Archive for November 26th, 2010

What separates TV series from movies

Note: This blog post is about the *look*, not other aspects of filmmaking.

Why most TV series often look so cheap, so not-cinematic, even if they use the same cameras and gear? The 3rd season of Dexter for example looks terrible compared to its first two seasons (they switched from film to digital at that season too, but that wasn’t the real problem). Hawaii 5-0’s interior shots leave a lot to be desired too. SGU and most of SyFy’s shows (shot in Canada’s cheaper studios) look bad too. CSI:Miami is one of the few shows that looks good (too bad everything else sucks on this show).

I thought long and hard, and after some deliberation, my opinion is that the main offense of TV series is bad lighting. It seems that DPs working for TV shows don’t have the time, or the right experience, or don’t have the budget available to them, to use the right kind of lighting gear. On Dexter for example, they often use no lighting or reflectors outdoors, and so the cameras have to open up in order to not get blacked-out faces. This results in a completely over-exposed background, and often the faces are still not well-lit. It just looks ugly. Even my husband noticed, while he never watched seasons 1-2 for comparison.

The second offense is on-the-go color grading. Not much work is done to make it look cinematic (meaning: low saturation, low contrast). If anything, TV colorists bump up the saturation/contrast like there’s no tomorrow as in a “look at me, look at me” contest (as if TV sets’ over-the-top default color modes were not enough). They think that if they make it so harsh to look at, somehow the story will get under the skin of the viewer. Well, I find it to have the exact opposite effect.

But anyway, bad or non-existent lighting remains the main problem. With few to non-existent wide shots being the third offense. And cheap color grading sitting in the middle.

Here’s a screengrab from Stargate:Universe (SGU), showing the problem. A completely blacked out image, and I’m having trouble viewing what’s going on in the scene, even when my TV is on “movie mode”, the kindest of the color modes. We get it. SGU is supposed to be a “dark” TV series, but the visual darkness of it has to be realized strategically, not by blacking everything out to the point of having to wear night vision goggles, just to make out what the hell is going on at the screen.

I had to lower contrast, gamma, saturation, increase brightness, change the hi-mid-low colors, add a bit of unsharpen mask, and most importantly, I had to re-light the scene using a spotlight plugin (obviously not as good as real lights). There should not be any hard shadows on the faces of the actors, unless it helps with the story (e.g. having half of the face in shadow, if the hero faces a dilemma).

Here is another terribly-lit shot. And one more. SGU is full of such shots. While they try to convey the dark, power-struggling spaceship, they take a lot away from connecting with the story and characters. It could be done better, and still convey what they needed to convey.

I hope that younger DPs would be able to provide the cinematic experience using TV’s fewer resources, by being smart.