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Why You Couldn’t See a Damn Thing on This Week’s Game of Thrones

Fiat lux!
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This week’s Game of Thrones was ostensibly about the Battle of Winterfell, the final confrontation between the armies of the evil Night King and the forces of humanity. But for many viewers, the episode was much more than an epic battle: It was also a whirlwind tour of the limits of video compression algorithms and home video display technology. Which is to say that a lot of people couldn’t see anything. On Sunday night, Twitter was full of viewers complaining about the show’s cinematography, which has often been dark, but never quite so consistently stygian. Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times summed up the general impression the episode made on many:

In reality, Fabian Wagner’s cinematography on the episode, aptly named “The Long Night,” wasn’t quite as dark as Itzkoff’s screenshot, but it wasn’t exactly bright either. Here’s a random still captured from the HBO Now version on a laptop, then cropped to Slate’s preferred aspect ratio and slightly enlarged. It is murky:

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I specified where and how I got that image and what I did to it afterward because what’s going on here isn’t just the artistic decision to shoot Game of Thrones in very low light, or to stage the Battle of Winterfell as a horror movie in which the living dead abruptly loom out of the snowy darkness. Those were both good decisions, and it’s hard to think of a better recent use of darkness than the defeat of the Dothraki in this week’s episode. The problem is that the entire television infrastructure that distributes Game of Thrones, from the cameras in Ireland to the eyeball in your own personal head, does a uniquely bad job with dimly lit scenes. And “The Long Night” was practically nothing else.

The trend toward darker television has been going on for a while, and not just on HBO. As several prestige-TV cinematographers explained to Slate back in 2016, the switch to digital filming and post-production made it easier and faster to work in low light than it had been on film. Simultaneously, the switch from cathode-ray tubes to high definition televisions made that same low-light cinematography look worse than it ever had before, especially on lower-end models. Meanwhile, cable companies switched to digital distribution, applying their own video compression to the already-compressed signals they got from networks. Streaming services like HBO Now do the same thing in order to fit HDTV signals into as little internet bandwidth as possible. Every time lossy video compression is applied to the video, the image quality drops. And guess what kind of scenes current video compression techniques do the worst job with? It’s a perfect storm: Every recent advance in television technology seems to have been designed specifically to make “The Long Night” difficult to make out.

There are ways for a home viewer to mitigate the damage, first and foremost by darkening the room. Watching over internet streaming is better in many cases too, because it means cutting your cable company out of the loop, and the compressed versions of HBO Now episodes, which can be encoded in advance, might undergo a little more quality control than the versions cable companies create on the fly from HBO’s live feed. And calibrating your television, even if that just means using the signal patterns on a THX DVD or Blu-Ray to set the brightness and contrast, will do a lot to help. (As a bonus, paying attention to any or all of those things will make everything you watch look better, not just Game of Thrones.) But there’s just no way to feed images like the ones in “The Long Night” into the current television distribution system and have them look good in everyone’s living room.

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So can anything be done? Well, there’s a tradition in the music industry of taking the final mix of a recording and testing it out on a car stereo, to see what the beautiful music playing out of the expensive monitor speakers in the studio sounds like when it’s filtered through crappy car speakers, competing with engine noise. The reason audio engineers do this is not because they love the way music sounds in a 1989 Honda Civic. It’s because they have no control over the listening environment where their work will eventually be heard, and they want to make sure it’s tolerable even under the worst of circumstances. There’s a trade-off, of course: a car radio–friendly mix might sound a little worse than the original version when it’s played on a high-end stereo in a soundproof room. It’s lowering the ceiling to raise the floor, and normally I’m not very sympathetic to that kind of approach. But we’re on Game of Thrones’ eighth season: If the general public were going to calibrate their televisions or darken their rooms in order to appreciate the cinematography, they would have done it by now. So if TV directors aren’t already making a point of running their work through the worst compression algorithm any cable company uses, then watching it on a cheap LED screen in a room with plenty of natural light, it’s probably time to start. If they need an unsuitable-for-Game-of-Thrones living room to use as a model for their test environment, Game of Thrones Twitter is full of potential volunteers.