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How Bright Bulbs Enabled ‘The Lighthouse’s’ Tough Black-and-White Shoot

Early in development on “The Lighthouse,” writer-director Robert Eggers asked cinematographer Jarin Blaschke if he thought they could capture the look they were going for digitally. Blaschke answered no: Digital wouldn’t let them achieve the texture they had in mind — “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.”

It’s been no secret that the making of “The Lighthouse” was a strenuous undertaking for cast and crew alike. Shot on Cape Forchu on the southern coast of Nova Scotia, the 34-day shoot endured unpredictable weather patterns and little shelter from them.

Eggers’ follow-up to “The Witch,” which earned him a best director honor and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015, stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers on a remote island in 1890s New England, trying to keep their sanity amid difficult and solitary conditions. The movie takes place with mainly just the two men on a tiny island in a tiny house, an 8-foot-wide lighthouse and no electricity.

Blaschke says he prefers to model his lighting in a real-life way, which was tricky on “The Lighthouse.” He and gaffer Ken Leblanc worked with Kodak Double-X stock — Blaschke calls it the only practical black-and-white film left after Plus-X was discontinued in 2011 — which is much less sensitive to light than even color film stock. Between the optics, the film stock and the filtration, Blaschke and Leblanc had to use about 15 to 20 times more light on set to get the look they wanted than on “The Witch,” which was shot on an Alexa.

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“Even though it’s a very dark movie, the sets were actually blindingly bright,” says Blaschke. “We’d put 500- to 800-watt halogen bulbs in the lanterns that would flicker and were only a few feet from an actor’s face. The way we make mov-ies now, people have gotten used to a very low light level; it’s trendy to shoot wide open, digitally at 800 or even 2,000 ASA. Our actors talked about how they couldn’t see each other sometimes, which I felt bad about.”

During filming — shooting for 17 days on the cape and another 17 days among three stages for interiors — Blaschke joked with Eggers that their next film should be about an Edwardian picnic in a park on a sunny day.

“The Lighthouse,” which debuted at Cannes and is due out Oct. 18 in theaters, is dark and moody and even a bit scary, elements Blaschke and Eggers both enjoy — otherwise they wouldn’t have shot four projects together as DP and director over the past 11 years.

“I love him,” says Blaschke of his collaborator and friend, “but there is virtually always some element of misery porn [in his films]. Eggers loves the mundane physicality of people toiling and suffering, the pain and the profane along with the profound and the transcendent. And he likes to mix those together.”

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