Camera Work: The Lighthouse

Camera Work: The Lighthouse

Rahul Chettiyar | 09 Apr 2020

Directed by Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson is a psychological horror story set in the 1890s about two lighthouse keepers on a mysterious remote island somewhere in New England. The film focuses on the gradual descent into madness due to confinement during the harsh stormy weather. Also known as cabin fever.

What garnered attention mainly was the look and feel of the film. It was unique. Not something people were used to. The film looked vintage. Black and white with a boxy aspect ratio. And to top that off the brilliantly executed method acting by the two individuals and the beautiful haunting music.

The making of this movie was not as easy as just filming it, editing a grayscale filter on and changing the aspect ratio to make it look vintage. It had to look and feel genuine. Robert Eggers was already fixated on how the film should look. He had already decided that the film would be shot on a 35mm negative film, black and white format, a 1.19:1 aspect ratio and a mono audio mix. The Lighthouse was shot on the Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 on a KODAK Double-X 5222 Filmstock. The filmstock came out in 1959 and has not changed since. It has a much more aggressive grain structure and contrast. Amongst other popular movies, the Panaflex Millennium XL 2 was also used to shoot the Oscars 2020 Best Picture Nominee, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

Jarin Blaschke is the cinematographer for this movie and is best known for his work in the previous Robert Eggers movie, The VVitch. In an interview with Musicbed, Blaschke revealed that originally the movie was going to be shot in 1.33:1, which was the standard academy ratio. However, since it was a two-hander movie with a dark and ominous atmosphere, in a confined space, Blaschke suggested that the confinement would be expressed in a way better way, if the movie was shot in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Although he was not necessarily being completely serious, Robert agreed that it was a good idea. With this film, Blaschke wanted to go for an orthochromatic look.

Orthochromatic Look and the Custom Filter

Early photographic materials were only sensitive to ultraviolet and blue light. When comparing earlier black and white photography to the current generation, you notice a significant difference. Things emitting ultraviolet and blue light ended up looking very bright. This is why skies ended up looking hazy, bright and plain white. The skin tones of the subjects in photographs taken back in the day looked dark and had a lot of texture. This was due to the reflection of the colour red and a little bit of green. The 1870s saw the expansion of the spectrum of film to include green light. Those emulsions were called orthochromatic, which meant all wavelengths. However, the nomenclature was inaccurate since it really only meant blue and green.

Achieving this look in the film was difficult. In the same interview with Musicbed, Blaschke revealed that he wanted to prevent the red light from coming into the camera. After switching through multiple blue and blue-green filters to no avail, Panavision came to Blaschke’s rescue. Mike Carter from Panavision introduced Blaschke to Rob Engvaldsen at Schneider Optics, a US subsidiary of acclaimed German lens maker Schneider Kreuznach who offered to make a custom filter for the crew. Blaschke had to draw and send a spectrograph indicating what colour wavelengths he did not want. The team received the custom filter within a month’s time. All costs were handled by Panavision.

Going through this lengthy procedure brought out more texture. Slight changes and fluctuations in light or facial expressions would be pronounced. Skin texture, pores, blemishes and blood vessels are predominant. This made the weathered, beaten-down look of the lighthouse keepers more prominent. More red equals darker texture. This custom filter also emphasized on the blue and ultraviolet light. This made the skies blindingly white, to the point where clouds would blend or fade into the sky. For someone with blue eyes, the eyes would look whiter and brighter and more pronounced compared to the pupil.

Lenses

To go along with the Panaflex Millennium XL 2 camera and the old black and white filmstock, Blaschke wanted to go with some rare vintage lenses. The lenses that were used to film were the Bausch & Lomb Baltar, Petzval lenses and a Pathe-Goerz Triplet lens.

Pathe-Goerz Triplet lens

Based on an interview by No Film School, Blaschke visited Panavision and asked them as to what lens they had which was off the menu and no one knew about. They brought out one lens about the size of a thimble - an early triplet lens. According to IndieWire, it was the 50mm Pathe-Goerz Triplet lens. This lens is a compound lens that uses three single separated lenses. Two convex lenses made of crown glass with a high refractive index and low dispersion, separated by a biconcave lens made of light flint glass of high dispersion which flattened the image surface.

Bausch & Lomb original Baltars set

In the same interview, Bauschke revealed that the people over at Panavision then brought out a set of lenses called Baltars. Not to be confused with Super Baltars, these original classic Baltars were used in filmmaking in Hollywood for years. From films like Citizen Kane, all the way through to films like The Godfather were all shot using the classic Baltars. Upon comparing these lenses with the Cook Series Ones used primarily in England, which were from the 40s, Blaschke took a liking to the Baltars. According to him, the Baltars had a shimmery quality which made the highlights glow and was one of the most stunning portrait lenses he had ever seen. When the lens is wide open, it has a halation that highlights and gives a glow on the face, rather than a cheap gauze.

Petzval Lenses

Going back to 1840, a Petzval lens is characterized by its swirly bokeh and sharp central focus. The lens swirls backgrounds that are out of focus in a distinctive way. The effect gets heavy towards the edges. This lens was only used for heightened moments and flashback sequences in the movie. In the interview with Musicbed, Blaschke revealed that Panavision had to optically adjust the 35mm, 58mm and 85mm Petzval lenses in order to work with a modern film camera. Blaschke thought that it was an impossible task. However, Dan Sasaki, the VP of Optical Engineering at Panavision made it possible.

Lighting

In the interview with Musicbed, Blaschke revealed that the crew had to use a lot of light since the black and white filmstock that he was using had low sensitivity to light at 80 ASA which was the standard for older films. It was blindingly bright. He also stated that he felt bad for the actors as they kept seeing spots and were barely even able to see each other during the shoot.

According to the Hurlbut Academy, for night scenes like the heightened dinner scenes, the lanterns were lit with an 800-watt halogen bulb which would flicker and were only a few feet from the actor’s face. Closeups were further amplified, with a China Ball. For daytime scenes, the ARRI M-series 9K and 18K HMIs were bounced through giant panoramas of muslin cloth outside the windows.

Moonlight exteriors were created by perching two Arrimax 18K lights on a 125 feet crane 500 feet across the bay. “With a fully extended arm we could swing over the ocean and get right down to the waves without submerging the camera.”, said Robert Pattinson. These shots had to be scheduled with respect to the tides.

Aspect Ratio

With respect to films, an aspect ratio is the proportional relationship between the height and width of the image that is seen on screen. Differences in aspect ratio are subjective. It depends upon a number of factors such as the time period in which a movie takes place, the director, the deeper meanings or feelings in the story to name a few.

In the Musicbed interview, Blaschke said that the 1.19:1 aspect ratio meant that the sets would be confined. The actors had to be scrunched into the frame by putting the heads of the actors low in frame with a lot of headspace above in order to feel the ceiling. Since the lighthouse was a vertical object Blaschke felt it was an intriguing task, since one only rarely gets to work with the vertical aspects in a movie. The sets had to be built in a way that would accommodate the boxy aspect ratio. This included building the lighthouse from scratch. The walls of the lighthouse could be moved around in order to accommodate the camera and the crew. The 8 feet diameter made it difficult to fit the two actors and move around the camera. The smaller aspect ratio also meant that movements were restricted. Most of the rehearsals that took place were not for acting or dialogue purposes. But instead, to understand the geography and limit the movement from going out of the frame.

Cinematography will always be an integral part of cinema, whether it is shooting on film, digital or CGI. In the case of The Lighthouse, the tight aspect ratio, use of lenses and filters, the black and white film, the harsh weather conditions and the cramped set, all contribute to the feeling of confinement, intimacy, dampness, claustrophobia and eeriness in the film.

Director: Robert Eggers
Cinematographer: Jarin Blaschke

Sources:
Musicbed, No Film School, Hurlbut Academy

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Rahul Chettiyar

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