“Why is everything so dark in new films?” has swiftly become one of the most common refrains in the moviegoing world. It first materialized in a big way back during the late seasons of Game of Thrones. Episode after episode, people furiously tweeted about how hard it was to see, well, anything going on on screen. A lot of explanations and theories have flooded the internet since then about a host of “dark” productions, some accurate (brutal streaming compression, suboptimal viewing conditions) and some decidedly less accurate. (No, it isn’t to “hide bad CG.”)
The truth can’t be boiled down to any one factor. But one key element has largely gone missing from this conversation: filmmaking choices, and the current trends that have directors producing darker imagery. If streaming compression is a necessary evil of modern distribution, and if viewers will choose to watch movies and shows in suboptimal conditions regardless of the filmmaker’s intent, then why are so many directors, cinematographers, and colorists designing their work in a manner that’s incompatible with how so many people view media nowadays? What benefit are filmmakers getting out of this? The answers are complicated.
And to get to those answers, we have to leave the conversations about technology off to the side. The real answers are based in form — meaning, the visual language of a movie or a show — rather than shallow conversations about which evil modern camera is to blame, or about whether digital cameras handle light differently than film cameras. Tools are just tools. They can be wielded in half a million ways. For every murky, digitally shot, VFX-heavy production, there are others like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Matrix Resurrections, or Avatar: The Way of Water, which rank among the most vibrant and crystal-clear blockbusters ever made. Tools are a vehicle by which to create an image, but at the end of the day, every component of the image on that screen is a choice an artist made.
So why are filmmakers choosing to shoot such dim, hard-to-parse images?
For starters, it’s probably better to view overly dim night scenes as a byproduct of a particular style rather than its central aim. The most recent uproar over a film looking “like that” cropped up on Twitter over the upcoming remake Peter Pan & Wendy, directed by The Green Knight filmmaker David Lowery. Though the unique hideousness of YouTube compression did a number on the photography by Lowery and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli — the version of the trailer on Disney Plus looks significantly better and brighter — it’s still a pretty perfect example of the modern style. Digging deeper into Lowery’s overall style, and where his work exists within the larger continuity of filmmaking trends, can help us better understand how this murky, low-contrast “look” came about.
A key concept to understand in the “Why are modern movies so dark?” debate is “motivated” light. Motivated light sources are those that have a rational, tactile logic within the world of a particular scene: sunlight pouring through a window, or the warm glow of a desk lamp. Unmotivated lights are the exact opposite: lighting designed to create a particular stylistic impression that might not have any “real” basis in the context of a scene.
Take, for instance, Wes Craven’s 1996 horror classic Scream — a film often remarked on for just how lit everything in it is at all times. An early scene depicts protagonist Sidney Prescott embracing her boyfriend Billy Loomis in the wake of a terrifying home invasion and her near-death at the hands of a masked killer. After Sidney throws her arms around Billy, Craven cuts to a tight close-up on Billy’s face, which is illuminated by a harsh, ominous, icy-cool light that telegraphs his sinister intentions.
But where is that light coming from? The bedroom they’re in has no lamps switched on. Could it be the moon? Hard to justify, as the only windows in the space are behind Billy, and the light we’re staring at is so much brighter and closer than the moon could ever be. So what on Earth is that light?
The answer is, simply enough, nothing. Craven often didn’t feel any real need to rationalize why a bright light would suddenly appear one second before disappearing again in the following shot. It’s a purely stylistic choice, employed for that one moment to cast doubt on Billy’s trustworthiness in the audience’s mind. It’s an extremely stagey choice that fits neatly within the larger series’ heightened, melodramatic style. Scream wouldn’t really be Scream without it.
The hyper-lit style was a staple of cinematography in American films during the ’90s, and like all trends, it eventually fell out of fashion — in this case, a few years after Scream hit theaters. The 2000s saw filmmakers embracing more directional, shadowy lighting styles, evoking a grittier, more “grounded” aesthetic while retaining a sense of classic Hollywood polish. The 2010s featured another huge shift in style, this time toward hyper-naturalism. Even broad, big-budget blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 embraced a look torn straight from indie cinema. Not only are the lights in that film always motivated, they’re realistic.
Where earlier films might have used the presence of the moon or a table lamp to justify much brighter lighting, movies like Deathly Hallows, Interstellar, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes let the light of a lamp simply look like a lamp. That resulted in darker, more directionally lit sets. In big-budget studio fare, more and more filmmakers began to seek out real sunlight to light a scene — or, at least, lighting equipment that could precisely emulate its texture and quality. Where independent films used natural light to work within budget limitations, bigger films began embracing it for its sense of immediacy and tactility: the feeling of real human beings navigating real human spaces.
Established cinematographers like Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki and Roger Deakins started to lean more and more into this style to wild acclaim, on films like Birdman, Prisoners, and Skyfall. Lubezki, in particular, made headlines for his work on The Revenant, where he used almost no lighting equipment to shoot the incredibly technically complex revenge epic in the Canadian wilderness. He bet an entire film on the sun’s rays, firelight, and the low-light capabilities of a small army of Arri Alexa cameras. The results are striking and visceral in a uniquely modern way. It was a formative experience for many young cinematographers, who realized, “Wait, I can do that too!”
This is the landscape where the current generation of filmmakers cut their teeth — David Lowery being a prime example. Looking at his work, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single light, outside of surreal dream sequences, that isn’t thoroughly, fanatically rooted in the real-world logic of the space it’s set in. He and his most frequent cinematographer collaborator, Andrew Droz Palermo, are practically allergic to even the slightest hint of light that feels “unmotivated” or fake.
And while some might roll their eyes at the literalism of this approach, the power of the results is hard to argue with. Lowery’s films are soft, painterly, and melancholic. They feel as if they take place in the viewer’s own lived memories, rather than a heightened Hollywood fantasy world. Through his methods, he’s been able to make fantastical and strange stories feel tactile and humanist. The look has become Lowery’s calling card, one he shares with a host of other directors with similar sensibilities such as Amy Seimetz (She Dies Tomorrow), Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room), and Denis Villeneuve (Dune, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049).
But like all styles, the motivated-light style has certain limitations. Those are felt most strongly in scenes that lack a good justification for practical light sources — especially night scenes. Where filmmakers of previous eras would lean on artificial blue-white “moonlight” flooding a dark street or room, contemporary filmmakers with a naturalistic itch can’t always make that approach work for them. In a movie that relies on motivated sources, the intrusion of an obvious film light masquerading as the moon threatens to undermine the audience’s immersion. It simply isn’t part of the film’s language.
So what are the solves? Many filmmakers have opted to stick to their naturalist guns and try to emulate the true-to-life sensation of being stuck in a dark space without sufficient light, forcing the audience to reckon with a dim, hard-to-navigate frame, just like the characters in the story. Others don’t stage scenes in those conditions in the first place, avoiding light-deprived environs altogether.
But the truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem for filmmakers who feel married to an organic style of lighting. There will always be some scenes that will test the boundaries of a filmmaker’s chosen aesthetic, such as the night scenes that many viewers took issue with in that trailer for Peter Pan & Wendy. For the scene where Peter appears in the Darling children’s window, Lowery and Bazelli chose to use Tinker Bell as the main light source.
And yet this also poses a challenge: If Tink is too bright, and the room around her is realistically dark, then the effect could ultimately err on the side of “spooky,” which isn’t exactly fitting for the grand entrance of a certain magical boy from the wonderful world of Neverland. But if the surrounding environs are too bright, they risk no longer looking like nighttime at all. Ultimately, Lowery and Bazelli opted to split the difference, letting Tinker Bell cast a soft glow on other characters’ faces, and leaving the rest of the space fairly dark without being black.
Does it work? It depends on the viewer, as the arguments have made clear. And nobody will be able to speak on this with authority until the film is released at a viable resolution, with its intended final color grade. But the argument can be made — and deserves to be made — that this particular stumbling block is well worth the distinct, of-their-time sensibilities that artists like David Lowery bring to the table.
Rather than insisting on filmmakers bending their work to meet the lowest common denominator — that is, people streaming trailers on their phones via YouTube — we should take their commitment to the naturalistic light style as a demand for viewers to honor the intention of their work, and do the best they can to see movies the way they were intended and designed to be seen: on a good screen in a dark space, either in a theater, on a disc, or via a streaming service that doesn’t destroy their work with oppressive compression algorithms. For people who are really passionate about film as a medium, and respect what a delicate process image-making is, that shouldn’t be too big of an ask.