If you’ve ever watched a movie and wondered why everything looks so dark and murky, you’re not alone. Many film fans have complained that recent blockbusters are poorly lit and hard to see, especially when compared to older classics. But what’s behind this gloomy trend? And is there a way to fix it?
One of the main reasons why films today are so badly lit is the switch to digital video. Digital cameras have many advantages over film cameras, such as lower cost, higher resolution, and easier editing. But they also have some drawbacks, such as lower dynamic range, higher noise, and less color depth. These factors can make digital images look flat and dull, unless they are properly lit and graded.
Another problem with digital video is the lack of quality control. Unlike film, which has to be processed and printed by professionals, digital video can be manipulated by anyone with a computer. This means that directors, cinematographers, editors, colorists, and even distributors can alter the brightness, contrast, and color of the images without much oversight or consistency. As a result, some films end up looking too dark or too bright on different screens and platforms.
But perhaps the biggest reason why films today are so badly lit is the preference for realism over beauty. Many filmmakers want to create a gritty and realistic look for their stories, which often involves using natural or ambient light sources instead of artificial ones. This can create a more immersive and authentic experience for the audience, but it can also make the scenes look dim and muddy.
For example, a clip from Disney’s forthcoming live-action film of The Little Mermaid was shown at the MTV Awards on 7 May, and fans of the original 1989 cartoon declared on social media that they couldn’t see anything at all. The scene takes place at night, but even so, it looks so dark and dingy that it’s hard to tell what’s going on.
One Twitter user wrote: “Where’s the light? Where’s the colour? This looks so dull.” Another asked: “Did all the lightbulbs blow at the same time on set?”
This isn’t just an issue with Disney fairy tales, though. Whether they’ve sat through such blockbusters as The Batman and Avengers: Endgame, or such epic television series as Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian, viewers regularly take to social media now to say that watching today’s mega-budget entertainment can be like peering into a cave on a cloudy evening.
So how can we fix this problem? Well, one solution is to adjust the settings on your TV or monitor to make the images brighter and more colorful. But this may not work for every film or every device, and it may also distort the original vision of the filmmakers.
Another solution is to demand better lighting from the filmmakers themselves. As cinematographer Roger Deakins said in an interview with No Film School: “I think lighting is incredibly important… I think it’s part of storytelling… I think it’s part of creating a mood… I think it’s part of creating a world.”
Deakins, who has won two Oscars for his work on Blade Runner 2049 and 1917, is known for his masterful use of light and shadow to create stunning visuals that enhance the story and the characters. He also said that he prefers to use film over digital because it has more “texture” and “depth”.
But not all filmmakers share his passion or skill for lighting. Some may think that lighting is not important or that it can be fixed in post-production. Some may even deliberately choose to make their films dark and murky as a stylistic choice.
But as film critic Nicholas Barber wrote in an article for BBC Culture: “There is a difference between realism and ugliness… There is a difference between creating atmosphere and creating murk… And there is a difference between being daringly original and being pointlessly off-putting.”
He added: “Filmmakers should remember that we go to the cinema to see things – not to squint at them.”