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Lost in Time: How the Cinematography of “The Lighthouse” Evokes the 19th Century

Shot on outdated 35mm film stock using the Panavision Millennium XL2, augmented with vintage Baltar lenses, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke crafts a moody, jagged black-and-white aesthetic for director Robert Eggers’ psychological thriller.

The visuals of The Lighthouse, the second feature from writer and director Robert Eggers, are haunting, mystifying, and absolutely intentional according to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. He and Eggers spent several years planning the film, well before embarking on production of their previous collaboration, The Witch, which won the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and also garnered two Independent Spirit Award wins for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay. That level of preparation allowed the filmmakers to craft a distinctive look and feel for The Lighthouse that was achieved with a painstaking blend of old and new.

The Lighthouse is a gorgeously lensed two-hander starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, charting the descent into madness of two lighthouse keepers secluded on a remote and mysterious island off the coast of New England. Artfully crafted to transport audiences back to the end of the 19th century, the psychological thriller was shot in Nova Scotia on 35mm black-and-white film stock, with vintage Baltar lenses and a nearly square aspect ratio.

“All I knew before there was a script was there was going to be two people, a lighthouse, and it would be very atmospheric, of course,” Blaschke tells Bryan Adams. “I was thinking of a way to make it a kind of black and white you don’t really see lately. I wanted to figure out how to make something transportive. I wanted it to feel like something dug up from the past. We had some years to slowly think about it, and have our subconscious go to work on what this thing could look like.”

“Robert showed me his favorite example of our aspect ratio, a [1931] German film set in mineshafts, Kameradschaft,” Blaschke told Daniel Eagan in an interview for Filmmaker magazine. “There were 20 to 30 films on a list he sent me for various reasons. Of those, Fritz Lang’s M was the strongest use of camera in a film. But the texture of The Lighthouse is more influenced by photography.”

An award-winning cinematographer and alumni of the Sundance Director’s Lab, Blaschke is best known for his distinctive, formal, lowlight work on The Witch, for which he was subsequently chosen as one of Variety’s 10 cinematographers to watch for 2015. He most recently completed an episode of M. Night Shyamalan’s new series for Apple, and his other films include Shimmer Lake for Netflix and Oren Uziel, Down a Dark Hall with Lionsgate and director Rodrigo Cortes, and Back Roads, actor Alex Pettyfer’s directing debut.

“The benefit of having a few years to contemplate a project is that a film works its way into you,” Blaschke recounted in a recent interview with the Musicbed blog. “You finally sit down to write a shot list and it’s almost instinctive. Stuff either feels right or it doesn’t. Ultimately, it’s down to your instincts. If something ever felt a little too precious or gimmicky, or obvious or half-baked, those things got weeded out in the process of sitting with it for a while.”

For one key sequence in the film, Dafoe, as Thomas Wake, calls upon Neptune and the forces of the sea to strike down Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow. “As he invokes Triton to bring ‘black waves teeming with salt foam to smother this young mouth with pungent slime,’ the faint light created by the lantern casts shadows across Dafoe’s maddened face, his wide eyes and bearded grin still shining in the darkness as the camera slowly closes in on him,” Jeremy Fuster writes in The Wrap, “It’s one of many moments where the claustrophobic 1.19:1 screen ratio and noir-esque lighting heighten the unease that reigns over The Lighthouse, but cinematographer Jarin Blaschke says that the film’s unique visual style was made with the simplest of cinematography techniques.’”

As Blaschke reveals to Fuster, “It’s a classic, ghost story, flashlight-under-the-face moment. The halogen lantern was on a basic c-stand that we adjusted as the camera moved in on Willem’s face. With the way he was moving his face as he spoke it created this very serendipitous moment where everything came together.”

To design a blueprint for the film’s atmosphere, Eggers began working on a 15-page outline of the story. “This would be a grimy, smelly, tactile movie shot in black and white,” he says of his initial approach to the project. “One of the first things I wrote in the script was the stipulation that this movie must be photographed in 35mm film stock.”

Transportive became the keyword for the film’s aesthetic, with black-and-white Double X film stock remaining at the forefront of the filmmakers’ vision for The Lighthouse. “It is briny. It feels old and crusty,” Blaschke describes, noting that mood and the atmosphere always come first for Eggers. “When he pitched the movie to me, well before it was written, he said it would be a claustrophobic movie set in a lighthouse. He said, ‘It’ll be black and white with a cherry on top,’” Blaschke said to Musicbed. “I didn’t quite understand that at first. I eventually came to understand that it was classically black and white, not a color movie desaturated. It’s dark with high contrast, all of the lighting is optimized for black and white. It’s an unapologetically black-and-white movie.”

Eggers and Blaschke initially received pushback about their decision to film on black-and-white film stock, Blaschke tells Patricia Thomson in an interview for American Cinematographer magazine:

“About a month before pre-production, all [key personnel] and department heads had a very warm gathering to meet and greet, and to start to think about how to make this movie. There was a pocket of time spent, however, on trying to convince Rob and me to shoot color for black-and-white, because they could sell the film to more territories. This was an appalling idea to Rob because there would be an obscure color version of the film somewhere in South America or the South Seas or someplace, and appalling to me because it would compromise the intended black-and-white version. An exceptionally prominent producer, [with] decades of blockbuster films behind him, bore into little ol’ me and asked, ‘With all of today’s amazing technology, you’re seriously telling me there’s no other way to get the look?’ I just had to calmly look him in the eyes and say, ‘…no.’ Of course, this was a month before our tests could back up anything, and I was simply bolstering dumb instinct at that point. It’s a testament to the trust given us that the conversation then petered out, and that we ended up shooting the film on black-and-white film stock.”

To bring alive the film’s precise visual style, Blaschke shot the film on the Panavision Millennium XL2, augmenting his camera with vintage Baltar lenses designed in the 1930s, which have many unique characteristics. “If you have bright windows, they glow a lot,” says Blaschke. “The skies glow big, the water shimmers more, and skin tones smooth out.”

To enhance the image, making it resemble early photography, Blaschke used a custom cyan filter made by Schneider Filters that emulated the look and feel of orthochromatic film from the late 19th century. “I wanted that extra texture, the same look as film stocks we haven’t seen in 100 years,” says Blaschke.

“Without all that distracting color, the images are more handsome and contrasty,” the cinematographer tells David Heuring at Variety. “It leads you towards the minimal in everything — composition, the number of shots, and camera movement. The light is harder. When I’m shooting color, I tend to go a little softer in contrast. Here, I suppose I wanted to see how far I could push it, since I had the opportunity.”

They decided on an aspect ratio of 1.19:1 — an almost-square frame that was used in the early sound years by filmmakers including Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst. Blaschke, a seasoned photographer, was already comfortable shooting stills in the square format.

“The spaces in this movie are meant to feel confined — it’s more of a close-up movie than The Witch, which was a wonderful way to deliver the incredible faces of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe on screen,” says Blaschke. “The idea of widescreen only came about in the 1950s — we wanted to take people back further than that.”

On a research trip to Northern California, the filmmakers visited Point Cabrillo, the site of a lighthouse dating back to 1909, featuring a working Fresnel lens, which, through its intense reflective capacity, allows light to be visible over great distances. “Those swirling light patterns you see on Pattinson’s face in the movie are a real phenomenon,” says Eggers. “We found ourselves just wanting to gaze into the Fresnel lens. We could have stayed all night staring into the light.”

Read more: The Lighthouse Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke on Natural Lighting and the Devolution of Film Language (The Film Stage)

Production for The Lighthouse began early in 2018, over the course of 32 days in March and April, in and around the Southern tip of Nova Scotia, with filming divided between the outdoor set on Cape Forchu and the indoor set near Halifax. Cold Atlantic waters, intense winds, and no protective flora on the Forchu terrain kept cast and crew exposed to the elements throughout the shoot.

Following the 32-day shoot, Eggers and a skeleton crew filmed trained seagulls, which make appearances during several key scenes in the movie. “I had no idea how smart they were. They were able to do many of their complex actions in one take — but working with animals is never easy,” Eggers concludes. “I can deal with terrible weather again. But I think I’m finished casting seagulls and goats in prominent roles.”

Courtesy of A24

Every structure seen on screen in The Lighthouse was constructed from the ground up, including a full-scale lighthouse station on Cape Forchu, a unique outcropping of volcanic rock located on the coast of Nova Scotia. The lighthouse complex — viewed in a long shot in an early scene in the film — was actually several sets, constructed in several locations: All the exteriors were built on the Canadian fishing community of Cape Forchu. Some of the interiors were filmed there as well, but the majority were built inside soundstages and warehouses outside of Halifax. Even in the writing phase, it was clear to the filmmakers that it would be too cramped to maneuver the camera inside the lighthouse tower, prompting production designer Craig Lathrop to build the interior on a soundstage. For the exterior, in a feat of engineering, the construction team built a 70-foot tower that could withstand 120-kilometer winds in the depths of winter.

Read more: To the Lighthouse: Cinematic Lighthouses in Shutter Island, Annihilation and The Lighthouse

“Our movie light in the beacon was much brighter than the kerosene burner that would have been in operation during the late 19th century,” notes Eggers, “So we had a functional lighthouse that could shine for 16 miles.”

“When I watch the film, it feels like its own thing. It does vaguely take you to the past, but hopefully it’s not a mere recreation,” Blaschke told Musicbed. “It’s a mix of things. It feels like the 19th century and it also feels like the 1930s. Ultimately, it has to feel like it came out of us.”

Read more: Recreating the Look of The Lighthouse