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TV Trends: Darkening horizons

Robert Weedon | Television | Monday 8th February 2010

People often say that Top Gear is one of the most successful British TV series of the past decade. They'd be right. Top Gear is a worldwide phenomenon (both with and without a capital W, thanks to the BBC's commercial arm). There are many reasons stated for its success - the cool cars, enjoyable stunts, the studio format, the cartoonishness of the three hosts, etc. One reason that is perhaps less noted, probably as it is largely subconscious, is the look. Top Gear must be one of the most visually interesting programmes on television.

As the critic A.A. Gill stated in 2008:
"Just look at Top Gear as art. As light and movement and sound. Watch it as pure TV, as brilliance. It is a triumph of the craft of programme-making, of the minute, obsessive, musical masonry of editing, the french polishing of colourwashing and grading."
He's right. One of the biggest subconscious editing effects used by Top Gear is a technique that might have a proper name, but if it does, I don't know it, so we'll call it "dark edging". It's a post-production technique, probably applied by Avid, the industry-standard video editing software. Here it is in use in a particularly visually interesting segment, from the last episode of the 2009 series:

Lexus LFA screenshot with dark surround.

It can also be seen at work in a fairly early episode here, or you could just tune into Dave at any time of the day. Or night.

So, what's the point of "dark edging", if that's even what it's called?

Its primary purpose is of course to get rid of a distracting sky. The sky can be great, but especially when filming in the UK it is wont to be grey or cloudy, and a cloudy sky does not make an interesting visual. Take this picture of me, looking slightly windswept and dishevelled on a beach in Northumberland:

Rob picture 1

It's not a bad picture, except that it's of me looking slightly windswept and dishevelled on a beach in Northumberland, but because it was taken on a cloudy day with lots of white sky, it means that I don't stand out and there are "blown highlights" in the top right hand corner. I've already graded the image to give it as much contrast as possible, but because I was wearing a dark coat and the light was fading, I don't stand out. However, being a vain sort of chap, I want as much attention to focus on me. Therefore, I'm going to darken the top of the sky to make your eye look at me.

Rob picture 2

Instantly, the overpowering look of the sky has gone. But I want to go further. I want to look dramatic, the hero of the piece. Working on a new layer, I'm going to darken the corners of the frame so that the eye is drawn further towards the central subject (that's me, not the ruined castle):

Rob picture 3

That's better! In fact, it's quite difficult to believe that I haven't made myself brighter, whereas in reality, it's the opposite - I've stayed the same, but the world has changed around me. (It's quite a common suspicion I have.) But what if I want to go a bit further? I don't really want people to look at anything else. That rock in the corner is a bit distracting! So, on my last and final layer, I darken the very edges of the frame and certain objects to compound the focus of the eye purely onto me.

Rob picture 4

Mmm, very nice. The side effect of this editing is that by darkening the sky and surroundings to this extent, I've changed the reality; whereas in image 2, one could just about believe the sky looked a bit broody that day, it now looks completely artificial. It does look more interesting, though, and gives it a certain cinematic quality. With that in mind, what if I want to pretend this is a film? Widescreen's a bit commonplace now, so finally, I apply a fake 2.35:1 matte over the top of the frame and hey presto:

Rob picture 5

Of course, this is to slightly simplify the care that must go into the production of Top Gear films, which also use interesting camera angles, high-speed cameras and other post-production video editing techniques. But, the darkened sky is a big one.


In a visual update to this article, we can see a similar effect in motion in this rather dull video I made of a windfarm. You can also see a fake 2.35:1 matte at work here, as well as a somewhat clichéd use of a musical track by electronic group Leftfield, who always get wheeled out whenever modern technology is shown on television programmes. They probably get most of their royalties from The Gadget Show and Click. Oh, and people ripping off those M&S "not just food" adverts.


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