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.

30 Comments »

Richard Allen Crook wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 5:49 AM PST:

The 30 fps also lends to the unfilmlike look.


Alex wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 5:55 AM PST:

I totally agree with your post Eugenia.A possibly reason would be that everything it`s made on the go.Please keep posting.
Thank you.


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Eugenia wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 12:08 PM PST:

30 fps is not an issue for US primetime scripted shows, they’re all shot at 24p. That problem mostly exists in other countries, since they used to use cheap cameras that only did 50i or 60i. This is changing there too.


Tony B wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 1:06 PM PST:

I like the way that SGU is lit. I wasn’t a big fan of how Galactica was lit (way too dark and grainy, and not in a way that looked stylized). I could often see CMOS sensor artifacts in Battlestar because of the low light.


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Eugenia wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 2:08 PM PST:

SGU is worse than BSG in terms of light actually. The grain on BSG was artificial, they were adding it on post.


Richard Allen Crook wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 7:56 PM PST:

I know us TV is broadcasted @ 60fps, I thought most dramas were shot at 30, but you’ve seen otherwise?


Richard Allen Crook wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 8:04 PM PST:

Ok…reading up on it it looks like you’re right…24fps is what most dramas are shot on. I’ll shut up now, haha.

I would imagine that the lighting issues are partky due to the number of simoultaneous units shooting and the super speed a which episodics are shot.


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Eugenia wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 9:10 PM PST:

They shoot at 24p and then they add pulldown to 60i. Essentially the footage becomes PF24.


Glenn wrote on November 27th, 2010 at 8:48 AM PST:

Sorry, but I much prefer it how it is already. The look of SGU is one of the things I like most about the show. They most probably need to keep it dark to hide any flaws in the sets.


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Eugenia wrote on November 27th, 2010 at 12:00 PM PST:

The show is dark in the wrong spots. My linked shots prove that. It’s simply bad lighting. Nothing more to add there.


Glenn wrote on November 28th, 2010 at 4:36 AM PST:

They all look fine here. I think it must be your LCD? There’s no actual black in the image you graded. It’s more like a really dark teal grey.


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Eugenia wrote on November 28th, 2010 at 11:37 AM PST:

Did you actually look at the linked pictures? This is NOT good light.


Glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 8:46 AM PST:

You’re kinda right…it is partially the lighting but Alex’s, “…on the go,” is closer to the reason why but not because they don’t have the right lighting gear it’s because they have to run and gun the shoots. They set up the lighting in an overhead fashion so they don’t have to reconfigure the lighting for every single shot. Notice the lack of shadows in most television shows.


Glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 8:55 AM PST:

In your examples you’re softening the bluish tone which was, probably, chosen due to the actress’s crazy, blue eyes. The entire color palette of that shot is blue. Not to mention you’re using a SYFY show as an example which is probably not too fair…since their subject matter is supposed to look hyper realistic. Also the use of HD cams requires a different type of light set up. I know, I know…they use HD for films but the audience aren’t using their thousand dollar HDTVs to view it…people want a bang for their buck so the lighting of HDTV shows will be more saturated and defined.


jpe wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 10:09 AM PST:

For us rookie filmmakers, what resources would you recommend to learn lighting?


glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 12:18 PM PST:

jpe…your eyes. Seriously, go grab some clamp lights at home depot or wal-mart…maybe a dimmer or two…maybe even a halogen if you want some real powerful lighting. Mess around with them until you find an aesthetic that you like and is pleasing to the eyes and conveys the mood of the shot you are shooting. Key light, fill light and back light…look up those phrases and you’ll be golden. Don’t be afraid of shadows or shafts of either light or darkness…it adds mood.


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Eugenia wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 12:20 PM PST:

>In your examples you’re softening the bluish tone which was, probably, chosen due to the actress’s crazy, blue eyes.

No, it was chosen because they were in a hurry.

>The entire color palette of that shot is blue

Blue is fine. But skin tones must remain human in “normal” shots, or the show loses personality. It’s color grading/lighting 101.

And I was talking about the LINKED shots, not he embedded one.

>For us rookie filmmakers, what resources would you recommend to learn lighting?

Start with this.


glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 3:19 PM PST:

Why choose blue if you’re in a hurry? I agree skin tones should remain human unless light is being reflected off the skin. It seems they incorporate some of their lighting into the set pieces…if the available light is blue, then it will and should reflect blue off the skin of the actor. From this grab I cannot tell, for sure, if they are using that incorporated light(I cannot think of the actual, technical phrase) or if they just put blue gels over top of all of their light kits to add the bluish hue over the entire scene?


glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 3:24 PM PST:

What I mean is…what is the context of that shot? It looks like they could be staring, out the window, at a blue planet…if it something like that…then the bluish hue reflected off their skin would be correct…IMO.


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Eugenia wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 3:25 PM PST:

You’re all getting too hanged up on the embedded picture, which is just one example. The major offenses is on the linked pictures, where the lighting is REALLY BAD.

And no, this is just a control room, no planet staring.


glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 3:32 PM PST:

I was just using the embedded picture, as the example, because that was the one you chose to color correct.

I would agree that the first linked picture is pretty horrendous…the second one, with LaBamba…not so bad…IMO.

I don’t entirely disagree with you…they are in a hurry…so they do as much as they can in the time that they have. They’re making aesthetic choices based on resources as opposed to artistic integrity or even realistic integrity.

BTW, is it the same control room from the second, linked picture that has that blue energy source in the center of the set?


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Eugenia wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 3:59 PM PST:

No, that’s a different place. But it doesn’t matter, even if it was. It’s not just about the blue color, but also about the super-contrast they’re using, essentially destroying all detail — a no-no for film-look.

The second pic is as bad btw, the actor that sits down is completely in shade, and yet he’s the person in the middle of the screen, making him the main hero in that scene.


glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 5:55 PM PST:

It would matter…if the source light, in the set, is blue then, realistically, blue light would reflect off the faces of the actors in the screen. I think the super contrast is both aesthetic and practical…chances are the sets are only slightly put together in some shots…so they want to have shafts of darkness to hide the incomplete set. And, no offense but the original has more detail than your color corrected version.

The second linked picture is mostly lit by source lighting…it adds mood and atmosphere and lends itself to quick set-ups. Sure they could have used a little more key light to brighten him up, in that shot, but it’s unnecessary
with the aesthetic they’re going for.

BTW, the main hero is not always in the center of the screen…in this shot he might find something of value but who knows what happens in the next shot…so it’s not a necessity…especially in a show with an ensemble cast.


glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 5:58 PM PST:

To tell you the truth I’m surprised, in the screen grab you embedded, that they have some depth of field. Television shows are known for using flat lighting and wide angle lenses. I wonder how much of this show is shot in front of a green screen?


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Eugenia wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 6:00 PM PST:

Glenn, watch the series. Then compare it to a blockbuster, and you will see its lighting lacking.

As for detail, the contrasty original version HAS NONE. My version does. Please, I don’t mind you having different opinions, but not for obvious stuff. Look how my graded version actually has a background! Look all the detail on their hair. If you’re going to antagonize me, at least do it for things that make sense.

There is no point to this unless you watch a few episodes of SGU, and then compare it to the theatrical experience. Otherwise, we just keep going on in circles. Look how much detail there’s on that trailer, even when in the dark. How the faces are lit the right way. How day shots are looking so matte and with a nicely distributed light.

The fact that SGU, or any other TV show, is cheaper, it’s besides the point. A good DP should be able to get around budget and time limitations. It’s his real job. Everyone can put some lights together, but doing so fast, in a nicer way, that’s art.


glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 9:25 PM PST:

Eugenia, you’re deciding what the best lighting is for someone else’s work. Maybe they didn’t want to show the background…maybe they wanted the contrast to separate the actors from the set to create a certain mood in the scene.

For the most part…in the second linked screen grab…source lighting is used to light the entire set and every actor in it. I personally like source lighting.

In the screen grab you chose to color correct…I like the original better, I like the separation between the actors and the set. I think the only thing you accomplished was muddying the picture, while adding some film grain, without any dramatic effect to the scene…so what if I can see the highlights bouncing off of her hair…does that tell me anything about what the character is feeling in that moment.

Please don’t take this the wrong way, I have been a fan of your work for a while now…I just disagree with you in this instance.

Actually, Eugenia I don’t disagree with you in general…about TV lighting…just the specifics you chose to use to prove your case in this instance. Granted, I am partially ignorant, in this conversation, because I have not watched one episode of this show but I do understand they are probably doing 10 – 20 set-ups a day and that requires choosing a lighting configuration that works and works fast. Is it the best looking light set-up…NO but it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen on TV either…or in a movie. But, then again, I watch some pretty horrific micro cinema.


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Eugenia wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 9:33 PM PST:

I personally can’t stand the lighting on SGU. On other shows is as bad, but in different ways. LOST had great lighting, CSI:Miami does too. But most others are pretty bad. I suggest you watch a few episodes of SGU. It’s free to watch on Hulu.


glenn wrote on November 29th, 2010 at 9:49 PM PST:

I remember when the movie The Ring came out and how it was desaturated with a bluish tint(I know I’m hung up on the blue) At first everybody loved that look of color grading and it was in every other horror movie 10 years ago…now people are sick and tired of that look. I think it worked for that movie. It was probably the closest thing, to the original, he could get Hollywood to sign off on. It was an artistic choice. I highly doubt the SYFY channel gives as much artistic freedom to these shows so they pick a generic look that is relatively pleasing to the eye, sets the tone and mood for the scene and comes within budget of their crazy, daily set-ups.

Like I said I agree with you in theory but certain instances needs to taken into consideration…BTW, I agree with you AND disagree with you about Dexter as well but I think their lighting set-up is, partially, an artistic choice as well or at least artistic due to their constraints…but there’s no point to getting into that discussion.

Thanks for the heads up about Hulu…I’ve never really checked that site out. I still like my TV. I’m dying to get a Roku box so I can really get into some of these sites on the comfort of my sofa.


Glenn wrote on November 30th, 2010 at 1:04 AM PST:

Did you actually look at the linked pictures?

Yes, and they look great! Honestly, I can’t see anything wrong with either.


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Eugenia wrote on November 30th, 2010 at 2:00 AM PST:

If you see nothing wrong with these pics, especially the first one, then you need to take a primer on lighting.


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