Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 are discussed below.
Game of Thrones fans got to watch the series’ much-anticipated Battle of Winterfell this past Sunday night, and many had the same exact complaint. Instead of those major deaths getting the most buzz of the post-episode chatter, viewers voiced issues about not being able to actually tell who was on the verge of dying and who had actually died, given the episode's dark visuals.
Netflix’s Ozark and AMC’s The Walking Dead have faced similar criticism from viewers. Both of those popular dramas feature dimly lit sequences, and Game of Thrones has often featured the same. So, then, what is the reason why fans could not see the Battle of Winterfell? The episode’s cinematographer, Fabian Wagner, has weighed in with what he believes the problems are, and you can bet he's not blaming the show itself.
For reference, Fabian Wagner was also the cinematographer on two previous fan favorite action-filled episodes – “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards.” Both were Game of Thrones battles that this viewer had no significant issues seeing clearly. Unlike those battles, though, the Battle of Winterfell took place by moonlight, all in the name of preventing the Long Night from happening. It was basically darkness on steroids.
Because compression decreases video quality, that factor is one that Wagner thinks helped worsen the episode's visuals for those streaming. He also thinks that viewers without the strongest Internet connections would also likely have suffered from lower-quality visuals when streaming through HBO's apps.
The Battle of Winterfell episode's cinematographer also believes that viewers’ ability to watch in a darkened environment played a major part in opinions about the episode being too dark. Wagner thinks that could have been helped by viewers adjusting the settings on their TVs, and by watching the episode in a dark, theater-like environment.
Then there's the creative reasoning behind the finished product: the show was aiming for darkness. Fabian Wagner said that Game of Thrones’ showrunners and the director Miguel Sapochnik wanted the episode to “be dark” as if only natural light was guiding things. Fabian Wagner said they wanted the battle sequences to be as extremely intense and disorienting as it would be for the warriors in the midst of the fight. Wagner also said:
We tried to give the viewers and fans a cool episode to watch. I know it wasn't too dark because I shot it.
Anticipating that the episode would be dark, I watched it in a room with movie-theater lighting (as in 99.99% total darkness). I also watched it directly on HBO's linear channel, and on an HD television screen. Hence, the dark environment, streaming quality, and screen size were not contributing factors to the dark tones. In the end, the episode was still dark and, at times, impossible for me to see what was happening.
Adjusting the TV settings may be Game of Thrones fans’ best bet at this point. However, brightening a dark image does not always lead to the most eye-pleasing results. Check it out:
To the left is the original promotional image of Jon Snow from the Battle of Winterfell. The image to the right is the same one adjusted to auto-light levels. It is much easier to make out Jon, but the image appears washed out and lacking some visual flourish.
Game of Thrones’ cast and its crew put in a lot of hard and intense work into making this episode, and they've been talking about it for months on end. So, it is sad for them that a lot of the action did not get properly seen by viewers.
Find out if future battles are easier to see when Game of Thrones’ final season continues. New episodes of Season 8 air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.