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Why Are New Movies And TV Shows So Dark?

Can you even see what’s supposed to be on the screen?

It feels like this conversation started a few years ago with that infamous Game of Thrones battle episode that was as black as black could be. At the time, everyone was told to reset their TVs, and there was a long conversation about compression rates and shooting in 8K versus viewing in 4K.

This conversation came and went, but was back in a big way with the debut of the Peter Pan & Wendy the trailer where everything seemed dull, and the latest crop of Marvel installments came back. Things looked muddy. The fact is, many of the things we watch on YouTube are poorly compressed. So, trailers should be given a free pass until the movie comes out or we should switch to Vimeo.

But what’s going on with the movies in theaters and at home TV?

Well, the folks at Polygon dug deep, and came up with an answer: it’s motivated lighting.

For some reason, today’s cinematographers and directors are obsessed with motivated lighting. That means if you’re shooting in a dark place with no lamps or natural light sources, things wind up looking dull and muddy. Especially when using digital cameras to capture footage.

In the past, directors and cinematographers would bring in lights and not worry too much about the realism of the scene. Think about the iconic shot from The Shawshank Redemption, where Andy Dufresne lifts his arms to the sky. There is no moon that bright. Instead, there is probably at least a 1K light, but it looks amazing. We don’t question it when we see it because we’re caught in the moment.

Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne arms up in the rainy night in 'The Shawshank Redemption'
‘The Shawshank Redemption’credits: Columbia Pictures

But modern films, especially those with digital effects, prioritize realism and often sacrifice lighting for realism. While these movies are not as lit as ’90s movies, they do try to make things feel and look more real, which can draw the audience in a different way.

They do this by using realistic motivated lighting.

Motivated lighting can be used to create a more realistic and immersive environment for the viewer. For example, if a character is sitting in a room with a lamp, the lighting in the scene would be motivated by the light coming from the lamp. This creates a more natural and believable atmosphere, as opposed to using artificial lighting that may not match the context of the scene.

Motivated lighting can also be used to convey a certain mood or emotion in a scene. For example, if a character is feeling sad or lonely, the lighting in the scene may be dim and moody to reflect the character’s emotional state.

Think about movies like The Revenants, which only uses natural light to make the story raw and enveloping. Or even something like Interstellarwhich wants deep space and the story to feel like it could happen to anyone.

Its lights are motivated by what’s outdoors and outdoors only.

Leonardo DiCaprio in the wilderness in 'The Revenant'
‘The Revenants’credits: 20th Century Fox

What’s the Bright Solution?

If this is all due to trends, we can change things… right?

It would be hard to convince a legion of people which choice is better. I think it all comes down to a matter of opinion, but there has to be a happy medium. Because at home, it’s getting harder and harder to see what’s on TV. And when you go to the movies, it’s starting to feel the same.

You can’t force anyone to shoot a certain way, and when natural lighting is done well, it makes you feel like you’re part of the story and sucks you in. There are plenty of ’90s movies that are overlit and look atrocious.

I think we need to focus more on the experience for people across mediums. Will what you shoot look good at home or only in a theater? Will the episode translate to home TV if it only looks good on monitors in the editing bay?

It’s all trial and error, and maybe a little lighter.

Let me know what you think in the comments.