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The Look Of The Lighthouse

  • February 6, 2020
  • Chris Haigh
The Look Of The Lighthouse

Color Black and White
Aspect Ratio 1.19 : 1
Camera Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Bausch & Lomb Baltar and Petzval Lenses
Laboratory FotoKem Laboratory, Burbank (CA), USA (processing)

Harbor Picture Company, New York (NY), USA (digital intermediate)

Negative Format 35 mm (Eastman Double-X 5222)
Cinematographic Process Digital Intermediate (4K) (master format)

Spherical (source format)

Printed Film Format D-Cinema

Hurlbut Academy Look Of The Lighthouse Crossroads

Right now, Hollywood is at a crossroads. Technology is constantly evolving and with it, the way movies are shot, and the way we interact with them as an audience.

In 1968, the Academy combined black-and-white and color cinematography into one “Best Cinematography” category. Since then, only two black-and-white films — 1994’s Schindler’s List and 2019’s Roma have won the coveted award. This year, a film will take its place alongside The White Ribbon, The Artist, and Cold War to have been nominated alongside its all-color competitors.

As the debate between Old and Young, Film and Digital, CGI and Reality rages on, we focus on a movie that used three eras of camera equipment, a unique custom filter and a mysterious old lens found in a cupboard to help create a haunting, lovecraftian atmosphere. This is the look of…

Title - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

Jarin Blaschke: Years ago, when Rob first teased the idea for The Lighthouse across his kitchen table, all I knew was that it was going to be two men, a tight space, a tight aspect ratio, madness, occasional flatulence, and ‘black-and-white with a cherry on top.’ I took that to mean he wanted to be unapologetically old-fashioned and to transport the audience to another world. Black-and-white is good for that.

Director Robert Eggers says he frequently has an atmosphere for a film in his mind before he even knows what the story is about. In this case the first page of The Lighthouse script even sets the visual stage:

This story about 2 lighthouse keepers, referred to as Old and Young in the script, harks back to the 1920s and early ’30s lighthouse genre films. Silent films like 1924’s The Lighthouse by the Sea and 1924’s Captain January being two such examples.

Lighthouse By The Sea - Black and White - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

Obviously the Black and White contributes to that, but Blaschke had to navigate whether to shoot digital or film to deliver the look he wanted – “like nothing else that’s been made in the last several decades.” 

Blaschke wanted to create a feeling like early film photography, not contemporary black and white (shooting digitally black and white or a color movie that has been desaturated) with the key focus being on texture.

Black and White - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

Jarin Blaschke: “As a longtime shooter of black-and-white still film, I didn’t think Digital would work, since black-and-white film has a very particular texture; there are three-dimensional chunks of silver embedded in gelatin at different depths and sizes. It’s much more physical than even a color film image, which is made of tiny clouds of dye.”


Blaschke therefore performed simple camera tests to prove his hypothesis shooting 35mm Double-X film, 35mm color film [5219], and digitally with the Arri Alexa

Double X - Black and White - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

“In addition to much larger grain, the Double-X had more ‘tooth.’ Even if you match the overall contrast in the DI, the Double-X had more ‘local’ or ‘micro’ contrast, which emphasizes texture and better differentiates similar tones.”

“It’s what we photography nerds would call ‘micro-contrast.’ [The look] was never going to be a romantic black and white. It was more of a dusty, crusty, rusty, musty black and white.”

Eggers and Blaschke opted for Kodak’s Eastman Double-X black-and-white 5222 film stock. A stock that came out in 1959 and has a more aggressive strain structure and a great micro-contrast giving it that primitive quality evident in the film. When you compare it to color film and the ALEXA color profile, it has what you would call micro-contrast: two similar tones that mask the overall contrast to the other medium, like color film. In this stock, the local differences in tone and texture just pop more.The two initially wanted Kodak’s Plus-X superior film stock for a cleaner-looking movie, but because Kodak don’t make it anymore and because it would have been very expensive to develop, the duo chose to spend the money elsewhere.

Black and White film - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

For the first decades of photography, cameras could only record ultraviolet and blue light. Today, Panchromatic film, which can see red light is mainly used, but it wasn’t widespread in motion pictures until the 1920s. 

“If you look at the earliest photography, it looks different than black and white film now. Things that emitted a lot of ultraviolet and blue light were very bright. That’s why a Carleton Watkins or Timothy O’Sullivan photograph has hazy, blank white skies. Skin tones are always very dark in those old photographs and super textured because they primarily reflect red with a little bit of green.”

Around 1870, they expanded the spectrum of film to include green light. They called those emulsions ORTHOCHROMATIC, meaning “all wavelengths”, even though it’s inaccurate. It’s really just blue and green. 

Orthochromatic - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

“If you look at silent films the sky is generally blindingly white. In Hollywood films, they would put on a lot of makeup, that classic silent film look with makeup pancaked on. That’s because the film wasn’t sensitive to red light and everyone looked very weathered and craggy otherwise. I liked that look for this film. I wanted to emphasize texture. Make the two characters look as rough as possible.”

This look not only evokes a bygone time, but further weathers the appearance of the salty, beaten-down characters in The Lighthouse. Interestingly, well into the 1950s, orthochromatic film remained popular for portrait photographers and their male subjects for this look. It would make them look bronzed and rustic like in this example – the famous Karsh photograph of Ernest Hemingway.

Hemmingway Black and White - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

So achieving this Orthochromatic look and eliminating all red light coming into the camera was an immense task for Blaschke. After testing a series of black and white filters and conventional color correction to no avail, Panavision came to his aid. 

“Mike Carter at Panavision connected me with Ron Engvaldsen at Schneider Optics. I was amazed — Ron was willing to make a custom filter to my specifications. They asked me to draw a spectrograph indicating what wavelengths I wanted and didn’t want. I drew a picture, emailed it to them, and they made it within a month’s time. Even better, Panavision paid for it. I don’t know who they’re going to rent these filters to, but it blows my mind that this happened.”

The Schneider orthochromatic filter eliminated all red light to emulate film stocks that were predominantly used up until 1930 and therefore this makes The Lighthouse almost feel like an early ethnographic film. With the filter, things that have a lot of red in them, like skin tones, record much darker. You see every pore and blood vessel.

The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

The filter also emphasizes blue and UV, so your skies get really blindingly light. If there were any light clouds, they would fade into the hazy sky (as below).

Black and White - Set of The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

This emphasis on emulating the past and having a look that transported the audience to an early film era began with Eggers and Blaschke’s extensive movie research…

“He sent me a list of movies to watch. He usually sends about five dozen of them… There were some nautical silent films, including Flaherty’s Man of Aran, [which was shot] on orthochromatic stock with strong, direct close-ups. 


[The influence of] Eisenstein was there for montage, and bold, hard cuts. Optically, the films we watched from the ’20s and ’30s were very appealing in their subtle fringe distortions and the way highlights would shimmer. In the end, the most influential references were M — an inspirational and modern film, in terms of visual language — and Bresson’s Pickpocket, which influenced [our] use of close-ups, especially actions with hands.

And these contributed significantly to this movie’s look in the form of its unique (for modern times at least) 1.19:1 aspect ratio. 

Here’s a great video that outlines on aspect ratios and their impact.

“Robert showed me his favorite example of our aspect ratio, a [1931] German film set in mineshafts, Kameradschaft”

“It’s very modern; it really uses the camera and sound given the time period—what’s in the frame, what’s not in the frame. For me, exclusion and reduction is more important to think about than inclusion. It started transforming how I saw the film. It wasn’t about trying to make it look like older films but rather choosing a frame that lends itself to the tall and narrow sets and helps you visually withhold information from the audience. It also had a secondary effect of evoking compositions of 20th century modernist photography.”

Having shot lots of still photography in a square format, Blaschke found it to be a perfect ratio of subject and setting. Knowing the sets would be confined and, of course, that the lighthouse is a vertical object, he found he could really scrunch the two actors in the frame with a lot of headspace above to really feel the ceiling. With this in mind, the team built the sets to suit that aspect ratio. For the sets of interior of the lighthouse tower they had to be able to move walls, because with 8-foot space, you can’t fit an actor (or two actors) and their Panavision Millennium X2 camera and move around with them. Thankfully, this tight aspect ratio and cramped set contributed to this feeling of intimacy and claustrophobia.

CGI, Top of The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

Eggers: “When you’re designing the set, you think about it like, “Okay, if we put the staircase here, we’ll be able to see it in the shot,” because you want to have depth.” 

Even the furniture used on set had to be built to accommodate the aspect ratio—the kitchen table needed to be a certain size so they could get a two-shot on a 50mm lens without blowing the walls out.

Blaschke: We originally had an appropriate table story-wise — what they would have had for the era. But at one point I got two office PA’s and a viewfinder, and I put them at opposite sides of the table and sat them down. It just made a shape that was too wide. The table should be smaller to have a really confined claustrophobic frame.

Eggers: The table we ended up with reminds me of the card table in the flophouse from Phantom Carriage, with a similar lamp hanging over it. So it worked out just fine!

With the significant element of this film being the aspect ratio and the tight sets, blocking was of paramount importance. Blaschke notes that he and Eggers wanted to introduce the geography of the space early on. 

In the opening sequence, Efraim watches the ship that dropped them off sail away in the distance and then the camera follows him into the cottage and up the stairs into the sleeping quarters, really gives the audience a powerful sense of the geography of The Lighthouse. 

Influenced by Béla Tarr’s patient use of camera (Below), Bergman’s camera language and 1929 silent film The Lighthouse Keepers – which Eggers and Blaschke paid homage to in the scene in which Pattinson’s character, Winslow, attempts to break into the light at the top of the spiralling staircase.

Another element which comes into play is the distinct lack of grip equipment. With this being shot four hours from Halifax, Nova Scotia in a place called Cape Forchu, the crew were very far from support, and therefore everything had to be built. Quite unusual for modern filmmaking, the key grip became the source of DIY equipment creations such as a homemade cable-cam rig that ascended the entirety of the 70′ lighthouse!

“The initial plan was to use a crane for the whole tower,” Blaschke says, “but we were told somewhat late that a 100-foot Technocrane could not be sourced, as it was being used in Vancouver — and transportation of the Techno was prohibitively expensive, anyway. This, then, put us in a very bad position of having to stitch together two shots that were probably not going to match. That is, until Craig solved it with his cable rig.” 

In this quite barren peninsula, the production team built a 70 foot tall lighthouse, attached cottage, and outer buildings all from scratch and during winter no less, for the 34 days of filming. Quite the feat given the treacherous conditions – an almost constant freezing rain and howling wind that seem perfectly fitting for the subject matter… if not for the act of filmmaking.

Building The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

“Our lenses are 80 years old. If you get saltwater in there, they’re done. They’re also not replaceable. We had some pretty delicate stuff that was very exposed. One lens actually broke down. We had to send it in. We didn’t have a 25-millimeter lens for about three weeks.” 

Which brings us to the lenses. How do you lens a movie that wants to appear modern while transporting its audience back to the earlier days of motion pictures?  To pair with the Panavision Millennium XL2 camera and the old film stock Blaschke wanted vintage lenses. Rare vintage lenses.

“I went to Panavision and said, “What do you have that’s off the menu that I wouldn’t even know about?” They brought out one lens about the size of a thimble—an early triplet lens. It’s a lens type that goes back to 1840. A Petzval lens swirls out-of-focus backgrounds in a distinct way, and the effect gets very heavy toward the edges. This is not a subtle look; we used them only for heightened moments and flashbacks” 

How appropriate that in the 100th year of the ASC (The American Society of Cinematographers), one of their members makes a movie nominated for the highest award for cinematography with a lens that was likely being used by its founder members!

“Then, they brought out these lenses called Baltars. I said, “Oh, yeah, I know about the Super Baltars.” And the Panavision person said, “No, not the Super Baltars. The Baltars.” I wasn’t even aware that there was an original version of this lens. So I [tested them] against Cooke Series Ones, which are from the ’40s. The Baltars were the most stunning portrait lenses I have ever seen. They have this shimmery quality. The highlights glow. As a lens nerd, that was very enchanting to me. I also realized that with this very hard orthochromatic filter and the unforgiving film stock, the lenses could add another layer that gave the film more of a complex look.” 

Baltar lenses - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

Eggers: Panavision rehoused all the lenses for us, and that took a bit of work. The gear remotes for focus pulling, there were a lot of issues. We broke a lot of rain-deflectors in the weather. Eddy McInnis, our awesome focus-puller, was like — the rain’s coming, and he’s got a flashlight in his mouth, and he’s like, [Yells] “I’m trying to jam together three eras of camera equipment!”

Blaschke: “You can’t use [them] wide open—you’ve got to stop [the aperture] down a bit. Otherwise, it’s like smear city. So, you need a certain aperture. [And] you’ve got black-and-white film, which has a tenth of the sensitivity of a modern digital camera. So, everything had to be lit.”

Lighting proved to be its own challenge, as the cinematographer was shooting the film stock that had a low sensitivity to light at 80 ASA. So to capture this movie, Blaschke had to fire an awful lot of light into the scenes! 

“We had to use so much light. It was blinding on set! I felt bad for the actors because they were always seeing spots. Willem and Rob are looking at each other, but they can barely see each other sometimes.”

Breaking down how they lit the intimate interior scenes, Blaschke explained:

“For Night interiors, like the heightened dinner scenes or drunken escapades, we lit those with the lantern’s glow, which was outfitted with a 800-watt halogen bulb. Closeups were further augmented with a China ball when needed. For daytime interiors, we used mostly ARRI M-series 9K and 18K HMIs bounced through giant panoramas of muslin cloth (CLIP) outside each active window and shaped for mood. 

Whereas the MOONLIGHT exteriors were created from 500 feet across the bay by two Arrimax 18K lights perched on a 125′ crane. For this reverse on Pattinson, “We put our stabilized head on a Technocrane and operated it remotely. With a fully extended arm we could swing over the ocean and get right down to the waves without submerging the camera.” 

Just above the camera was a 2K open-face Blonde light that created a cool effect as it bounced off the rippling water. Everything had to be scheduled around the tides, requiring three sessions to complete the sequence. 

Despite the overwhelming amount of effort that went into everything from lensing to film stock and aspect ratio, Blaschke says a lot of the time the simplest of cinematography techniques to light scenes were sufficient. 

“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.”

The Lighthouse itself had a turn-of-the-century Fresnel lens to help to magnify lights and alert ships at a safe distance. To study the characteristics of it, Blaschke and director Robert Eggers visited a 1909 lighthouse on Point Cabrillo in Northern California and then had a lens custom-built for the production. “It was eight-sided like an octopus, acrylic, and weighed 1,200 pounds. I heard it cost $100,000. But if it had been made of glass, it would have been $1 million!”

Key grip Craig Stewart also built a turntable that raised and lowered the light and gaffer Ken LeBlanc took a bulb and base from a dismantled 6K HMI. “The [lighthouse] was designed to use an oil flame and the huge fresnel would magnify that. Whenever I visited a working lighthouse, fresnel or otherwise, it would have a puny household bulb in it — kind of amazing.”  Now imagine swapping that oil lamp with a 6K HMI bulb that was necessary for the beam to be shapely and distinct on film. “The day they switched it on, it was pretty magical and pretty shocking to fishermen. We were getting calls from out at sea as where the beam extended 12 nautical miles!”

This is where things got a little hairy for health and safety as scenes inside the lantern room had actors positioned in close proximity to the lamp. Even with safety glass, a 6K bulb was deemed too hazardous, so these shots were filmed onstage with a safer 2K tungsten bulb. “The location lighthouse could only be used for exterior shots with one exception. A scene where Pattinson’s Ephraim is outside, looks up and sees Dafoe’s Thomas standing before the light, stark naked and transfixed. That wide shot required putting Dafoe in the replica lighthouse…” 

Blaschke:“There’s Willem with a sock on his genitals, slathered in sun lotion on a freezing night in front of a Fresnel lens in a lighthouse made of fricking scaffolding. There was definitely some unusual stuff going on.

Just as in the Lighthouse, the battle of Old Vs Young rages on. With the evolution of technology, the questions will always crop up of whether to shoot film or digital, to use CGI or to capture in camera, but one thing’s for sure: Cinematography itself will always be a critical part of filmmaking – using light, movement and framing to create potent, moving art. “black and white films, with a cherry on top.” 

Black and White with a Cherry On Top - The Lighthouse - Hurlbut Academy - Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

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