The impenetrable darkness of “The Long Night”
It was a simpler time before April 28, 2019. The Khaleesi was going to be the savior of Westeros, Disney was on their way to owning all of us, and Joe’s Pizza in the Village had the best slice. While two of those things might still be true, they don’t matter anymore because we now live in a post-“The Long Night” world, a world where terms like H.264 and megabits per second are no longer muttered about only on tech blogs but discussed out in the open around water coolers (is that still a thing?) Now that the dust has settled a bit from the Game of Thrones kerfuffle, what are some of the things that came to light out of the darkness of that long night?
Lesson 1: Public Enemy No. 1—Compression
If you haven’t realized it from the discussion here at Cineluxe over the past month, compression has become a hot-button issue—for good reason. GoT fans were confronted with Lego-like picture artifacts for the duration of the 82-minute “Long Night” episode, and they’re not happy about it.
While the video quality of home viewing has increased dramatically over the past few years with 4K UHD becoming more mainstream and the latest TVs allowing for great-looking HDR and far more vibrant colors, compression hasn’t always kept up. For years, H.264 (also called AVC) was king, and really, still is. It can compress video all the way up to 8K resolution, and has been tweaked to include support for wide color gamut and HDR, and to produce smaller file sizes. But it just can’t create files small enough for efficient delivery through the current pipelines without leading to the kinds of problems that were amply on display in “The Long Night.”
You probably read Andrew Robinson’s take on H.265 (aka HEVC) as the next step forward. With H.265, a 1080p signal only requires a 3 Mbps bitrate as opposed to H.264’s 6 Mbps. And a 4K signal needs less than half of H.264’s bitrate—15 vs. 32
minimums, and at those rates you’ll likely see image issues. Netflix, which uses H.265 for all of its 4K content, recommends a minimum 25 Mbps connection for streaming.
Speaking of Netflix, they’re at the forefront of experimenting with new, better codecs for 4K streaming. As a result, you can expect to hear some new acronyms like VP9 and AV1 in the coming years. AV1 in particular promises to deliver HEVC-level quality while using even fewer bits.
Lesson 2: It’s (probably) not your TV
The cinematographer for “The Long Night,” Fabian Wagner, found himself on the defensive after the uproar and, in addition to (rightly) blaming HBO’s compression, also blamed viewers and their TVs. “A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly,” he told Wired UK.
Technically, that is correct. The vast majority of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly. Luckily, they don’t really need to. Most TVs over the past couple years priced more than $500 come out of the factory looking really good and don’t
necessarily need to be calibrated. (But I would still recommend calibration for any mid-to-high-end TV, to make sure you’re getting that absolute most out of it.)
One thing Mr. Wagner brought up that has some merit is people’s tendency to watch TV with their lights on. Even minimal lighting can have an impact on your ability to see shadow detail in a darkly filmed scene, especially if you have an older LCD TV with mediocre black levels. So one quick fix for a murky picture might be to just turn off any extra light in you room.
If you want to make sure your TV is in the best viewing mode—and you haven’t had it calibrated—don’t, for the love of Werner Herzog, ever put it in Vivid (aka “Torch”) mode. Go for Cinema, or Calibrated, or Movie. These will generally have the best color accuracy and contrast/backlight/ dimming zones setting, and won’t include the bane of video reviewers everywhere—the “soap opera effect.”
Lesson 3: The apps you use (and the device they’re on) matter
You can expect the quality and user experience to differ from one app to the next, since they’re all made by different companies that generally aren’t keen on sharing development secrets. But there can even be performance issues with the same app on different platforms—as Dennis Burger recently described in his article about the Netflix app. I have to admit, that revelation was a bit of a shock to me. The idea that a seemingly identical app could perform vastly differently through different platforms was a big surprise. Some variation is to be expected, but I would have thought it would be more of an academic argument than a bunch of extra artifacts on one app version over the other. Trying the Netflix app on a different platform could help clear up any artifacts you might be experiencing.
But this piece is really about how HBO screwed up. And if you’re watching HBO through your cable or satellite service, you’re dependent on the hardware they provide, which might not be offering state-of-the-art resolution support. For instance, if you haven’t replaced you DirecTV HDR in the past couple years, it might still top out at 1080i resolution. Signing into the HBO GO app (or the NOW app, if you’re streaming only) should guarantee 1080p support.
Lesson 4: Choose your viewing window wisely
“The Long Night” had 17.8 million viewers when it initially aired over all delivery media, including cable, satellite, HBO NOW, and HBO GO. That was a new record for HBO, so
congratulations are in order, I suppose. But with such a concurrent draw on the servers, the quality of the stream suffered. This severely exacerbated the already present compression artifacts, to the point of making the show unwatchable—hence the Twitter eruption that night and the next day. I watched portions of the episode a few more times that week after the viewing tide subsided to see if there was any improvement, and while the artifacts weren’t gone, they were much less obvious.
Lesson 5: Aesthetic choices matter too
Why did the Internet hordes descend on Fabian Wagner? It’s rare that a cinematographer needs to come out from behind the camera to defend himself, but that episode was dark—intentionally so. It was his conception (in collaboration with the director) that was on the screen, after all, and people were upset they couldn’t see it. A hugely anticipated battle scene where you can’t see anything? Preposterous. In contrast, take a look at another famous nighttime battle—The Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. That place was lit up like a Christmas tree—or, more accurately, a huge amount of blue light that gave the feel of the moon. The whole sequence was masterfully shot.
That doesn’t mean “The Long Night” was shot wrong, just different. In fact, the move toward really dark seems to be a bit of a recent trend. In the spring of 2018, a little movie called Solo: A Star Wars Story was released. The cinematographer, Bradford Young, used a low-light approach much like Fabian Wagner’s to accentuate the shadows and grime of Han Solo’s earlier
Solo: A Star Wars Story—into the darkness of the Maw
years. Complaints on the Internet were everywhere (for a Star Wars movie, go figure . . .) because many theaters, even in major markets, weren’t properly calibrated, which led to a lack of shadow detail. I happily didn’t run into that issue here in Los Angeles, and now regularly use Solo as a test disc for the gritty sabacc scenes and the darkness of the Falcon flying through the Maw.
Now that “The Longest Night” has brought the conversation out into the open, everything is solved and we don’t need to worry about encountering these problems ever again, right? Nope. Not by a long shot. It’s wonderful that we’re talking about what went wrong, but it’s going to take a while for the technology and the people who implement it to catch up.
Even though the first version of H.264 was completed in 2003, it didn’t really achieve widespread adoption until a decade later. The HEVC standard was ratified in 2013, and Netflix implemented it for 4K delivery in 2016, but it’s only recently begun to catch on elsewhere. If all of that is any indication, AV1 (which was released last year) won’t be in wide use for at least a couple of years.
And low-light cinematography isn’t going away, nor should it. But for HBO and their use of H.264, it does mean that grayscale banding in dark scenes will continue to be apparent. (We’ve already seen it again at the end of Episode 2 of HBO’s Chernobyl.)
The most we can do is make sure our TVs aren’t in Vivid mode, the lights are all turned off, and we’re using the best version of our streaming app we can.