Is Modern Cinematography too Dark?

“Why are things so dimly lit today? Can barely see anything.” Such was a comment on a frame of my cinematography that I posted on Instagram last year. It was a night scene but far from the darkest image I’ve ever posted.

“The First Musketeer” (2015, DP: Neil Oseman)

I remembered the comment recently when double Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński said something similar in an interview with British Cinematographer. He lamented what he perceives as a loss of lighting skills that accompanied the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking: “Now everyone shoots dark… Pictures are so murky you need to crank up the TV to see it… They just don’t know how to light.”

I think there’s a tremendous amount of talent in today’s world of digital cinematography, but the technology might have encouraged a trend towards darker images. With celluloid it was always better to err on the side of over-exposure, as highlights would fall off attractively but shadows could get lost in the grain. With digital it is more advisable to lean towards under-exposure, to avoid the harsh clipping of highlights.

We should also consider that modern digital cameras have more dynamic range than film, so there is less risk inherent in under-exposing a scene, especially as you can see on your histogram exactly what detail you’re retaining. But the same should be true of over-exposure too.

The demand from streaming platforms for HDR delivery also encourages DPs and colourists to play more with very dark (or very bright) images. Most viewers will still see the results in SDR, however, and some crucial information at the edges of the dynamic range could get lost in the transfer.

“Crimson Tide” (1995, DP: Dariusz Wolski, ASC)

The trend for darker images may have started even before the digital revolution though. “I think contemporary photography is going away from pretty pictures,” Dariusz Wolski told American Cinematographer in 1996, well over a decade before digital capture became the norm. “Something that is dark is really dark, and something that is bright is very bright. The idea is to stretch photography, to make it more extreme.”

Wolski may have been onto something there: a trend towards more naturalistic images. You have only to look at a film made in the first half of the 20th century to see that lighting has become much more realistic and less stylised since then. Darker doesn’t necessarily mean more realistic, but perhaps it has become a convenient trick to suggest realism, much like blue lighting is a convenient trick to suggest night that has very little basis in how things look in the real world.

The most noticeable increase in darker images has been in TV – traditionally bright and flat because of the inherently contrasty nature of the cathode ray tube and the many lights and reflections contaminating the screen in a typical living room. Flat-screens are less reflective, less contrasty and generally bigger – and a dimmer image is easier for the eye to interpret when it’s bigger.

Perhaps people are more likely to draw the curtains or turn off the lights if they’ve splashed out on a TV so large that it feels a bit like a cinema, but what about all the mobile devices we have today? I went through a phase of watching a lot of Netflix shows on an iPad Mini on trains, and I was forever trying to keep the daylight off the screen so that I could see what was going on. It was annoying, but it was my own fault for watching it in a form that the programme-makers couldn’t reasonably be expected to cater for.

A shot from “Games of Thrones: The Long Night” (2019, DP: Fabian Wagner, ASC, BSC) which has been brightened by disgruntled fans

“A lot of people… watch it on small iPads, which in no way can do justice to a show like that anyway,” said DP Fabian Wagner in defence of the infamously dark Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. I’ve never seen it, and I’m all for a DP’s right to shoot an image the way they see fit, but it sounds like he might have gone too far in this case. After all, surely any technique that distracts the audience or takes them out of the story has defeated its purpose.

So, the odd extreme case like this aside, is modern cinematography too dark? I think there is an over-reliance on moodiness sometimes, a bit like how early DSLR filmmakers were too reliant on a tiny depth of field. DPs today have so much choice in all aspects of crafting an image; it is a shame to discount the option of a bright frame, which can be just as expressive as a dark one.

But if a DP wants to choose darkness, that is up to them. Risks like Fabian Wagner took are an important part of any art-form. Without them, cinematography would go stale. And I for one would certainly not want that, the odd negative Instagram comment notwithstanding.

Is Modern Cinematography too Dark?

Why You Shouldn’t Shoot the Rehearsal

We’ve all been there. Schedules are tight. Sooner or later the 1st AD, a producer or even the director is going to want to save time by “shooting the rehearsal”. I strongly disagree with this and here’s why.

No matter how great an actor is, they have only a finite amount of performance energy. They can only do so many takes before the results start to go downhill. In my experience, most actors deliver their best performance on take one or two.

So those first takes need to be useable. They need to be in focus. The timing of the camera movement needs to be right. The boom needs to be out of frame. The prop in the drawer that the talent has to take out halfway through the scene needs to be in position, not still in the standby props person’s hand because they didn’t realise we were going that far. The view out of the door that the talent opens at the very end needs to have been dressed and lit. What, you didn’t know they were opening the door because they skipped that in the block-through and you didn’t get a rehearsal? Bummer.

The purpose of a camera rehearsal is to find all these problems without burning the actors’ performance energy. If you roll the camera on the “rehearsal” – and I use quote marks because it isn’t a rehearsal any more – the cast have to deliver a full performance. Maybe a great, spontaneous performance that can’t be repeated. The last thing you want is for a boom shadow to be hovering over their forehead for half the scene.

Things like boom positions and focus pulling especially can only be properly rehearsed with the camera up and the cast moving through their actual positions. And you can talk about a scene all you want, but a moving picture is worth a million words. There’s no substitute for everyone watching the monitor during that rehearsal and seeing exactly what’s required.

Is a camera rehearsal always necessary on every set-up? No, especially if the scene has already been shot from several other angles, or if everyone’s confident that they know how it’s going to unfold, or if the scene demands little emotional commitment from the cast. But it should be the default practice.

Will a camera rehearsal always throw up problems? Of course not. And if it goes perfectly, people will curse that you didn’t roll, and start asking why we bother with camera rehearsals anyway. That’s life.

Why You Shouldn’t Shoot the Rehearsal

10 Reasons Why Cinemas Don’t Deserve to Survive the Pandemic

I know that as a professional director of photography I should want cinemas to recover and flourish. After all, even if many of the productions I work on don’t get a theatrical release, my livelihood must still be in some indirect way tied to the methods of exhibition, of which cinema is a foundational pillar. But I think we’ve reached the point where the film industry could survive the death of fleapits, and I’m starting to think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Disclaimer: I’m writing this from a place of anger. Last Friday, the day that the cinemas of Cambridge reopened, I went along to the Light for a screening of Jurassic Park. The experience – which I shall detail fully in a future post – reminded me why going to the cinema can often be frustrating or disappointing. Since lockdown we’ve added the risk of deadly infection to the downsides, and before long we’ll have to add huge price hikes, the inevitable consequence of all those empty seats between households. (Controversially, I think that current ticket prices are reasonable.)

Setting Covid-19 to one side for the moment, here are ten long-standing reasons why cinemas deserve to be put out of their misery.

 

1. No real film any more

My faith in cinema was seriously shaken in the early 2010s when 35mm projection was binned in favour of digital. Some may prefer the crisp quality of electronic images, but for me the magic was in the weave, the dirt, the cigarette burns. The more like real life it looks, the less appeal it holds.

 

2. Adverts

I’m not sure what’s worse, the adverts themselves, or the people who aim to arrive after the adverts and overshoot, spoiling the first few minutes of the movie by walking in front of the screen as they come in late.

 

3. No ushers

Yes, I’m old enough to remember ushers in cinemas, just as I’m old enough to remember when supermarket shelf-stackers waited until the shop was closed before infesting the aisles. (Perhaps the unwanted stackers could be seconded to the needy cinema auditoria?) It’s not that I need a waistcoated teenager with a torch to show me to my seat, but I do need them there to discourage the range of antisocial behaviours in the next three points.

 

4. People eating noisily

I understand that the economics make it unavoidable for cinemas to supplement their income by selling overpriced snacks. But do they have to sell such noisy ones? Is it beyond the wit of humanity to develop quieter packaging? Or for the gluttons to chomp and rustle a little less energetically, especially during the softer scenes?

 

5. People chatting

One of the Harry Potter films was ruined by a child behind me constantly asking his mum what was happening… and his mum answering in great detail every time. Serves me right for going to a kids’ film, perhaps, but you never know what kind of movie might be spoiled by unwanted additional dialogue. I recall a very unpopular individual who answered his phone during The Last Jedi. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced that most maddening of all cinema phenomena: the people who inexplicably attend purely to hold conversations with each other, often conversations that aren’t even related to the film.

(5a. People snoring – a signficant drawback of Vue’s recliner seats.)

 

6. People looking at their phones

“The light from your phone can be distracting too,” say the announcements, and they’re not wrong. Basically, the biggest problem with cinemas is people.

 

7. Arctic air conditioning

Why is cinema air con always turned up so high? No matter how hot it is outside, you always have to take a jacket to keep off the artifical chill in the auditorium.

 

8. Small screens

Home TV screens have been getting bigger for years, so why are cinema screens going the opposite way? Shouldn’t cinemas be trying to give their customers something they can’t experience at home? There’s nothing more disappointing than shelling out for a ticket and walking into the auditorium to see a screen the size of a postage stamp.

 

9. Bad projection

The purpose of going to the cinema is to see a movie projected at the highest possible technical quality by competent professionals, but the reality is often far from that. Stretched, cropped, faint or blurry images – I’ve witnessed the whole gamut of crimes against cinematography. The projectionists seem poorly trained, unfairly lumbered with multiple screens, and locked out of making crucial adjustments to the sound and picture. And because there are no ushers, it’s up to you to miss a couple of minutes of the movie by stepping outside to find someone to complain to.

 

10. Netflix is better

This is the killer. This is what will ultimately bring cinemas down. TV used to be film’s poorer cousin, but these days long-form streaming shows are better written, better photographed and infinitely more engaging than most of what traditional filmmakers seem able to create. Maybe it’s just that I’m middle-aged now, and movies are still being made exclusively for 16-25-year-olds, but it’s rare for a film to excite me the way a series can.

Having said all of that, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is out on Wednesday. Now that’s something I am looking forward to, if I can just find somewhere showing it on 70mm….

10 Reasons Why Cinemas Don’t Deserve to Survive the Pandemic