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Why are today's movies so dark?

It's become a common complaint with audiences who say they can’t see a darn thing on their screens nowadays! But is more going on here?
Posted at 9:18 PM, Apr 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-07 21:15:41-04

A common complaint you may hear a lot these days about new movies and TV shows: "Why is everything so dark now?" And I don’t mean the intense shadows and artful moods of film noir and Hitchcock. We’re talking about the darkness, shadows, or lack of contrast on-screen that viewers believe hides things we’re supposed to see. It’s become a regular internet talking point, and is now a sensitive topic for some Hollywood artists too.  

The answer to this question will take us on a journey from new film technologies, to the history of  broadcast color bars, to the yellow jumpsuits of the X-Men.  

Richard Chapelle is an experienced cinematographer, and he's worked as a director, director of photography, and camera operator on projects like Black Widow, Doom Patrol, and The Act. One of the biggest changes he noted has been the switch to digital cameras, which overtook using film stock in the early 2010s. Digital cameras can perform better in darker settings, since they generally don't need as much lighting on set to fully capture what’s in front of the camera. Film with a high ISO, or sensitivity to light, could capture more of the image, but there were drawbacks.  

"Well, I think a lot of modern like the younger DPs just wouldn't want to go down that road. I really think that this is the trend. They really want to to make it look a lot darker. And that's by choice, really," Chapelle said. "It was very limiting in what you could actually do because if you didn't have the lights, everything was going to be dark. And if you used a high ISO rated-rated stock, you are going to then introduce a lot of grain, which is not always very attractive. And in video terms, in digital terms, it's called noise. So you can see in the shadow details and a lot of the- the digital cameras these days are so sensitive that they can see things that our eye can't even see."

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When using film stock, even if a scene was meant to be in the dark, it was safer to "overlight" the scene to get as much information as possible on set. Then the editors and colorists could tweak later in post-production.

Compare a moment from the first Jurassic Park film in 1993, to the most recent one in 2022, Jurassic Park: Dominion. Digital cameras allow for filmmakers to push the boundaries of light and dark on set in a way film couldn’t.  

Some critics tend to blame color correction, but colorists are not making the call about darkness. One of the colorists we reached out to declined to be interviewed, because it’s such a contentious issue.

Traditionally, this would be the director and DP’s vision. And now, digital film lets multiple people monitor what the shots look like in real time. That can mean decisions about darkness, or the "look" of the shot, might be coming from many different voices now including producers or studio executives.

"So it really changed everything. It changed the dynamic of the way we when I would made films back then. People can be looking at what you're filming here in Atlanta, but they can be in Los Angeles at the time. So it's a lot of this stuff is being done remotely, can be done remotely. So again, your authority is being eroded," Chapelle said.  

When the cinematographer Fabian Wagner was asked about the infamous Game of Thrones battle scene, he told Wired, "the showrunners decided that this had to be a dark episode. Personally I don’t have to always see what’s going on because it’s more about the emotional impact." He also added: "Game of Thrones is a cinematic show and therefore you have to watch it like you’re at a cinema: in a darkened room."

The next possible culprit behind all the darkness: your own TV settings! To learn more, we spoke with Joel Silver at the Imaging Science Foundation – an organization that consults with production companies and manufacturers, and trains professional TV calibrators who you can hire to help you get your TV settings just right.

"We've had dark movies forever. What's changed is our displays are more chaotic than ever were. They make a dark movie look too dark," Silver said. 

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Joel stressed how much your viewing environment changes what an image looks like: from a professionally calibrated monitor in a Hollywood editor suite, to a TV in your living room or a video streamed on your phone. 

"And retail environments which have lighting dramatically different than anybody's home - that's not a good place to look at a TV set because a good place to look at a TV set is a room that looks like yours," Silver said. 

Post-production teams in Hollywood usually use reference monitors to see how the final product would look on an average screen. But there are some who suspect that it may not just be the directorial vision here. Richard suggested something may have still gone wrong with Game of Thrones, once it was eventually  compressed and streamed to millions of different TV’s. 

"No DP or director in in their right mind would ever decide that this is this is a great look because there wasn't a look. It was just black. It just somehow it was released that way internationally. So this is a big booboo," Chapelle said. 

The good news is that most screens have ways to adjust the image pretty quickly. The bad news is, most users don’t know where to start. And the terms can be confusing! For example, adjusting “brightness” usually controls the dark parts in the shadows, while "contrast" controls the bright parts.  

"And if it's sold in America, I guarantee you there's a mode will make the picture better with a couple of button presses. No one touches that button and lights it up. Breaks our hearts because they paid for that when they bought the TV set," Silver said. 

This was the original intent behind test images like the famous color bars that used to air on TV at the end of broadcasts. Before color TV, they looked different. Test images were to help consumers re-calibrate their TVs to the right level of blacks, grays, and white.

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So we're not at "case closed" yet. Because the answer to "why are movies so dark now" isn’t just a technical one, but also a creative one.  

Eric Francisco is the senior staff entertainment reporter at Inverse. And he traces this trend of equating darkness with realism back to superhero films in the early and mid 2000’s.  

"There is this mistaken idea that darkness equates to realism," Francisco said. "Once upon a time, superhero and nerdy stuff just wasn't cool. Everything basically had to justify itself. And so they just dressed everyone in black because that just makes sense and it looks cool out of the Matrix. And it was seen as more functional than it was flashy. There's literally a line in the first X-Men where Scott Summers as Cyclops is making fun of Wolverine. You started seeing it with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. People learned the wrong lessons and when they saw Batman shrouded in darkness, their immediate thought was not, 'oh, this is a conscious artistic choice to tell us about Batman.' It's- it's, 'oh, I want to make my movies realistic. I should just turn off the lights.' And now years later, we're dealing with so many movies that are striving for realism by basically turning off the lights and trying to cloak their characters in shadows."

There are many technical reasons why films can appear "darker" than they used to be – from the way we film them, to the way we watch them. But it's important to remember this trend of "darkness" in media is also sometimes an intentional creative choice – from directors, to DPs, to studio executives, and more. So, love it or hate it — don’t expect our screens to get brighter anytime soon.