Here's How Sunday's Game of Thrones Episode Was Too Dark

Viewers are complaining that they couldn’t actually see parts of the latest episode. Is this due to cheap televisions or by design? This article contains spoilers.

Sunday’s “The Long Night” episode left the audience with lots to talk about. Many took to Twitter to lament that they couldn’t make out certain elements of the battle. At first, I thought this might be a case of High Dynamic Range televisions versus Standard Dynamic Range sets. Turns out I was wrong, but also kind of right.

My Test

I briefly pulled some screenshots into Adobe’s Premiere Pro, so I could get a rough insight into the Luma waveform (using ScopeBox). I'm reading the IRE levels as 0% and 100% bright for simplicity. My method was to take PNG screenshots of the (heavily compressed) behind the scenes content that HBO has online. There are plenty of shots from the real episode in the above video, and this way, readers can see what I’m seeing.

Understanding that my resulting image is egregiously compressed, I wouldn’t call my testing an exact science. However, it might give us a heads up on what Fabian Wagner, the cinematographer, wanted to get across. Remember that you’re looking at these screenshots on a smartphone or computer monitor, which adds its own unpredictability.

Before and After

Here are some dark shots, with the exposure brought up about a stop, whites raised, highlights raised a little, and shadows generally left. You’ll see the compressed image breaks apart in my waveform and in general. I’m trying to hone in on what might look good for Fstoppers readers, not necessarily $3,000 TV viewers. Slide over the images to see before and after versions.

To think that a CG team spent time making this White Walker shot, only for it to be so unnoticeable, is pretty heartbreaking.

The next two shots I feel were more on the mark and can't imagine how viewers had trouble seeing them. Nonetheless, it's pretty interesting.

Peter Dinklage's skin tone comes in at around 20 IRE here.

To me, these scopes show that a viewer’s television doesn’t have a lot to work with and misaligned settings could become very apparent. The shadows mix in with midtones at 7.5 IRE, and most often, the exposure doesn't reach above 30 IRE. Usually, one would aim to get skin tones sitting at around the middle of the chart, but that's been cast to the wind like Dany's original plan. An old rule of thumb would be to aim for 70 IRE skin tones, but I wouldn't worry until you get to 40 IRE.

For everybody adjusting your televisions, I wouldn't go too crazy. The stream is compressed too much, and there's only so much extra detail you can pull out before the image falls apart (as you can see from my charts). Besides, you might risk overexposing the shots from within the castle.

This isn’t a corporate YouTube video, it’s a cinematic experience. There's more than meets the eye here, and throwing out the videographer's rule book shouldn't be a problem. I don't have a problem with any creative decision here.

The Reason

Did HBO get this wrong? People are debating whether this is a mistake or not. There isn’t just one issue at play here, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault.

They're Professionals

Firstly, to say that the cinematographer and everybody else on set ignored their exposure tools and Flanders for weeks on end is naive. Then, to say that colorists ignored their scopes and didn’t test the image on various screens is laughable. We can speculate on story-related theories all day, but this would be a massive fault on the shoulders of many. Wagner told TMZ: "I know it wasn't too dark because I shot it."

I can’t find any material from HBO, but take a look at Netflix’s submission requirements to get a sense of how conscious a production team would be about technical details. Nobody along the entire pipeline should have any discrepancy.

Feeling Over Function

Secondly, between the cinematographer and the director (Miguel Sapochnik), I don’t think they wanted to audience to see all that much detail. A lot of the screenshots I took are during quick cuts, where the audience is meant to feel how difficult it is to fight without light. Most of these shots don’t last for more than a second, and in a way, they’re the texture during the battle. The editing is superb, so it's easy to follow.

I think the argument could be made that it’s meant to feel dark, and the audience isn’t really missing anything by turning their TV’s gamma up a few notches. You should feel like the Dothraki.​​​​​​​

A rough guide to SDR versus HDR. The latter can show far more colors than the former.

HBO's Limitations

So, taking all of that on board, all that’s left is the user’s television set. HBO doesn’t currently stream HDR (nor 4K) video. Game of Thrones, in this setting, is confined to the Rec.709 color space. That’s not a lot of wiggle room, and some users may have experienced crushed blacks more so than others. It’s definitely too dark for daytime viewing. Season 2 of Stranger Things was available in HDR, and the difference it makes to this scene is pretty stark. Note that Steve's skin tones in the first shot sit at around 30 IRE when I tested, and you'll also want to watch it on Netflix for the full effect.

Checking the scopes in this Game of Thrones episode, I think they look obscenely underexposed. Viewers would absolutely need to mitigate glare and make an effort to check their TV’s settings. While a more contrasting, brighter look could have saved the day, I don’t think HBO should change the final look to suit more televisions. Personally, I felt it looked fine on a pretty standard TV in a dark room. All in all, I’m excited for the next episode and glad that overzealous lighting didn’t get in the way of realism.

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Deleted Account's picture

I find that more and more series are dark.
My impression that they make color grading for theaters, so for a completely dark room, when generally at home we don't see the shows in complete darkness, so the apparent contrast is less and the image appears dull

Robert Feliciano's picture

It looked natural, battles at night should be dark. I hate when they add fake lighting in a car or lights in astronauts helmets so you can see the actor more.
I turned up the brightness on my projector and accepted brighter dark greys instead of near blacks.
On second viewing, it looked great on my new $1,300 600-nit monitor.
Hopefully this pushes people to upgrade their 12 year old TVs.

Deleted Account's picture

Game of what?
Life's too short to be that interested.

Iosif Kallai's picture

You replied. So you are interested.

Deleted Account's picture

haha, You have no idea how uninterested I am. The hype around these series bemuses me. The bandwagon is being ridden by so many companies, it's staggering.

Colin Robertson's picture

👆 this guy's so effing cool. Everyone applaud him for not jumping on the bandwagon!

liliumva's picture

There's hype because of the books. Much like TWD garnered a lot of fans because of the comics, or Marvel/DC movies because of their comics. Or Stephen King and his books... I mean I could go on but eh. I suppose you only watch the news then?

Ted Gore's picture

Hey look! It's one of those guys who thinks they are better than everyone else because they don't watch GoT! I feel so honored you came by to talk to us.

Deleted Account's picture

Wow, touchy subject. Lot of insecurities being highlighted here. It’s like I’ve said ‘Sony make rubbish cameras’ or something. Hilarious how people are so defensive over their favourite TV shows. Haha. Brilliant.

William Faucher's picture

Say someone is vegan, crossfits, and doesn't watch GoT. Which of the three do they tell you about first?

Ondrej Vachek's picture

You'll never know because they've ascended above their physical form and are not mere mortals anymore.

Deleted Account's picture

It was obvious that the director wanted it to be dark. I found myself wanting it to be better lit. I think we as viewers can understand that it's supposed to be dark. Poorly done IMO.

Jonathan Brady's picture

My wife mentioned how dark it was while we were watching it but I felt like it contributed to the story

liliumva's picture

It was called The Longest Night for a reason. I had no issues watching it on on my PC the next day and it projected onto my huge wall the night of. It's kind of like how The Revenant, is dark at times, yet that won some pretty hefty awards. I think people are so used to artificial lighting in movies they don't grasp what a real life battle at night would look like. This battle was shot over I believe 50 something nights, and it had scenes, inside scenes, inside scenes. They were fighting the darkness, in darkness... of course it's not going to look like some strategically lighted movie set with edge lighting and a crap load of fill.

Mike Ditz's picture

Well, the night is dark and full of terror...

Terry Hernlund's picture

I have a mid-range 1080p TV. We watched it with the lights off. It absolutely gave you a great sense of what fighting a battle in the dark like that would be like. I had difficultly making out everything that was going on. Imagine you're one of them fighting for your life in pitch black conditions. The cinematographer absolutely made the right choice. He's not just putting across a string of images for your brief viewing pleasure, he's conveying a feeling; a terrifying feeling. The cinematography here did so perfectly. It... was... intense! Bravo!

This isn't some Youtube vlog. It's cinematographic art. Consume accordingly.

Jonah Walker's picture

I watched it on FIOS Cable on a 2018 Samsung 7 series 4k that i have color bakanced with scopes, and the problem wasn’t just the darkness, it was the noise and compression. It was too dark, and because so much was in the blacks the image just broke apart. And you shouldn’t have to watch TV with all lights off to see the image.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix also has too much of the skin tones pushed into the blacks, but it doesn’t suffer from the awful compression artifacts that I saw on GOT.

RT Simon's picture

I watched the episode on 49” QLED and it was not too dark. It was fine. I also expected that hand held camera combined with night time shooting would be darker. I then tried to watch it on a 15 inch 4K laptop screen, and it was unwatchable. Just awful. 8 times out of 10, it’s the screen, and we should all know that. Another point is how many people actually ‘complained’ versus how many just watched another transmission of digital imagery and did not think it was too dark as they own decent screens? If on my pricey 4K screen it looked so bad, those with lessor screens must have been cursing and very disappointed.

Tim Hilts's picture

“Too dark on purpose” to convey a feeling of confusion is a poor artistic choice, IMO, because too many viewers will be unsure if it’s because of a technical problem. Many of them will just boost the brightness on their TV, ruining the image and the effect completely.

It reminds me of shows with intentionally muddy audio editing, apparently for the same goal of conveying “confusion”.

Jason Lorette's picture

It was at night, in winter, in the north, in a snow storm, with torches and candles...and the occasional dragon blast...of course it was dark!?
I turned the lights off in the room I was viewing it (going in I knew this episode would be dark) and it was fine, was it dark, yes, unwatchable, nope.

Brian Hines's picture

We spend all this time on this site talking about color and calibration yet no one is talking about TV calibration. Google your TV Model number + calibration and you will likely find a forum of AV enthusiasts that have the settings on lock. Go through setting up your tv correctly and it will make a huge difference. These tv's out of the box look like hot garbage because from the factory they are setup to vomit color and be as bright as possible.

Here is the page I used to calibrate mine just as an example.

Its not your TV that sucks, its the settings out of the box.

MC G's picture

They are story tellers, you can't tell a story if you can't see what's going on. They failed.

Sabin Kolarov's picture

Its perfect on my calibrated screen. However on my wife's crappy lenowo screen it is awfull.

Zoran Pucarevic's picture

first I turn off all lights in house, for me perfect, look natural.

Justin Punio's picture

I saw two versions. Streaming on an iPad Pro and later the 9pm aired version on a TV, The former was too dark I couldn't make out most scenes. The latter had more detail, but overall I would have preferred it brighter.

Christoph .'s picture

It's mainly the compression and the resultant banding. If people complaining watched a Blu-Ray/less compressed version they wouldn't have the same complaints.

An oversight by the production team that they just underestimated how bad the compression would be and that not everyone will view in a perfect environment.

I'm of the mind that you're not supposed to see most of the "dark" scenes because you're meant to feel the suspense of the unknown but at the same time they needed to account for compression better

Colorblinded Photo's picture

I wouldn't say we had a big problem with how dark it was on our set. Granted we had the lights dimmed but the biggest issue overall was the posterization. Their encode simply didn't have the ability to effectively display the subtlety they were going for and that was a real shame. I bet this will look real nice on bluray, and even better with HDR.

Mark Holtze's picture

I will say this, I work as a broadcast editor. on tv series/documentaries, what you see at the end of your cable signal is in every word of it a terrible representation of the final image, when it's dark, it's even worse and given the narrative tone of this episode, it was bound to get to people who's TV's aren't properly color balanced.

There is actually a lot of science behind it, science I don't even fully understand, the colorists have a better idea because they work within those limitations and exploit them by design. My job is just to help make a compelling show.

We watched GOT S8 EP3 in a designed screening room from a "lossless source" and I will say it was absolutely stunning. I watched it again at home Monday night and couldn't BELIEVE the difference.

I will say this, from the source the technicals are BANG ON, I guarantee the team behind this was going through every FRAME of this episode...tedeous, but necessary. Where the quality always gets compromised is the delivery. ALWAYS. SO much so that if you watch uncompressed HD you'd think it was high level 4k. Funny that broadcasters never even got HD right before upping the game to 4k which when you look at a lossless 4k source is so different from the cable broadcast end it might as well be SD (exaggeration).

Really great article though, I enjoyed the read, just wanted to add a bit of insider baseball context for anyone interested.

Johnny Rico's picture

But wouldn't this amount too a poor creative choice due to the primary delivery method?

Mark Holtze's picture

Not necessarily, especially because the filmmakers can't be responsible for people who have terribly balanced TV setups. There is rigorous testing for QC and this would have been put through that and passed clearly as it broadcast. If anything to me this indicates that maybe more people need to adjust their tv settings. I would hate to have bumped the levels to a point of it looks like they're fighting under a full moon given the context of that fight. It's suppose to be dark, the narrative and cinematic context is motivating that.

I also don't think it's poor creative choice, it may not resonate with some people, but you have to understand the expert level decisions that go behind something like this.

I can't blame the record company for an album that sounds bad on my terrible speakers.

Creatively if you're basing your choices off the lowest common denominator than, well I don't think HBO would be what it is today if it did that to be honest.

This is why "blacks" are so critical, proper blacks you can see even the smallest details and it's magic when that happens. Grated the price of TV's have come down, but properly calibrated broadcast monitors are still an arm and a leg, for good reason.

Luckily for the masses, you don't have a huge amount of super dark epic battles between life and death happening that span 83 mins so NORMALLY it's not a problem for people.

Jkb Tffl's picture

Well its just as dark as a Roger Deakins Movie!
If you want Cinematic TV you have to pay the price an get a decent TV.
On both my MacBook and my calibrated EIZO it looked amazing!

James Kent's picture

My Sony 43es projector nearly had an aneurism. It was completely unwatchable due to the banding. It couldn’t decide if the blacks should be black or green and frequently switched between the two. I’ve never seen it so bad but I’m sure it would have been better in a higher bit rate.

I finished it on my Vizio PQ65 and it was great. The darkness was very true to real life but I feel for those without a 2000 nit tv

paul aparycki's picture

I have to echo others opinions. It was night and unless any of you haven't noticed, . . . at nighttime it gets kind of dark.

Further,as I think many have missed a few facts. In "Game of Thrones", there are NO street lights, no streets for that matter. The castles don't have full fluorescent lighting throughout, NONE of the characters have rechargeable cellphone/flashlights, nor for that matter butane/propane powered gas lanterns . . . in other words, when night comes, . . . it gets DARK, no light, really dim, hard to see, visual acuity compromised . . . DARK.

Guess what? That is what you watched.

My first impression was that it was difficult to see, then after a moment or two I realised what an excellent job the crew had done at presenting a reality (for that scenario).

Nate Reese's picture

looked good to me ... both on Eizo and TV .. didnt watch the stream though .. could be different version ..

Billy Fox's picture

It's really dark, there were nights of the fight where it was so dark you couldn't see the character's faces or even see the ground. I've never seen anything like it, it was epic and really good.My favorite thing about this movie was the final scene, when the guy has to make a final stand, he gets the light treatment. It's actually a very emotional scene and it has a great effect. The lighting on the ground is amazing