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Game of Thrones season 8: How to adjust your TV for a cinematic picture

After the Battle of Winterfell's "too dark" fiasco, here's some tips for enjoying the rest of the action in Westeros.

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WHAT DO WE SAY TO POORLY ADJUSTED TELEVISIONS?

Helen Sloan/HBO

Lots of viewers complained that the third episode of Game of Thrones season 8, The Long Night aka The Battle of Winterfell, was too dark. In response, the episode's cinematographer Fabien Wagner channeled Steve Jobs and essentially said you're holding it wrong.

"A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don't know how to tune their TVs properly," Wagner said in an interview defending the lighting of the episode. Well Fabien, I'm here to help a lot of people. 

Read more: How to stream Game of Thrones season 8, episode 4 without cable

There's just three episodes left in Game of Thrones' final season, and while none of them promise to be as dark-looking as The Battle of Winterfell, all are going to be "cinematic," to use Wagner's description. And you might as well enjoy them much as you would any other movie event at home: with the lights down low and on the biggest screen with the highest image quality possible. Here's how.

Now playing: Watch this: Game of Thrones images too dark? We can help *MILD SPOILERS*...
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Turn off the lights

Game of Thrones looks best when the room is dark and full of characters. 

Turning off the lighting on your room is one of the best ways to improve the picture. Any light reflecting off the screen can make dark scenes harder to see and even wash out bright scenes. Try to watch at night, or at least draw the curtains, and turn off as many lights as you can. If you must have some light in the room, it should ideally be in a position behind the TV so it doesn't hit the screen directly, and turned down as dim as possible. Bias lighting is your friend.

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The easiest way to get your TV looking "cinematic?" Put it in Cinema mode.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Choose the Movie, Cinema or Calibrated picture mode

All TVs have picture modes that affect nearly every aspect of the image: brightness, color, gamma, black level and image processing, among other things.

Sound complex? Relax, you don't necessarily have to adjust any of that stuff individually to get peak picture quality. The most accurate picture mode on any TV is almost always the one called Cinema (on LG, Sony), Movie (Samsung, TCL) or Calibrated (Vizio). Simply choosing it will get your TV most of the way toward looking its best in a dark room.

Compared to modes such as Standard or Vivid, Movie modes can initially look duller and less impactful at first. But in almost every case they'll show the most realistic color and be tuned for dim rooms -- which generally means lower light output, solid contrast and correct shadow detail. Of course Movie mode isn't for everyone, so feel free to cycle through the other modes too.

Turn off the soap opera effect

On many TVs, Movie modes will keep one of the least cinematic effects intact: the soap opera effect, which introduces smoothing that makes motion look buttery and less filmlike. You'll want to turn it off to preserve the 24-frame cadence of Game of Thrones (and lots of other stuff). If you don't believe me, take Tom Cruise's word for it

Not every TV has the video processing that causes the soap opera effect, so if yours doesn't, you're in the clear. But most higher-end models do, as do plenty of popular midrange TVs like the TCL 6 series. And unfortunately each manufacturer buries it deep in the TV settings menu and calls it something different. LG calls it "TruMotion," Samsung "Auto Motion Plus," TCL "Action smoothing," Sony "MotionFlow" and Vizio "Motion Control." Here's how to find it and turn it off.

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Like many TV makers, Samsung buries its motion controls deep in the settings menu.

David Katzmaier/CNET

Other settings to tweak

Feeling adventurous? Your TV has myriad other settings to play around with, and many have esoteric names and functions. Adjusting any of those settings may or may not improve the image to your eye, and adjusting them using one scene for reference could make other scenes look worse.

Happily, every picture mode has a "reset" function you can use if you go too far and mess something up. Here's a few settings and what they do.

Backlight: This adjusts your LCD TV's light output. For dark rooms you'll generally want it low, because having it too high can wash out the image.

Brightness: This adjusts the brightness of "black" and shadow detail. Increasing it can make dark areas like the backgrounds in The Battle of Winterfell more visible, but going too high can, again, wash out the image.

Contrast: This controls bright details, and setting it too high can render them invisible. It's usually best to leave it alone.

Color and Tint: Two more that, at least in Movie modes, are usually best left alone. If anything you might want to move color a hair up or down if the image doesn't look saturated enough (or too saturated), but doing so in one scene can ruin another.

Gamma: There's usually a couple of settings here. For a dark room 2.4 or BT.1886 is usually best, but if it obscures shadow detail on your TV go with 2.2.

Local dimming: If you have an LCD TV with this feature (usually called something annoying like "Xtreme Black Engine Plus" or "Local contrast") you'll want it turned on to increase contrast and improve black levels. In most TVs I've reviewed, the lowest local dimming setting looks best, but feel free to cycle through the options.

Looking for more tips? Check out how to set up a TV by eye.

What about compression artifacts?

Many of the complaints around Game of Thrones mentioned bands along the edges of light as the army of the dead advances, big blocks of darker color as the Dothraki horde recedes into the night, and other issues. 

Unfortunately these issues usually aren't the TV's fault, so they're harder to correct. Most are caused by video compression, the technology used to deliver video streams to your TV, and often there's nothing you can do (at least until the Blu-ray comes out).

In some cases you can adjust out these issues by making scenes darker, by reducing the brightness control, for example. The noise-reduction controls on your TV might help a little. 

If you're streaming, the issue might be your internet bandwidth. Try reconnecting the device's Wi-Fi or connecting to your router by wire if possible. The bandwidth coming into your home might be a problem too. If you can wait a bit, try watching later, when fewer viewers will be streaming in your neighborhood or nationwide. Here's some more tips for improving streaming.

The fault might also lie in the specific app or device. I've heard from users who said Chromecast had issues while Roku was fine, for example, or the phone app worked well but the TV app didn't. If possible, try rewatching on a different TV or via a different device.

If you're using HBO Go or HBO Now to watch Game of Thrones, for example, it might be worthwhile to download the app on a different streamer or game console, if it's available, and see if that helps.

Or you could just buy a whole new TV with better picture quality, because even though there are only three Game of Thrones episodes left, there is a prequel series coming.

No matter what TV you have, a few tweaks can usually make the image a little better, whether you're watching Game of Thrones or any other cinematic TV show or movie. For more tips, including plenty of advice for specific TVs, check out CNET's picture settings forum.

Originally published April 29.
Update, May 3: Adds more advice.