Of all the reactions to the “Game of Thrones” Season 8 premiere that landed on social media during its initial airing, one of the best came from Rolling Stone film editor David Fear. “Seriously though,” Fear wrote on Twitter, “did the ghost of Gordon Willis shoot tonight’s ‘Game of Thrones’ premiere?” To “Thrones” fans unfamiliar with the name, Gordon Willis was a cinematographer whose use of shadows earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness.” In films such as “The Godfather,” Willis used lighting to create a chiaroscuro effect, capturing his characters between the pull of good and evil.
Fear’s jokey comment encapsulated one of the biggest fan criticisms about the “Game of Thrones” premiere: The show is so visually dark that viewers can’t even see what’s happening on screen. Many fans took to social media during the episode to complain about the color palette, with some wondering if it was their TV brightness setting that was the issue. Willis used the relationship between light and shadow to heighten the emotions of a close-up, but “Thrones” isn’t taking the same approach. In the climactic scene where Sam tells Jon Show about his true parentage, the shadows are so overpowering that Jon’s reaction shots are hard to make out (see photo above). The source of light in the scene isn’t defined enough on Jon’s face to create a division between the character and the background. Light should be used to create a contrast between Jon’s face and the darkness, forcing the viewer’s eye to focus on Jon’s reaction. That’s where Willis succeeded, as does working cinematographer Bradford Young in films like “Where Is Kyra?” and “Solo.”
Jon and Sam’s meeting is nothing compared to when the episode cuts to Tormund and Beric at Last Hearth. Inside the abandoned outpost there is barely any light source at first, making the shadows so dark that you can’t even tell which character is appearing in the shot (see second photo below). The sequence becomes a little more visible once Beric’s sword sets on fire, but again the light source does not round out the edges of the characters to make them stand out against the dark background. The balance of light and shadow should make the subject of a shot stand out while also telegraphing atmosphere and mood, but “Thrones” is tipping the scale heavily towards just shadow.
Other scenes, such as the opening shot of Jon and Dany riding into Winterfell accompanied by the Unsullied and Dothraki armies, are overtly color corrected and take away from the grounded realism that has been such an asset to the series. Check out the before and after photo below (via HBO’s behind-the-scenes documentary on filming the premiere) to see the grey and blue filters that were added to darken the overall feel of the setting compared to the more natural lighting on set. The intention of the color correction is clear, as the bluish tones are meant to make Winterfell feel colder and depressed and signify that winter has finally come, but it comes off as forced. The blue and gray tones dull the shot and don’t make the characters stand out in the frame.
The shadows on display in the “Thrones” Season 8 premiere speaks to a recent trend of TV dramas being too dark to see. Netflix’s “Ozark” became the poster child for this issue in its second season as characters’ faces were blocked by darkness. The intention was to make “Ozark” look and feel as visually brooding as its bleak subject matter, but the end result was a color palette so dark it made the series feel less compelling (see Vox’s breakdown of the show’s darkness issue).
Light and shadow can be a powerful tool to depict the internal moral dilemmas of a character, but lean too much towards darkness and the result is just viewers squinting to figure out what they’re watching. There are only five “Thrones” episode left, and the official trailer hints that overpowering shadows could be a consistent issue this season. Just take a look at the shot depicting a white horse standing ahead of Winterfell (most likely a white walker preparing to invade). The light source is the moon, but it’s not being used to make the horse’s legs feel defined against the dark backdrop.
The final season of “Game of Thrones” continues Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.