As this season of HBO’s Game of Thrones continues to break viewership records, Sunday’s episode featured an epic battle scene that clocked a longer length than ever before seen on network or cable television. Despite the rave reviews, many viewers were left wondering whether the night really was that dark or were our TVs all broken?
While HBO has offered no official statement, the answer lies in both technology and artistry.
First, it is important to note that mood lighting has long been used to convey emotions and to set the scene’s vibe. If the title of “The Long Night” didn’t convey darkness, the monochromatic palette of black and grays shrouded the action in darkness, despair, and ominous shadows.
James Poniewozik of The New York Times points out that “funereal color palettes have become a signature of ambitious TV drama. The likes of Ozark and True Detective externalize their angst by painting the world in shades of black and blue. Natural-lit night scenes and gloomy filters have rendered expensive widescreens into charcoal rubbings of semi-perceptible movement.”
Meanwhile, other experts cite compression, resolution, and streaming speeds, combined with the intentional darkness and fog, as possible technical issues that made the episode seem extremely dark. Most smart televisions and computers, tablets, and phones relied on the internet to stream the episode. Even the fastest bandwidth speeds still have limits and the thousands of gigabytes (or terabytes) need to be compressed so that there is no buffering. When the packet of data is compressed, sent over the internet, and then decompressed, it leads to a loss of some quality with regards to color and brightness.
This is accomplished through the use of a codec, a device or computer program that is used in the encoding or decoding of a digital data stream or signal. The codec uses binary code to “decode” a pixel so that it can be seen on the screen. The combinations of pixels make up a total picture.
Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch notes that this means that there are only so many gradations of color and brightness it can show, giving the example of shades of gray. “Going from a very dark grey to a slightly lighter grey, it might be able to pick 5 intermediate shades. That’s perfectly fine if it’s just on the hem of a dress in the corner of the image. But what if the whole image is limited to that small selection of shades?”
When an entire scene is made up of mostly dark grays or blacks, there is a limit to exactly how many shades of gray or black the codec can display since it doesn’t have the same ability to discern as the human eye could in person.
However, true fans can rejoice in knowing that when the BluRay version finally does come out, it will likely be far more clear and vivid since there will be no streaming issues.
Until then, all we can do is wait and see what magic awaits us next week.