From the Battle of Winterfell to Dragons in Dim Light. Why Are the Game of Thrones Shows Always So Dark?

Cinematographers, poorly calibrated monitors, and artistic choices. Why does everything look so dark in this franchise?

From the Battle of Winterfell to dragons in the twilight. Why is the Game of Thrones series always so dark?
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Some episodes of the shows based on George R.R. Martin’s franchise have given viewers a lot of headaches. It's because they can’t see anything or have to watch them in extraordinary picture quality that, unfortunately, not everyone has access to. Well, those frustrating moments, which were frequent in Game of Thrones and in the first season of House of the Dragon, have arrived in the second season of Max's newest hit.

The background. Besides its rushed ending, one of the most unpleasant surprises of Game of Thrones was the third episode of its eighth and final season. In that episode, we saw the legendary Battle of Winterfell, where you couldn’t see a thing. Many called it “the most expensive battle scene in television history.” Still, this 42-minute clash with the White Walkers disappointed most viewers, who spent most of the time trying to make out something on an almost entirely dark screen. The complaints didn’t stop, and Fabian Wagner, the cinematographer, defended himself by saying he chose a naturalistic lighting “that would evolve with the characters.”

It happened again. Despite regretting this problem, HBO repeated the controversy with episode seven of the first season of House of Dragon, “Driftmark.” Miguel Sapochnik, its director, was also responsible for the unfortunate Battle of Winterfell. According to Variety, he spoke to IndieWire at the time and defended the episode’s lighting: “It made sense that this was the last hope humanity has, the last beacon of light, and from the perspective of where we needed the story to go— which was to reach a surreal, chaotic climax—we needed an environment that was friendly to that.” Sapochnik added: “So all the reasons for doing it were there, and nobody sat there and wondered if it was gonna be too dark.”

The reasons for the drama. At the time, several media outlets reported on the many potential causes of the problem. The Verge’s analysis talked about the differences in calibration between TVs of vastly diverse types. The signal’s origin is also problematic: In the U.S., cable TV still works, and in the rest of the world, there are abysmal differences between Internet connections. Finally, there are the media professionals (editors, cinematographers) who have monitors calibrated with a precision beyond the reach of the average viewer and who work with files of a quality comparable to that offered by a UHD Blu-ray. Remember that the cinematographer of “The Long Night” blamed image compression for the viewing problems of that episode of Game of Thrones.

History repeats itself. This year, the show again uses gloomy and exaggeratedly dark scenes. Last season, HBO claimed that these were “intentional creative choices,” so it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not an excuse. In this article, Vulture details the show’s love affair with candlelight and natural light sources—it even says that “some scenes have so many candles it’s comical.” As a result, the actions are much more challenging to make out. However, it’s all about creative choices.

More intentional. Showrunner Ryan Condal’s comments to The Hollywood Reporter might hint at why this year’s House of the Dragon is as dark as last year’s but more intentional: “We went into season two very conscious of that feedback. Season two is much more in line with my particular aesthetic and what I think the show should look like. It’s not a massive difference, but I don’t anticipate getting the ‘it’s too dark’ note again.” Though, according to IndieWire, this correction may have a fateful consequence: Season 1 made risky aesthetic choices that left many viewers frustrated in the end, but Season 2 “has taken a huge step toward looking like everything else on TV and lost some of what made it visually distinct.”

Image | Warner

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