Everyone is Complaining About Dark Cinematography
No, it’s not just you. TV and movies are getting darker – and darker. Like seriously, they’re hard to see. And everyone is complaining about it. So, if audiences don’t like Movies and TV fully embracing the Dark Side, why is it still happening?
When the upcoming Wicked film was announced, people were excited. But then…they saw the promotional pictures, and everyone asked: “What is it exactly that we’re looking at here?” The Batman, Shazam 2: Fury of the Gods and House of the Dragon have all been singled out for their dark compositions. It’s even the same with supposedly joyous children’s movies. The live-action Little Mermaid, which you’d expect to be bright and colorful like the original animation, looks more like a muddy polluted river than a pristine ocean.
So, is this darkness a bottom-line financial decision, a result of the latest technology, a stylistic choice we’re going to have to adjust to for as long as it stays in fashion, or bad filmmaking? Here’s our take on the real reasons for the new darkness taking over film composition, and whether there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
How Shooting Digital Impacts Lighting
In some ways, all of this darkness feels like it’s harking back to the last 3D cinema era, where the glasses dimmed images by more than 80%. And again it’s worth looking first at the latest technology for answers about what’s going on. There is one technological reason why this era of darkness is upon us, and that’s the increase in films shot digitally, rather than on film. Vox’s Edward Vega writes “with digital cameras and digital monitors, it’s easy to see what the final product will look like — and that can embolden a cinematographer to film scenes darker and darker.” One such cinematographer, Bradford Young, has become the go-to guy for this style. The first African American to be nominated for Best Cinematography for Arrival, his other notable work like Solo, Where Is Kyra? and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints helped create a style in the mid-2010s that other filmmakers then tried to ape.
With film, people don’t know what the footage will look like until it’s processed. And so scenes have to be well-lit enough; making it safer to overexpose a shot and guarantee visual detail, otherwise, you lose a day of shooting. On digital it’s the opposite – it’s safer to underexpose and color correct later, while going too bright makes it washed out and unusable. So on film, even movies with a dark aesthetic have tended to still be legible to the eye. If you take the example of David Fincher’s Seven, in which the darkness of the cinematography is meant to evoke the overall squalor and griminess of the subject matter, lighting is used in a very precise way. In one of the first scenes where Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman explore a crime scene, their flashlights almost act as backlights for each other, as well as placing us in the mindset of the characters by having our light source be the same as theirs. Matt Reeves’ The Batman was heavily inspired by Seven. But people were critical, with The Week’s Jeva Lange saying “you practically need echolocation to see anything.” In an early scene in which Batman explores a crime scene – much like in that early scene of Seven – again we have the technique of torches, but it’s a far smaller light source, utilized in a much different way. Most of the light in the room comes from table lamps, so there’s a more washed-out, sepia-hue to the scene. And while yes, tonally it fits with the movie, it does force the audience to focus a little harder
One advantage of this increased darkness is increased realism. And perhaps given that digital can sometimes look too crisp and too slick, plunging audiences into these scenes that feel as dark as they would be in reality is an attempt to counteract that. A practical (or cynical) reason productions often embrace this is because going darker in the cinematography is also cheaper. Darker scenes make it easier to disguise the CGI, making the effects look more believable, even if fewer details are fleshed out.
While it’s understandable for House of the Dragon or Ozark to go dark to match the subject matter, the choice is even more confusing in children’s media like The Little Mermaid or Peter Pan And Wendy, where viewers expect bright colors and less of a dreary or even creepy vibe.
Still, overall, it’s undeniable that – aside from technical and financial factors – the dark aesthetic is very much in vogue – if not for all audiences, at least for many of the people making the media. That’s what’s so interesting about this trend: the mismatch between what the creatives behind these shows want – such as depicting a realistic feeling of late night or early morning on screen, versus what many audiences say they want, often something relatively easy to see.
Meanwhile, there are interesting emotional layers to this trend. As Stacy Henley writes for The Gamer, “media is not just dark literally, as per its lighting suggests, it also has a darker tone…. there’s an overall sense of distance and dishonesty with modern media. [...] it does feel as though using color is an allowance only earnest films grant themselves. The most heartfelt movies we have seen over the past few years have all had explosions of color behind them.”
The other thing films have to contend with now are modern TVs where images are artificially distorted away from what the filmmaker’s vision was. Most have options like cinema mode or filmmaker mode, which do tend to make the screen look a little darker or monochromatic, but actually, that’s more akin to what the experience in the cinema should be. And maybe, that’s at the root of all of this.
Are Filmmakers Forcing Us Back to Theaters?
Even before COVID-19, people were getting pretty worried about how movie theaters would survive. Streaming cut deep into audience numbers, so maybe this advent of darkness is really an attempt to push audiences back into the cinema, where the lights-off theater experience allows people’s eyes to adjust to the darkness on screen more quickly. Speaking about Arrival specifically, cinematographer Devan Scott writes: “If you watch Arrival in a cinema it looks great…But watch it at home in a bright room, it’s almost illegible. And I think it’s totally Bradford Young and [director] Denis Villeneuve’s right to make a film designed for cinema viewing.”
This issue isn’t just true of lighting. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was heavily criticized for its sound mix, with people complaining that you couldn’t accurately hear dialogue over and above the explosions and action sequences. But again, this was a choice, with Nolan saying of all his films: “We made the decision a couple of films ago that we weren’t going to mix films for substandard theaters. We’re mixing for well-aligned, great theaters.” The movie was meant to be the one that got people back in theatres after the first lockdown, though Forbes’ Scott Mendelson wrote: “Tenet will probably play better on Blu-ray with the subtitles turned on.”
There are some instances where the theater experience is undeniably better. But again the weirder part about this trend is that it’s not just movies meant for the cinema that are being crafted in this style. Game of Thrones got complaints for its hyped Battle of Winterfell being hard to see in the final season, and streaming blockbusters like House of the Dragon, Ozark and The Mandalorian (all surely designed with home viewing in mind) have been critiqued for the same issues.
On some level, the creatives behind these shows may be pushing back against the streaming culture where viewers watch in the background with their phones or have other things going on in the room. By making the screen as dark as a movie for the cinema, they force us to adjust our habits – to darken the surrounding room, give the show our full attention, and even work a little to follow along. Even though people take to Twitter to complain, they don’t usually stop watching. So now the internet is flooded with advice about upping your contrast, changing your color settings, and improving your speaker systems.
The Importance of Intentional Lighting
There are classic movies and iconic scenes where darkness is imperative to how we react to them. Nobody is saying that stories all must be brightly lit, but it’s the interplay between dark and light which often has the most powerful cinematic effect. Pioneering German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu utilized chiaroscuro lighting to great effect, starkly balancing dark and light to create this uneasy, unsettling atmosphere. And we see how this is referenced in film noir or horror films. The filmmakers always want you to be on edge, and these sharp contrasts help with that, by giving you the impression that there might be something lurking in the dark. The advent of location shooting in the post-war era, pioneered by the filmmakers of the French New Wave, also had a wide-reaching effect. Where before, Classic Hollywood would stop shooting if they lost the light, now those realistic textures of shadow and clouds were embraced and helped define the New Hollywood movies of Scorsese, Coppola, and Spielberg.
What you really want is for the lighting of a movie to have a readable relationship with the story. Zola’s lighting is deliberately shiny, glossy, and filtered like the whole movie is one long Instagram story. Which, given it’s an adaptation of a Twitter thread, completely works. With something like Moonlight, the importance of lighting — and of darkness — is implicit in the title. In fact, the title of the play on which the movie is based is “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, and the moment where that line is spoken is pivotal for Little’s character journey and so there’s a conscious effort for shots underneath the moonlight to have this beautiful, ethereal blue hue to them. It’s a callback to that line but also acts as an artistic statement from Barry Jenkins. As if to say: “This is what black people should look like on screen, not what cinema history has presented them as.” And this is mirrored across several recent movies by black filmmakers. The Guardian’s Nadia Latif writes: “When I watch Moonlight, Mudbound, Dope or Insecure, it’s not simply about black skin just appearing on screen. It’s about quality, not quantity.”
We’re in a new age of cinema. Not just empowered by digital shooting, but also by motion capture, new advances in animation, and lighting that’s done in post-production, instead of by…well, actual lights. So maybe what people are criticizing isn’t just dark lighting, but lighting that’s dark purely because it’s in fashion –whereas the lighting isn’t communicating anything, and is instead obscuring what the story really should be saying.
If the average viewer is asking: “why can’t I see what’s happening?”, then something is wrong. But as we’ve seen, there’s a perfect recipe and you can have it both ways: movies and TV should be able to plunge you into moody darkness, without ever hiding anything from you.
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