Why The Lighting In ‘House of the Dragon’ Is An Insult To Its Audience
While I'm grateful to not have to see high-def incest, that shouldn't come at the cost of audiences' ability to see anything at all.
Other than dragons, sex, wigs, and violence — if there is one thing audiences are guaranteed to see in House of the Dragon, it’s… not as much as you’d like, because it’s too damn dark. But why?
— Warning: There are spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution. —
Like Game of Thrones before it, House of the Dragon is copping heat for the low lighting in its most recent episode. ‘Driftmark’, the first series’ seventh episode, arguably showcased one of the most uncomfortable family gatherings put to screen as the Targaryens and Velaryons gathered to mourn Lady Laena after she burned herself to death in the last episode.
So, What Happened? No, Seriously, What Happened Because I Couldn’t See
The funeral featured attempted stabbings, broken noses, slashed eyes, stolen dragons, a fake death, and incestuous beach shags that led to an equally as incestuous wedding. But for better and worse, the messy drama was barely visible — and fans aren’t happy about it.
One fan tweeted the HBO Twitter account directly: “I’m gonna need @hbomax to issue a written apology for literally a whole episode of black screen,” they wrote.
The official HBO account responded, saying: “Hi Stephen! We appreciate you reaching out about a night scene in House of the Dragon: Episode 7 appearing dark on your screen. The dimmed lighting of this scene was an intentional creative decision. Thanks!”
Hi Stephen! We appreciate you reaching out about a night scene in House of the Dragon: Episode 7 appearing dark on your screen. The dimmed lighting of this scene was an intentional creative decision. Thanks! ^LL
— HBOMaxHelp (@HBOMaxHelp) October 3, 2022
The ‘creative decision’ in question is primarily the responsibility of director Miguel Sapochnik and his cinematographer, Fabian Wagner. The duo also directed Game of Thrones episodes ‘The Long Night’ and ‘The Bells’, which were similarly criticised for poor visibility when they aired in 2019.
At the time, Sapochnik and Wagner defended the lighting as a creative choice that was used to create a certain type of atmosphere. “To make it truly impactful and to care for the characters, you have to find a unique way of portraying the story,” Wagner told Wired. “Another look would have been wrong. Everything we wanted people to see is there.”
Wagner ultimately placed the responsibility of visibility onto the viewers. “Game of Thrones is a cinematic show and therefore you have to watch it like you’re at a cinema: in a darkened room. If you watch a night scene in a brightly-lit room then that won’t help you see the image properly,” he said at the time.
“A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly,” he 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.”
Wagner and Sapochnik don’t seem to have adjusted their approach — or their exposure settings — in the three years since they were taken to account over their dim lighting choices in Game of Thrones. In fact, ironically, the only difference is that ‘Driftmark’ was shot during the day.
What Is Shooting Day For Night?
Shooting night scenes during the day is a common filming setup often called ‘day for night’. The extra lighting required to actually shoot at night is expensive, and, more often than not, locations are so dark at night that even artificial lighting isn’t sufficient. Many actors, especially child actors, are also unable to do night shoots. Day for night thus emerges as an easy solution.
The technique dates back to the silent era when filmmakers would paint frames blue by hand to indicate nighttime. Since those days, numerous tricks and methods have been developed to achieve making a scene shot in the day look like it’s nighttime that are often implemented in both production and post-production.
These include using low-density filters on lenses to mute exposure and saturation, and/or using a red lens to turn blue sky black. In Jordan Peele’s 2022 film, Nope, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema achieved the film’s voracious night sequences by shooting frames simultaneously on infrared and 35mm film cameras after which, the footage was overlayed and recoloured in post-production.
In George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road, the 2015 film’s iconic nighttime rig chase was achieved through careful overexposure in production, unlike the typical under-exposure used for day for night shoots. Cinematographer, John Seale explained that the overexposed footage would have more detail and less grain. The night colouring was again added in post-production by the film’s colourist, Eric Whipp.
While Nope and Mad Max Fury Road’s production budgets easily surpass a single episode of House of the Dragon, many films achieve day for night on much smaller budgets. No Country for Old Men, Jaws, 28 Weeks Later, and Insomnia are just a few films that achieved unforgettable night sequences that were shot entirely in daylight. In short, House of the Dragon has next to no excuse for its poor day for night sequences.
So, What Went Wrong?
We know House of the Dragon shot ‘Driftmark’ day for night thanks to early promotional images showing Daemon (Matt Smith) and Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) on the beach in broad daylight. So, why was the end result borderline unwatchable?
While the compression rate required for broadcast and distribution has been known to lower the audio and visual quality of raw footage, this is still something TV and filmmakers should account for in their productions. Wagner and Sapochnik’s claims that Game of Thrones, and by extension its prequel, is “cinematic” and best enjoyed in a cinema-like environment are a pompous display of a lack of understanding of how their own show is distributed and viewed.
Considering how HBO Max’s Twitter account answered the fan’s complaint about the lighting, along with Wagner and Sapochnik’s previously stated disregard for viewer accessibility over “creative intention”, it’s clear the latest House of the Dragon episode was that dark on purpose.
“If audiences cannot see the narrative at all, nothing creative is being conveyed, and no one is having a good time.”
A story that’s dark in atmosphere and subject matter doesn’t always necessitate a dark visual palette. TV shows like Hannibal, Severance, Sharp Objects, The Sandman, American Horror Story, and Netflix’s Dark are all series with bleak and strange plots that could rival that of House of the Dragon — but with the difference that they have a unique visual style that conveys darkness without keeping the audience themselves in the dark.
The series’ low lighting is a failure both practically and creatively. If audiences cannot see the narrative at all, nothing creative is being conveyed, and no one is having a good time.
Wagner and Soponich’s prior claims that viewers just need to adjust their screens and watch the series on high-definition devices are, to say the least, out of touch. Not everyone has access to the latest 8K capable OLED screen, and nor should they need to in order to watch a 50-minute episode of a fantasy TV show about horny royals and their pet dragons.
Complaints about the visually unintelligible level of darkness in Game of Thrones were so vocal that Wagner and Sapochnik were called to defend themselves. To make the same decision again feels not only feels like a deliberate decision to neglect their audience, but a patronisingly smug one at that.
House of the Dragon is streaming on Foxtel and Binge.
Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they yarn about LGBTIQ media. Either way, they hope you ate something nice today.