The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones has been hit by a number of controversies in recent weeks but not in the way you might expect. Forget gratuitous sex scenes (the awkwardness of that Gendry and Arya scene notwithstanding), unnecessary violence and incestuous relationships that we’ll never be able to erase from our minds, however hard we might try.
This season, the controversies have mostly come in the form of coffee-cup-gate and cinematography so dark that we thought winter might have already come but couldn’t see well enough to know for sure. Viewers eagerly awaited the epic third episode of the season, The Long Night aka The Battle of Winterfell but later complained that the picture was too dark with some saying they struggled to see anything at all. In response, the episode’s cinematographer Fabian Wagner defended the show’s lighting choices, informing fans via an interview with Wired that they just weren’t tuning their televisions properly.
“A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly,” he reportedly said. “A lot of people also unfortunately watch it on small iPads, which in no way can do justice to a show like that anyway.”
According to Wagner, some of the darkness viewers experienced was due to the night-time shoot, while the rest was produced through on-set lighting choices. He told Wired that “another look would have been wrong” and asserted that “everything we wanted people to see is there”. The showrunners had “decided this had to be a dark episode” because there had been so many battle scenes over the years that “to make it truly impactful and to care for the characters, you have to find a unique way of portraying the story”.
“With a lot of hype comes a lot of criticism,” he added. “People love to find something to talk about, and so that’s totally fine.”
Visually, Game of Thrones has grown increasingly dark since season five the latest episode was notably hard to discern, a criticism that is often launched at fantasy and science-fiction shows alike, such as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and the non-cancelled Teen Wolf reboot. The show’s subject matter has always been dark itself but avid viewers have noted that the shift in lighting techniques has accompanied increasingly dark plotlines and themes.
The final episode of the season promises to be almost as dark as episode three and equally as “cinematic”, to borrow Wagner’s description. With that in mind, here are some tips to make sure that your viewing experience is as comfortable as it can possibly be without moving the whole thing into your local cinema. And before we get there, maybe go back and watch The Battle of Winterfell in the way it was intended.
Turn off the lights
There’s a reason why your local cinema or theatre turns off the lights when the action starts. It’s not just about focusing the mind and increasing the likelihood that you’ll drop popcorn in your lap at every single jump scare. Darker pictures like Game of Thrones look best when the room is also dark as any light reflecting off the screen can make it harder to see and even wash out the lighter scenes. Try watching at night or turning off the lights and drawing the curtains. If you must have a light on, make sure that it’s behind the television so that it doesn’t hit the screen directly and turn it down as dim as possible. This one comes with a warning that its not brilliant for your eyes so if you’re going to do this, it’s not suitable for binge watching.
Choose the right viewing mode
The majority of televisions come with a selection of picture modes that effect everything from screen brightness and color to black level and image processing. Most will allow you to adjust each of these aspects separately but if that sounds too complicated and time consuming, it’s likely that they also have some presets, including a cinema or movie mode (aka calibrated on Vizio sets). This will help you to get peak picture quality when you’re watching television in a dark room. Compared to standard or vivid modes, this might appear duller and less impactful to begin with but it’s the best option for color realism and can be tuned for dim rooms. That means lower light output, solid contrast and correct shadow detail.
Roughen things up a bit
One of the least cinematic effects that movie mode will keep intact – for some unfathomable reason – is the so-called “soap opera effect”, which basically introduces smoothing which makes motion… um… smoother and less film-like. Not every television has the video processing that causes this effect but higher end models usually do, alongside plenty of the most popular midrange sets. Unfortunately, finding the setting that controls the soap opera effect is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack as each manufacturer typically buries it deep in the settings menu and calls it something different to every other manufacturer. Check out this helpful guide to finding it and turning if off of you want to preserve the 24-frame cadence that helps Game of Thrones look like a full-on box office movie each week.
Explore your options
If you’re feeling really adventurous, there are tons of other settings to explore. And you will have to explore if you want to change them because they won’t all improve the image to your eye and adjusting them for one scene could make others look even worse. If everything goes wrong, the reset function is your best friend. Trying playing with the backlight – which you’ll want to be lower in a darker room – and local dimming – which most LCD televisions will feature; this works to increase contrast and improve black levels. Just don’t change the contrast manually, that’s something best left to the experts as setting it too high can render bright details completely invisible. Not a good look.