019 at 5:42PM

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I understand that there are a lot of factors that were at play that could affect the audience experience (tv settings/size, compression algorithms, etc). I personally was out of town and ended up watching this on another's TV and my god, was it dark. My eyes hurt afterwards and I constantly caught myself leaning in, not because I was in suspense, but because I wanted to see what was going on, who was living and who was dying. The fact is, they did not shoot and grade this episode the same way they did the other episodes. Sure, it was supposed to be moody and dark, but they basically ignored the fact that most people watching this weren't filmmakers and colorists with the knowledge necessary to create a watching experience that would do the episode justice. I love dark, moody content and I myself often make decisions to underexpose, but this, to me, was too much. Even SNL made a joke about how dark the episode was. As much as the darkness has been talked about, it was far from the biggest of my gripes on the episode.

May 5, 2019 at 12:56PM

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Sean Pettis
Filmmaker
420

OMG ! The problem is the most popular comment in the industry now is " oh that will do ...nobody will notice!". People edit, grade and deliver productions on laptops. Lost count of the amount of programmes received that the colour is completely out because somebody tried to grade on a laptop screen which is too bright and not even colour calibrated. Vice-Versa I have also lost count of the number of times a client calls and says ... " Oh this looks too bright or too dark" about a perfectly graded film only to find they are deciding on the grade by watching it on their iphone !!!
People need to calm down and realise that there really is no such thing anymore as a family sitting around a Television and watching a new programme. People watch "Entertainment:". That could be on a phone on a train on the way to work , a laptop in college or an ipad in their room .... whilst many still watch on their TV which they have never changed from the settings it arrived with out of the box.
I suggest you watch the "Making of Episode 3 on HBO". The work that went into this episode was phenomenal. Seriously mind boggling amount of work and design. The pre-production for weeks, the post production for weeks and can you really .... REALLY .... imagine that they would let this programme .... one of the biggest TV events ever ... go out incorrectly graded. Exactly.
We watched on a 65 inch Kuro TV properly calibrated and the darkness and gloom added so much to the tension. We could see everything in the shadows and we hopefully saw it as the director intended.
IF you watched an .m4v version or a streamed version then blame them. Too many people, firms, companies use presets to encode or transcode with no real knowledge of encoding or how to get the best from a particular piece of footage.
Watching on TV is one thing. Watching a highly compressed version on an ipad, iphone, laptop etc is all down to the supplier and their skill at encoding.
I agree with Bill Cox ... superb episode.

May 6, 2019 at 9:59AM, Edited May 6, 10:02AM

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I can turn up the brightness during dark movies, but nothing can fix the compression necessary to deliver massive movie files to impatient knuckleheads. The banding was a plague on my screen. I actually turned the brightness down so I didn't have to see it through the entire episode. If you haven't already, please watch Steve Yedlin's exceptional 2-part explanation of the non-necessity of higher resolutions and the damage it's doing to cinematography.

May 6, 2019 at 7:29PM

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You can make all the excuses you like, but it was way too dark and a very bad judgment call by the DOP, the colorist and director.

May 7, 2019 at 4:34AM

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Ian Nicholson
Head Tutor at Sydney Short Film School
105

I've always said that GOT is good but overrated. This episode changed my mind. The use of darkness was absolutely ingenious. Where are the enemy?!!? Are they just 10 feet away? You stare into the black, desperate for any shadow or hint of movement. It totally pulls you in, sharing the experience with the characters.

May 7, 2019 at 2:39PM

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Beau Slim
Amateur Doc Maker
1

Good analysis of the problem but perhaps missing the point. There's an understandable but accidental arrogance to film-makers expecting that viewers will watch their films on the same quality monitors that they were graded on. Since most people use uncalibrated screens in poor light conditions, it's always worth running all your film's codecs through a less-than-adequate screen before locking the grade in place. It's one of the criteria I use to rate how good a grading house is before booking. No cheap monitor/TV means no idea how your show will be watched the majority. And what's the point of that? You don't have to go to the lowest common denominator but you do need to make allowances, especially for compression. Delivering shows to a mass audience has to involve some compromise.

May 8, 2019 at 5:26AM, Edited May 8, 6:06AM

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Martin Belderson
Director/Producer
1

All good theoretical explanations; however, if one sets a show that will be viewed by hundreds of millions of viewers in such a way, that only top-shelf TV's, or specially calibrated TV's can watch it, I'd say he didn't do a good job.

May 26, 2019 at 10:58AM

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Gal O
1