I have lost track of the number of times I’ve been watching a movie or TV show and wondered to myself if it was filmed in the first vertical shaft of a coal mine, or if I might be developing cataracts. Apparently, I’m not alone; at least three times in the last year I’ve come across articles wondering if movies and TV – quality TV, mostly, the sort of stuff on streaming services like Netflix and HBO – are getting darker.
This isn’t to wonder if they’re getting “darker” – as in more gloomy, pessimistic, violent or harsh. It’s hard to deny that this is a trend that’s been going on for at least a couple of decades, as the concept of the anti-hero has gone from novelty to moral centre. Venerable movie franchises are often revived with a “dark reboot”; the Batman series is the most obvious, but the same treatment was given to heroes like Superman and Spiderman.
Even movies and shows in their first iteration – the most cited is Harry Potter – move into progressively more dismal situations with each installment. And there’s no point adding to the mountains of commentary on how even Disney has moved from light to shade, and an increasing obsession with exploring and even justifying the motivations of their cartoon villains (Maleficent, Cruella de Ville).
The dimming of the light I’m talking about is actually embodied perfectly in the Batman franchise. In a recent Vox article and video – “It’s Not You – The Movies are Getting Darker” – this was demonstrated by compressing the collected footage from the series, starting with the ‘60s TV show starring Adam West right through the Dark Knight trilogy to the recent films starring Ben Affleck and Robert Pattinson, into a kind of bar code, where hours of footage are averaged out to their salient colour and brightness.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the ‘60s movie and TV series as a bright, colourful, campy pop culture artifact. Each new reimagining has turned down the hue and light to shades of black in the Vox graphic. The same visual shorthand has been applied to everything from the Harry Potter films to Spiderman to the Game of Thrones series on HBO. Indeed, if you watched the new GoT prequel, House of the Dragon, this year, you’ll have noticed that the new series starts where the old one left off; if the trend continues, the final episodes will consist of dialogue playing over charcoal smudges on a black background, with the occasional burst of fire.
One explanation is technological. About ten years ago, Vox helpfully explains with a graph, digital cameras overtook film in the making of movies. The video explains – and I can corroborate, based on my own experience as a professional photographer – that film had a lot less margin for error than digital images, and that digital image files contain an awful lot more information in both shadows and highlights than even the best film stock.
And then there are more mundane explanations, like the one given in an article published in Variety in March, titled “Don’t Adjust the Brightness: Here’s Why TV and Movies Are So Dark Now.”
“If a movie utilizes special effects makeup or if a shot picks up lighting cables in the background,” writes Sasha Urban, “the darkness provides a great solution for hiding things that filmmakers don’t want the audience to notice. The modern techniques of CGI and VFX editing can fix the issue, but for lower budget projects, the old-school way is often much easier.”
But Urban also notes that this is nothing new, and that films like Alien (1979) did this. And a film that gets mentioned in most discussions about dark cinema is the original Godfather film, in 1972, where just one of the studio’s complaints about the daily rushes was that it was incredibly dark, so much so that the film’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis, earned the sobriquet “the Prince of Darkness.”
The studio had a good reason to complain. The precedent for a well-lit film was set decades previous, when the effective sensitivity to light of motion picture stocks (called ASA or ISO) was incredibly low. Early film stock had an ASA of between 23 and 250; later film speed went up to 500, but it was very grainy. Technicolor – the mechanically complex but vividly colourful film stock used on big-budget musicals and epics and classics like The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Fantasia and An American in Paris – had an effective ASA of around 12, though some cameramen rated it as low as 8.
This meant film sets were full of huge, powerful lights – arcs and brutes and HDMIs – to pump illumination into every shadow, often overpowering sunlight in exterior shoots. (The Batman of the ‘60s is a perfect example of such a “well-lit” picture.) That isn’t to say there weren’t “dark” films – Citizen Kane is a great example, as is pretty much everything tellingly called “film noir” in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but the darkness in those films was a combination of style (Kane) and budget (most – but not all – film noir).
It also has to be remembered that cameramen for most of the history of cinema were effectively guessing when they shot a film. Sure, they had light meters and years of experience, but they still didn’t know what their footage would really look like until it was developed. Today, digital cameras and their high-definition monitors mean that cinematographers are nowhere near the camera while shooting, spending their time huddled in dark little tents around the hi-res screens that provide a nearly perfect view of what the camera is seeing. (I have a friend, a professional cinematographer on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly four decades, who says he hasn’t touched his light meter in years. He doesn’t even know where it is.)
That chain of close technological duplication is echoed all the way down the production chain, from the editing bays to the colour timing labs to the 4k digital projectors in multiplexes to our big-screen TVs, which have fidelity and resolution unimaginable in our old cathode ray televisions. On movie locations the banks of brutes have been replaced by practical lights hidden in sets, and energy efficient LED lights, often running on batteries.
In “Why are Movies and TV Shows so Dark?” published on the NoFilmSchool website this year, Jason Hellerman suggests that the reason is that “so many big-budget movies and shows shoot using green screen and rear projection, and lighting for film and TV has become a bit of a lost art. This could sound curmudgeonly, but I swear it’s not.”
Hellerman explained, “The thing is, cinematographers on a lot of these shoots aren’t lighting anymore. It’s being done in post, and those people may not have the eye for it. Sure, there are lots of good projects out there, but the bad ones stand out.”
Basically, the answer to why movies and TV shows have become so stygian in the last decade or so is because they can. There’s no more guessing, the margin for error has been widened considerably, and there are no more studio executives complaining that the daily rushes are unreadable. The Variety story noted, however, that moviegoers are complaining: “The West Wind Drive-In in Las Vegas told patrons that they couldn’t get a refund for The Batman if they found it too dark.”
But who sees movies in theatres anymore?
And it’s hard to deny that the technical ability to bring down the light in movies and TV shows is a response to stylistic demands by directors and producers to block out the sun. As Variety notes, “The Batman takes place largely at night, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a gloomy dystopia, and horror movies like the Fear Street trilogy rely on the cover of darkness to keep viewers on their toes.”
There are signs, however, of a pushback against our gloomy pictures. In “But WHY are Some Films so Dark and Desaturated?” published this fall on Medium’s Fan-Fare web magazine, Ilhaan Ali writes that “I think more times than not, darkness is used as an attempt to create a precedent. It’s used to tell the audience that they’re about to experience a gritty, serious, and mature film, and sometimes it genuinely works, but other times it just falls flat.”
If you were glib, you could simply say that the movies are going through a teenage Goth phase, and that they’ll probably grow out of it one day. They might, but it will probably take an extended burst of creative genius to rouse us from the assumption that a lightless story is a sophisticated one. And right now, I don’t see a light at the end of this particular tunnel.