The Little Mermaid: Why is it getting harder and harder to see movies because of the lighting?

The dark tone of some of the new live-action Disney remake’s clips has drawn criticism. Many blockbusters are dimming the lights these days. Nick Barber explains the rationale.

Fans of the 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid complained on social media that they didn’t understand the appeal of the upcoming live-action Disney film when a clip from it aired at the MTV Awards on May 7. Or, to be more precise, they stated that they had no vision at all. Commenter after commenter bemoaned the dim lighting and lack of clarity in a scene between Ariel (Halle Bailey) and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) that was supposed to be magical and romantic. Although the scene is set at night, nonetheless… “The light is not there. What about the color? This appears so boring, “One Twitter user complained. Another person questioned, “Did all the lightbulbs blow at the same time on set?” There was the

The Little Mermaid: Why is it getting harder and harder to see movies because of the lighting? 1
First reviews for Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid are rolling in. (Disney)

But it’s not just Disney fairy tales that have this problem. Viewers frequently complain that watching today’s high-budget entertainment can feel like staring into a cave on a cloudy night on social media, whether they’ve seen blockbusters like The Batman and Avengers: Endgame or epic television programs like Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian. Their confusion over the gloomy lighting is offset by their surprise at the clarity and brightness of Hollywood blockbusters from earlier decades. One instance that comes to mind is Titanic’s climax from 1997. Even though it takes place in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean, Jack and Rose’s actions are clear without straining your eyes.

Fair warning: clips and trailers will undoubtedly appear darker on your phone in bright sunlight than they do when displayed on a large screen in a movie theater. However, experts who have compared the color palettes of new and old movies confirm that this depressing trend isn’t just due to our phones or our romanticized memories; rather, cinematography is where we truly reside.

Why then do so many filmmakers use dim lighting? The short answer is because they are able to. Since celluloid was replaced by digital video ten years ago, more than 90% of movies were made digitally as of 2016. Directors now have video monitors on location to show them exactly what the cameras are taking, which is one change brought about by this technology. They can experiment with lower lighting because they can see right away if all the information they require is present on the screen. The safest bet is to shoot with plenty of light, even if scenes are intended to be dark, because there is no equivalent way to determine in real time whether or not a scene is too shadowy with celluloid.


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