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‘The Lighthouse’ Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke on Natural Lighting and the Devolution of Film Language

Written by on November 20, 2019 

Whatever your response to Robert Eggers’ polarizing The Lighthouse, the visual bedrock established by director of photography Jarin Blaschke has been so consistent a point of praise it’s almost beside the point to note as much. Our review noted how the cinematographer “fluidly tracks and cranes his camera to follow the madness, often in unrelenting close-up,” comparing its tactile qualities to “old documentary footage, like something by Robert Flaherty, but with a hyper-reality to suit the genre tone.”

This, to hear Blaschke tell it, is precisely the idea, and my interview with him at this year’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE–where, months into festival appearances and some time since hitting U.S. theaters, it was perhaps the hottest ticket–tracks his work from concept to execution to presentation.

The Film Stage: When you visit a city like Toruń, does a cinematographer’s eye take over, and you start thinking about how you’d want to shoot a city, buildings, etc?

Jarin Blaschke: Yeah. It’s not “on” all the time. You’ll just notice something: it taps you on the shoulder and says “look up there” and you see it, but I’m not trying to go around and make frames all the time. If I have a camera in my hand and that’s the job I’ve given myself, maybe I’ll do that.

You’ve been doing still photography for a long time, correct?

I started in high school. We lived in central Oregon and I’d ride my bike up a butte to the community college on Mondays and Wednesdays, and just took photography because we didn’t have any photography in the high schools. It was a pretty bare-bones public high school. I skipped a lot of classes towards the end to take pictures and make Super 8 movies—whatever. That got me started in the dark room and seeing stuff through a lens, but I think my first good photographs came five years into it. At the beginning it’s, “Here’s a doorknob. Look at the texture on this doorknob.” If you have an interesting life, your photographs tend to get more interesting, too.

Of all the interviews I’ve been going over this week, yours are probably the most specific.

[Laughs] Which is good or bad. But you can latch onto that stuff: it’s easier to talk about a specific than some philosophy that is too abstract. I’m not going to do it well.

How concerned were you and Robert Eggers about how an audience would respond to a 1.19 aspect ratio, outdated film stocks, heavy grain, and the like?

Certainly not on set. If you worry at all, it’s at the very beginning, and then once you make a choice, you commit. Whatever the results are, the results are. Maybe some decisions you have to carefully think about, but if you’re in the middle of a shoot and wondering if this frame is too tight, you’ve got some big problems. But I like taking risks and strong decisions just because it’s more fun and more interesting and keeps me engaged to push myself, to get myself out of the jams I create for myself—which is most of the fun. At that stage, the train has left the station.

It’s great seeing this at a place like EnergaCAMERIMAGE, because I think I’d be pretty nervous about the theatrical presentation. Surely you’re aware that many theaters are not always so great at this.

Yeah. There are dark scenes that I’m sure, in a lot of theaters, you’ll lose that delicate shadow detail. I think it’s safer than The Witch, just because The Witch is such a low-con movie—but this is a higher-contrast movie, so if you don’t have the subtle detail, it is a bad projection, but you at least have the highlights to shape something. As opposed to a narrow range of grays that, if it’s just a little too low, it’s kind of an unprofessional, unpresentable image, which is always a risk.

I think it’s rare to think this much about light sources, but the movie sparked that thought. How are you setting them to be authentic to the presentation of this environment, but still proving presentable?

I think that I have a lot of imagination when it comes to the camera. But lighting-wise, I think I am more chained to reality. I can pre-visualize camera angles, pacing, and where cuts can be, and music or something—I can “hear” the movie—but for some reason, the complexity of lighting, I just need to see it. So when I imagine how to light something, it’s really based around real-world stuff. If there’s a lamp on a table, I don’t know if I would know how to do it any other way than just put a lamp on the table. I kind of get into the slight OCD process of, “What is the real quality of light in such a scene?” You optimize it and curate it, but how am I making a distilled version of real-life light, so even if it’s a light coming from a window on a stage, I’m basing that on what light does in real life. I have the option of choosing.

I can imagine a tall tree here, outside, [Points to window] and that would reduce the light coming into the room, but you would have open sky on this side. But I don’t know how to use artificial light just for artificial light’s sake. Like, just polished light in a room or lighting from a grid. When you look at sitcoms, it almost impresses me because it just mystifies me—I just don’t think of it that way. It’s the limits of my imagination when it comes to light. What is the ideal version of light that would come into this room? I can make it dusk, I can imagine it at 6 o’clock in November, or whatever, in a certain latitude. It’s kind of grounded. But yeah, the whole Richardson/Kaminski thing? Amazing. I just could not do that.

Sort of heavy, top-down lighting.

Just something stylized. I don’t know if I’m capable of that kind of stylization. The most I could do is say, “We’ll put him by the window and say it’s 4 o’clock and there happens to be a backlight.” If they’re away from a window… I just wouldn’t know how to make something artificial in a good way. This isn’t a judgement call at all, because it impresses me, but I just wouldn’t know how to do a good version of the artificial. I can delve deep into optimal stuff emulating natural light, but that’s it.

Given how much Eggers loves Bergman and Dreyer, do you see your collaborations as any kind of rebuttal to what’s being produced on a more mainstream scale? If you take pride from standing apart?

I’m trying to answer this and not… be snobby. Because there are some good technicians out there, and there are definitely different tiers of craft in any generation. [Pause] I do feel, generally, unsatisfied with the use of camera and editing. Generally. I’m no film historian, but I generally tend to be more and more disappointed as we get from the ‘80s to today. I feel like we were heading somewhere, or had examples of the film language, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I don’t know what happened. These one-note shots that do one thing, and the cuts are arbitrary a lot of the time. “Oh, we’ve got to make it quicker. So we’re going to cut to this. Cut a little closer at 45 degrees.” And it’s like, “Well, just think about it a little longer, find the right one, pay attention to the actors. If the pace needs to go up or down, you can adjust these things. Just slow down for a second and think about what you’re doing.”

I didn’t get the sense that coverage, as it’s typically defined, is part of your workflow.

Rob and Willem will say we don’t shoot coverage, but I feel like we do–at least the dialogue scene, when you have a shot in each direction. Every time you cut something else, that means something–or it can mean something, and if it doesn’t mean something, you’re really squandering a great opportunity. If you cut out to a wide to just remind the audience of the room we’re having the scene in, that actually can and, I feel, should impact you. There should be a beat change in the scene. At this part, it’s about this and we’re watching it this way; the scene is about something else now and we’re watching it this way, so we’re going to feel about it differently and portray it in a different, appropriate way.

I found myself trying to date certain gestures and techniques. I was kind of surprised by the lateral pan across the room when they first arrive, since that felt like the first modern-ish effect.

Right. Texture and atmosphere, certainly that was more influenced by “influences,” or things we had seen. As far as camera movement, that’s far more distinctive–it just pops in my head and feels right. A lot of times it presents me with a problem. It’s based on a cut–like, “What should the first cut be?”–and there really shouldn’t be a cut until that point. “There should be a flow until here, and now we’re on the next beat of the scene, so how do we figure out the gymnastics of the space and the geography with the actor, and what we want to see in a longer take, what we want to withhold, what we want to feed them.” It’s really fun. It’s a great puzzle.

I’m fascinated by the delegation of responsibilities, because you seem to express that camera movement as a result of your autonomy.

Well, I guess so.

How much do you value that, and how much do you value being at a director’s behest?

In this case–and I have found this to be a conflict on a couple of projects–we’re so in-sync and after the same thing, it’s just dumb luck that we found each other. That’s what I feel, and hopefully that’s what he feels for now. It kind of feels like the same thing, and I’m so lucky that, most of the time, I end up serving Rob and myself at the same time–so unless that’s not too presumptive to say… I wouldn’t say that unless I’ve known him as long as I have. Hopefully he’s okay with that.

Is there any ambition to project The Lighthouse on film?

Hopefully they do eventually, but they didn’t take up the idea yet.

Do you have strong feelings about projecting this digitally? There’s a nice level of grain and detail, but I had to wonder how a print would feel.

I would love to see it. Some of the producers want to have some stills printed for their office, and you could just print them no problem. That’s a much smaller project than printing this entire movie, but I’m trying to get them to output certain stills onto 35mm so I can go to a darkroom and print them for them. That puts that extra layer on top. I think this would transport you even more on a print–not surprisingly.

What is the mood on set when you’re shooting Robert Pattinson masturbating to a little statue of a mermaid?

Well, we’re professional, so maybe… we’ll joke about it later. Yeah, it’s an absurd job. For sure. If you really step back and look at it. But on-set, we’re professional–like if you do a sex scene or something. You put on that mask and, later on, over a glass of wine talk about how absurd your job is.

The movie does translate the sense of work that went into it.

I guess that’s my question in coming up with stuff: can it be subjective and formal at the same time? I guess that’s the inquiry. I don’t know if it’s successful or not, or if it is or when it isn’t, but I like putting those two things together. My two favorite photographers are Sally Mann and Brett Weston. Other than being black-and-white, they’re pretty different. One is formalist, modernist Brett Weston; then you have Sally Mann’s southern, romantic, personal, tied to myth and history and memory and all this stuff. Two totally different things, but I’m interested in both. So is there a way where you can bring these two things together but it has, also, this clockwork structure that satisfies my perfectionism at the same time?

The Lighthouse is now in theaters. Listen to our discussion on The Film Stage Show below.


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