The cost per episode for the huge HBO hit “Game of Thrones” is $10 million in Season 6. The show has spent well over $100 million for the whole series, and much of the narrative was building up to Sunday night’s epic Battle of Winterfell.
The episode — titled “The Long Night” and the third out of six in the show’s eighth and final season — featured the biggest battle ever, endlessly hyped by the network. But viewers had one major complaint — you couldn’t see what the @#$%*& was going on!
The Long Night indeed.
“So all those millions of dollars in production value must have went to the dragon scenes because damn are the battle scenes dark as hell on #GameOfThrones,” a fan wrote.
Others sought help so they could see. “how do u switch this show from night mode,” one viewser asked.
Another viewer wrote: “The lighting budget for this episode was 8 candles. But on the bright side I found my Tv’s brightness setting #GameOfThrones.”
“My laptop screen ain’t cut out for this ‘artistic choice’ in lighting, @HBO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” another wrote.
Still, the episode was heavily praised, with The New York Times writing: “Sunday’s final clash was a masterpiece of tension and release, goose bumps and heartbreak, grandiosity and intimacy. It deftly mixed genres (horror, action, melodrama), shots and planes of action as it shifted from the chaos of the fighting in and around Winterfell, to the claustrophobic terror of the crypts, to the dragon dogfighting in the winter sky.”
But lighting throughout the series has sometimes drawn attention. Insider wrote a piece last week headlined: “Why ‘Game of Thrones’ has become so dark you can barely see the characters sometimes.”
Though this darker palette is a trend in television outside of “Game of Thrones,” one of the HBO’s hired directors of photography says the lack of extra lighting is intentional.
“I think we’re all very much on the same page where we’re trying to be as naturalistic as possible,” Robert McLachlan, a cinematographer, told INSIDER in 2017.
He added that the show’s makers wanted “to make these sets and locations feel as if they’re absolutely not lit by us, but only by Mother Nature or some candles.”
That reasoning didn’t placate viewers Sunday night.
After the episode aired, Vanity Fair wrote a piece headlined: “Was That Game of Thrones Battle Literally Too Dark?”
This episode of Game of Thrones was called “The Long Night,” which is primarily an allusion to the fabled battle of old that rocked Westeros and may play a part in the prequel series currently in the works at HBO. But it’s also a rather apt name for an episode of television that had many at home squinting and scooting closer to see if one of their favorites had just died in the dimly lit clash between the army of the living and the army of the dead. (We have a full accounting here.) The episode’s director of photography, Fabian Wagner, spoke with Vanity Fair’s “Still Watching” podcast about some of the challenges of shooting this nocturnal skirmish.
First, it’s worth noting that episode director Miguel Sapochnik has said that he studied the long nighttime fight at the center of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, called the Battle of Helm’s Deep, in order to figure out how to create a super-sized battle episode that wouldn’t tire audiences out. You can see a lot of that famous cinematic skirmish in the Battle for Winterfell, but one thing you won’t see is Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s approach to lighting.
Wagner in his interview with Vanity Fair stressed that despite its zombies and dragons, Game of Thrones is a very naturalistically and “classically” shot show. Over the years, the cinematographers have relied on sunlight, moonlight, candlelight, and fire light. Lesnie, on the other hand, had no such compunction. Lord of the Ringsstar Sean Astin once asked Lesnie “where is the light coming from?” when they were shooting in what should have been a darkened tower. Lesnie replied, “Same place as the music.” Which is why Helm’s Deep is lit up like Fenway Park, making every grim king, glam archer, and shield-surfing elf easy to pick out in a crowd.