Game of Thrones Is Not "Too Dark"

Game of Thrones Is Not "Too Dark"

TV shows these days are shot to look more like film. We see plenty of shows that are intentionally gritty (any Marvel show), tinted a non-neutral color (Breaking Bad), and are overall much darker than traditional TV shows. This is done intentionally by the content creators because, well, they can. It's their art. 

Game of Thrones Season 8 episode 3 was dark. Probably one of the darkest episodes of any TV show that I've ever seen. This was done intentionally by the creators in order to instill us viewers with the feelings of fear and anxiety...much like how you would probably feel if you were faced with fighting thousands of growling zombies who want nothing more than you kill you and turn you into one of their own. 

As dark as the episode was, it was not too dark. The show has a $10 million dollar budget per episode, and it's produced by some of the best, smartest people in the business, using amazing cameras, and editing and color grading on monitors that cost as much as a new Prius. Trust me, they know what they are doing.

People mainly had gripes about how dark it was, so dark at times that "nothing was visible". One Redditor claimed that he had to cup his hands around his eyes just to see anything. My complaint was not so much that it was too dark, but it was the excess noise, blocky-ness, and banding. From my perspective and with my extremely picky eye it was definitely underwhelming, by no means unwatchable like what most are claiming. The reality is that there is nothing wrong with the show. The problem can be blamed on a combination of the delivery method and the display that you were watching it on. 

Our first culprit is the delivery method. Bandwidth and storage space comes with a cost, and everything we watch on cable or over the Internet uses a lot of bandwidth. The only way we can have this much content available at our fingertips 24/7 is to use compression. When a video file is compressed, it is shrunk down in size to a size is much more manageable while being sent over cable or the Internet. Compression works by taking redundant information in the image (such as a block of pixels that are all the same) and throwing it away. Once the information is gone, it is the job of the device that is decoding the signal to fill in the missing gaps. Basically, it's a giant guess. So when you see a shot with a lot of black in it, basically every shot in Game of Thrones season 8 episode 3, your cable box, AppleTV, Roku, Chromecast, etc is guessing at what it thinks the picture should look like. Some devices make better guesses than others, which explains the difference in quality when streaming the same content from one device or another. I have personally compared the difference between streaming from a Chromecast vs a Roku Ultra vs the TV's internal app, and the TV definitely does the best job. I find that the processing in my Oppo Bluray player does a much better job than the Roku Ultra alone, so at home I have my Roku Ultra running through my Oppo Bluray player. I'd love to use my TV's internal apps full time, but it doesn't have all of the apps that the Roku Ultra has.

At the end of the day, compression allows us to have access to lots of content, but the unfortunate trade off is picture and sound quality. It's Quality vs Quantity!

The second culprit is the display that you are watching the show on. What you saw on Sunday night was not what the creators saw when they were making the show. They were looking at monitors throughout the entire production that were all calibrated to the same standard. Unless your display is calibrated like theirs it is not matched to what they saw.  Where they saw shadows, you might be missing them. The blue they see in the White Walker's eyes is not the same blue you see on your TV. If your display is not calibrated like theirs, you are losing details and missing parts of the show. Consumer TVs are notorious for deviating from the known standard, but luckily it is fixable with calibration. Don't forget room lighting... this is critical for dark movies and shows like Game of Thrones. These shows are meant to be watched in dark rooms, and any extra lighting in the room will wash out the image, desaturate colors, and make dark details like shadows hard to see.

So what can you do to see such an awesome show and others in the best possible way?

1) Be aware of room lighting. The darker the better. There's a reason why your local movie theater has dark walls, floors, and ceiling, and all of the lights are off once the movie starts. You don't have to go that crazy in your living room, but you would be amazed at how different the picture looks simply by turning all of the lights off and closing the curtains.

2)  If you are streaming:

     a) Use the best possible streaming device you can afford. The best streaming device is almost always the display itself, but Apple TV4k and Roku Ultra also do a pretty good job.

     b) Call your ISP and make sure that you are getting the fastest Internet connection possible for your money. Slow Internet speeds cause issues with the stream and and lots of issues with buffering

     c) This is a hard one, but don't watch the show when everyone else on the planet is watching it. When everyone is streaming the episode at the same time, HBO's servers are overloaded and compression and buffering is worse. The picture suffers greatly, so consider waiting a while to press play.

3) Consider having your display calibrated. If you can't swing hiring a pro, at the very least stop using the factory picture mode. The TV manufacturers all have different names for different picture modes, but look for a mode like "cinema", "expert", "movie", and use that one. If the picture is too dark for your liking, make the display brighter by turning up the backlight (LCD TVs) or the OLED light (OLED TVs). If you want to take it to the next level, you can set the really important adjustments like brightness and contrast with some free test patterns that can be easily found online. Nothing beats a professional calibration, but at the very least switching modes can be a huge help.

4)  Buy physical media. I know that it's super convenient to stream everything, but for your favorite movies and shows consider buying the actual disc. This is by far the best way to watch as there is no extra compression. Sure you have to have a Bluray player and store the disc somewhere, but the quality is well worth the very slight inconvenience. 

Following these simple tips will help you see your favorite TV shows and movies the best way possible. After all this is art, so why not appreciate it in it's full glory? Feel free to comment below with your own experiences or if you have any questions!

-Jason