The Long Night, the third episode of Game of Thrones eighth and final season, had the internet in an uproar, but not for the usual reasons. This time around, the buzz has less to do with the spectacle of the episode’s epic Battle of Winterfell than the fact that few could actually see any spectacle on their screens at all.
Did HBO make a poor artistic call by filming the episode in extremely low light? Was the show overly compressed to fit down clogged-up internet pipelines during peak-use hours? Or is there something going on with your TV or the room you are watching it in?
It’s a little bit of all three.
Whether you watch HBO through your cable/satellite box, stream Game of Thrones through HBO’s streaming apps HBO Go or HBO Now, or stream HBO through a Hulu, Sling TV, or Apple TV subscription, the video signal you get is highly compressed. Video compression has been employed by cable and satellite operators for decades now — there are simply too many channels to try to cram through a very limited space, and the hefty bandwidth needs of high-definition video compound that problem. The same issue exists for video streamed over the internet, with high-resolution 4K video increasingly taxing internet pathways.
To get you the TV you want to watch, compression is applied to video so it uses less data and is easier to deliver reliably. In many ways, this process is similar to the compression of music and thus has a similar effect. Information is actually removed from a digital music file, ideally in a way that has the lowest possible impact. With music, you may hear raspiness in the treble — the higher frequency sounds made by brass instruments and cymbals — as a result of this missing information. With video compression, these artifacts show up as pixelation or as an effect known in TV circles as macroblocking.
Macroblocking looks a lot like the word sounds. In scenes where there are large areas of one color, you may notice large squares — or blocks — of slightly different shades. Clouds, for example, may look less like puffy white and gray pillows and more like something out of a Lego movie. Then there is an effect called banding, which comes into play where there is a high contrast between a bright area in one part of the screen and a much darker one in another, with subtle shades in between. Rather than appear as a smooth transition, you will see bands of different colors. The TV shows you watch all exhibit some level of macroblocking and banding — it’s always been there — it’s just that these effects are more noticeable in dark scenes with a lot of dark grays and black patches on the screen interrupted periodically by, say, flames spewing from a dragon’s mouth. And in the case of this GoT episode, which took place entirely at night, there was a lot of darkness going on.
Some may also have noticed that when the action in the episode was particularly fierce and fast, it began to get blurry. This also traces back to compression. Fast-moving scenes require huge amounts of data, and when that data is removed, you miss it. Objects may appear blurry or blocky, almost as if there was a signal dropout. The problem is there isn’t enough data getting through — be it due to compression, throttled bitrate, or a slow internet connection — and you get messy images as a result.
HBO’s cinematic vision
HBO, understandably, approaches its most-watched show with the type of artistic vision shared by the world’s greatest movie directors. Cinematography and high-quality digital graphics are blended with the expertise of Hollywood’s finest. That approach, apparently, extends to making the show look as “naturalistic as possible,” according to Insider. Rather than add lighting to the battle-by-night scene, HBO shot with extremely high-end cameras and with just enough light to give the scene the feel the directors wanted. The Night King casts a wintry fog for a reason: You aren’t supposed to see what’s coming until it is right on top of you.
The problem is, not everyone’s TV or viewing environment can support this style of art.
Your TV and your room
Ask anyone who owns a traditional projector and they’ll tell you the enemy of a high-quality picture is any light not coming from the projector itself. Projectors and projection screens rely on the absence of light to create contrast on screen, so where there is light leaking into the room, it brightens up the screen and competes with the light coming from the projector, which has limited power to transmit light and is doing so from a relatively long distance.
Today’s TVs can get so bright that, outside of sunlight beaming straight onto the screen, it’s rare to see them wash out. Bottom line: You don’t have to watch TV in a pitch-black room to enjoy a nice picture … most of the time. If the image on the screen is extremely dark, glare from surrounding light might make the dark objects virtually indiscernible. Still, most TV programming is produced in such a way that we can all just sit down and watch without missing much. With movies, where dark scenes are used much more liberally, it’s a different story. But those dark scenes usually pass by quickly. Such was not the case with this episode of Game of Thrones. The show exposed in a glaring way a struggle many TVs suffer.
It’s a little-known fact to almost everyone other than TV industry pros that TVs have a hard time reproducing low-luminance video content. When an object on a screen gets very dim, the TV must apply just the right amount of voltage to make it show up — too much and the object is too bright and blows out everything around it, too little and the object might not even be visible. And when the entire screen is dim, an LED/LCD TV is actively working not to turn black stuff gray by lighting it up too much. On a technical level, an LED/LCD TV is being asked to defy the laws of physics in a big way. Widely dark content is less of a problem for OLED TVs because the technology is naturally good at doing black levels, so it has an easier time lighting up just what it wants, but handling low levels of light is still a challenge from an electrical perspective.
All of this is to say that, while there are some very advanced (and expensive) TVs out there designed to handle extremely dark TV and movie scenes well, most of us don’t own them. I watched the episode in question on an LG C9 OLED by streaming HBO through a Hulu app on the TV and when the low, low bitrate wasn’t showing its ugly face, it looked glorious. And the room wasn’t totally dark, either. Most people simply don’t have such a nice TV, though, which begs the question: If HBO is making art, but most people literally can’t see it, does it matter?
Change your settings and try again
If you’re rocking a less-than-stellar TV and want to see the episode, there are a couple of compromises you can make.
You can make some basic TV settings adjustments, like changing the contrast or brightness of your TV, to help make this dark episode more visible, but know that the picture will look gray and you may not see as much detail as you like.
The best thing you can do is get your room as dark as possible. Watch at night, turn off all the lights, draw the blinds, and start watching. If it looks good enough, excellent. If not, select Movie, Cinema, or Calibrated as a picture mode preset, then bump up the backlight setting on your LED/LCD just until things look good enough.
Finally, try to find a high-quality stream. HBO GO and HBO Now tend to stream at lower bit rates than HBO delivered through Hulu, Amazon Prime, or Sling TV (if HBO ever makes a return to Sling). Just for this one episode, it may be worth going the extra mile to watch through a better streaming service.
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