Back to selection

Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“We Needed the Fresh Urine of a Nanny Goat”: DP Jarin Blaschke on The Witch

The Witch

In the midst of my opening day viewing of The Witch, the screen went black. It wasn’t unexpected considering the multitude of perfectly timed ellipses that punctuate director Robert Eggers’ 17th century tale of a devout Christian family torn asunder. And this particular ellipsis seemed opportunely placed – coming just as the film’s hypothetical dread morphed into tangible terror. But this time, the darkness persisted. The theater’s projector bulb had burned out. Of course, the audience didn’t know that yet.

At any other screening, the reaction would’ve been instantaneous. My fellow moviegoers and I would’ve turned to the projector and begun grousing and grumbling. But during this blackness, we didn’t. We just sat there. 10 seconds. 30 seconds. 60 seconds. Such is the mastery of The Witch and such was our faith that the film was leading toward something unexpected – even the possibility that it would leave us squirming in an extended silent darkness.

I spoke with The Witch cinematographer Jarin Blaschke about the making of the film — from fighting for ArriRaw to battling obstinate goats.

Filmmaker: Director Robert Eggers has talked a lot about the incredible amount of historical research he did during the four years he was trying to get The Witch financed. Did you do any additional research on your own? Eggers has mentioned a trip the two of you took to the 17th century living museum Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts.

Blaschke: Technically there was little research to do, because there was no photography of the period to reference. Very early on in development, in 2011, while we were at Plimoth Plantation for research, I brought a light meter into their stringently recreated 1627 homes to get an idea of how much light made it in those little windows, and to see if there was enough room to shoot scene after scene in a purely realistic house. Very quickly we knew that the house would have to be cheated bigger, with more and slightly enlarged windows. Hopefully on film we could make it feel smaller and the historians aren’t counting windows.

Filmmaker: Robert’s research included a look book with everything from films to paintings by Goya and Rembrandt. Did you take direct inspiration from a work like Goya’s Witches Flight?

Blaschke: One additional reference in there worth noting is [Swedish painter] Odd Nerdrum. Rob’s look books are always stirringly beautiful. I don’t treat them as direct references for me to emulate, but as a confirmation and honing of a feeling we are after. If you look at that Goya, for instance, [that painting] is a void of a setting with bright top light that does not exist in our film at all. [The painting has] zero naturalism. But it communicates a broader feeling and idea.

When the film finally went into production, I had known Rob for six years. We had shot two short films together, also collaborated when he was a designer four or five times, and were also just good friends over those years, nerding out about art and film all the time. Just in our friendship he’d send me a lot of art and illustrations and films ,and I’d send him Sally Mann or Bill Henson or some strange Autochrome. We’d occasionally hang out at the Met or go to an [Albrecht] Dürer exhibit just for fun. Years before The Witch, I got to know his sensibility very well and felt like we were very synchronized, and our technique has grown together. By the time [The Witch] happened we were working out of our collective gut, really. References were not so specific or directly influential anymore, but seeing the film in retrospect you can see where certain things begin to surface here and there.

Filmmaker: Your prep also included meticulously shot-listing the film. That said, surprises and challenges always present themselves on set. What were a few moments on The Witch that forced you to deviate from the plan?

Blaschke: The film was completely shot-listed in a hotel room in Toronto before we headed north [for principal photography] — with some additional simple drawings throughout. [The only exception] was the 10-page possession scene. It had all the characters in a room at once and the blocking was extensive and could be interpreted pretty loosely. It was a big stubborn hole in the shot list. We knew we had to block it with the actors. We took the greater part of a weekend day, my brain went in a knot a few times, but it was wonderfully rewarding to work in such a collaborative way with everyone.

There was another shot that had to be found while on the actual set: a shot of the twins on a leash of sorts and [the family matriarch] Katherine passing, joining [the father] William in the search for [their children] Thomasin and Caleb. It’s part of a moving-camera visual sequence and it took an unusually long time to search for something where all the elements could unpack in one shot in an elegant and organic way. Maybe it was because it was a Friday on week 3, but we were running all over the farm with the finder for at least 20 minutes.

Another shot had to be broken in two pieces because we didn’t have enough space to build dolly track for the length of dialog. It became two dolly passes: one that transitions from a wide of the kids and horse to a single of Caleb. Then on the same track a pass that just leads Thomasin on the horse. [Editor Louise Ford] was surely relieved to at least have two shots to cut with there, and I’m always very grateful that she doesn’t ping-pong scenes like that. She’s very good at finding and keeping the visual intention of a scene while bringing something of her own.

Other than a handful of those instances, the film is 92% on-track with the shot list.

Filmmaker: Were the ellipses – the cuts to black – predetermined as well?

Blaschke: The ellipses in the film were all in the script as far as I can remember. Again, it’s all part of pre-visualizing the film.

Filmmaker: Though set in New England, you ultimately had to shoot in a remote area near Ontario for budgetary reasons. Tell me a bit about your shooting schedule and the locations. I understand you built a few sets inside a retired lumber mill.

Blaschke: The primary shoot in Ontario was 26 days. We then had four light days of targeted shooting after [a rough cut was put together]. We shot things like stand-ins walking through the woods, the bloody egg scene, hare plates and elements for the hunting scene (you can’t make hares run a straight line in the open woods), and, reluctantly, an insert of setting a wolf trap.

The downstairs of the house and the horse barn interior were shot on location. The goat shed scenes were shot on location, as well as rebuilt for night scenes at our makeshift lumber mill “studio.” The witch hovel had its three-sided interior built in the mill as well. Also housed there was our most important set, the upstairs garret where I had to build a giant broad light source to emulate an entire overcast sky out the window.

Filmmaker: How did you choose the practical location for the farm set? Did those sets include any considerations for you to make it easier to shoot the interiors?

Blaschke: The location had a strong visual tree line for Rob in one direction, there was room for a basecamp of trailers near the road and barely enough tree cover to cover such a camp — we had to resort to camouflage sometimes. It also had a few different looks of woods within walking distance for different “depths” of the forest in the story.

The brook location was down a deep treacherous slope on the side of the road and we passed right by it for weeks in preproduction without ever noticing it. Finally when we became desperate in our search for this location, I asked to stop there on one of our routine trips, just to look out of curiosity. And there it was, exceeding all expectations in its storybook majesty. Getting a dolly and jib down the steep muddy slope and using them on a soft marsh was another matter.

As far as the “set” on location, the main house had a removable wall behind the bed. This was a very considerate feature on [production designer] Craig Lathrop’s part but we never used it. Other than that, the garret could be used for storage and, as I said, we expanded from a strictly realistic size of the house and windows, and took a real liberty in adding a back door for blocking with one scene.

Filmmaker: You shot Alexa – did you go with ProRes or ArriRaw?

Blaschke: Most of our producers assumed that we were going to shoot ProRes on our budget and the matter was seemingly closed. However, I took it upon myself to go to Panavision Toronto and shoot a basic ProRes vs. ArriRaw test. I screened it with Rob and [producer] Jay Van Hoy at the post house and we determined that for theatrical projection, we had to find a way to shoot Raw. Part of what the ProRes/ArriRaw test revealed, and was a deal breaker [for ProRes], was that in a very dark image, the Raw footage had much more pleasant noise than the ProRes footage. It was a sharp, grain-like pattern as opposed to a blurrier, blockier noise.

We really had support from Jay, where the quality difference would’ve been lost on a lot of low budget producers. Our low budget method involved an Alexa Plus and an external Gemini drive recording 2.8k ArriRaw. The drive was temperamental, though, and most of our witchy, slightly off-speed (27 fps) footage was only recorded in ProRes.

Filmmaker: In a film like The Witch, where so much of the frame is engulfed in shadow, how do you determine where the blacks should live? Do you expose brighter than what you intend for the final image when on set, and then push it down in post?

Blaschke: I try not to expose for safety and “print down” – this gives a different characteristic curve inconsistent with the rest of the film. It’s also important to maintain and respect my craft – I mean just look what masters like Willis and Savides were doing at the toe of their negative. I just used my light meter and knew when things fell off, but I do have to admit that the Rec709 monitor was always there, seductively, to loosely confirm what I was doing.

Filmmaker: Did you try to stick to the Alexa’s native ISO of 800 or did you ever bump that up for some of those candle-lit interiors?

Blaschke: The camera was always set to 800 ISO, which was sufficient for our candlelight scenes. You can even do it at film’s 500 ISO if you block the action with the light sources right. You just can’t be afraid of light falling off, creating large dark areas in a realistic way. In a couple scenes Rob and I think that there are one or two too many candles lit. The historians certainly do too.

Anyway, I don’t believe in pushing film or boosting the ISO of a digital camera except for a very occasional special look in tandem with the lighting. It doesn’t give you any more of your darkest shadows and presumably that’s what you’re after in these situations anyway. Dark scenes like these are about delicacy and it’s ruined when you whack your gamma and throw away your shadows. Not to mention inconsistent with the rest of your footage. Blocking and placement of such frail light is crucial in making it work. I look forward to advancing our candlelight technique further next time, as well as with film and a well-calibrated spot meter.

Filmmaker: Did you use a LUT other than LogC-to-Rec709 for monitoring?

Blaschke: I’m not a fan of heavy post looks in film and I just monitor on set in Rec709. It shows me an almost worst-case scenario as far as contrast and shadow/highlight detail, but I light by my meter and my eyeballs anyway. 709 is also oversaturated and maybe I’d turn down the chroma at the monitor, but overall the sets and costumes were plenty desaturated to show an idea of what we were shooting.

Filmmaker: You shot a great deal of The Witch on a 32mm lens – including close-ups. It creates a uniquely immersive experience to see a film mostly from the same field-of-view.

Blaschke: To me, the consistency of perspective is very important to the visual continuity of a film. I like to settle on a “lens feel” for the majority of a film. It also strengthens the lens as tool when you do deviate; with some rigor in your lens continuity you feel the change by just one focal length in either direction. A 32mm was a very natural choice to frame by: everything falls into place in a classical way but it still has enough spacial depth to feel “present.”

As far as this applies to close-ups: to me, the purpose of a close up, generally, is to feel closer to the character, and that is partially lost when the camera is still physically farther from them on a longer lens. You still feel a distance. Because it was important to immerse the audience in this period, and to identify with these superficially alien characters, I needed to place the audience physically close to them, to sit intimately with them.

Filmmaker: Tell me about shooting in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Is that a tip of the hat to the influence of European cinema on The Witch?

Blaschke: No. I actually find 1.85, and especially 2.40, more unnatural rectangles in which to frame an image. I mean they were first devised as a gimmick to fight television in the 1950s, like 3D. The entire history of art and film up to that point was doing very nicely with 1.2 to 1.75:1 aspect ratios. I mean Heart of the Andes by [Frederic Edwin] Church, an epic a painting as I’ve ever seen, tops out at 1.80:1. And most films certainly aren’t conveying the scope of that monumental painting.

Of course I’m happy to use, and normally use, 1.85 and 2.40 and like them for their more fragmented natures, but for this film 1.66 gives us a frame that evokes a history before the era of filmmaking to hopefully deliver something more timeless.

Filmmaker: Any time a movie features animals, I always think of the scene in Truffaut’s Day for Night where the film-within-a-film’s crew can’t get the cat to walk into frame and drink milk. You had quite the menagerie on The Witch. Any horror stories? I’ve read that Black Phillip was a bit of a pain in the ass.

Blaschke: Yes, he was. But he’s a goat, you can’t hate him for that. Most of the time he wouldn’t really do anything, except for some fluke accidents that we had to wait for, so we had some scenes where we had to just roll camera, chase him around with a Steadicam, and wait for something to happen. This is how I really hate to shoot. Working with him therefore forced a few serious changes in the script, most that ultimately made the movie better, though. The original script had something like a brief melee between William and Black Phillip. But after spending three hours and 27 takes on the first shot of this very physical scene, we utterly exhausted and ultimately injured [actor Ralph Ineson] because of our frustrated and confused and tired goat friend. We lost our day and Rob really had to rethink his ending. What we have now is simpler, stronger, and more meaningful to William’s character arc.

We also had a scene where Thomasin goes to the goat shed to bed the goats. She was supposed to come across Black Phillip violently and disturbingly copulating with a nanny goat. For this to happen, we needed the fresh urine of a nanny goat in heat, and even then getting this difficult goat to mount another would be very questionable. Because of our remote location, we never found this golden urine so our shoot ended without that shot. For our small reshoot we didn’t have the goat so we all brainstormed over some bourbon one night for a simpler solution. And so it became a visit from the hare.

Filmmaker: The Witch’s ominous tone is accentuated by the gloomy, overcast skies. Did you only shoot your exteriors when the conditions were right or did you goose the look a bit in the digital intermediate?

Blaschke: You can’t change the core quality of light in post – you’re not fooling anybody. To even try makes the film look very phony, which goes against the essential, core approach of this film – believability. So we did it the old fashioned way and juggled our already lean schedule constantly, to the bewilderment and exasperation of our crew, who were just trying to do their jobs well by planning.

The only cheat I did indulge in was shooting dusk scenes during the day, because our schedule was tight, after all. An overcast dusk is just a darker version of an overcast day – all the color complexity of an open sky is absent. So I would underexpose a stop-and-a-half or two. The tricky thing was that those scenes had people with lanterns, thankfully always in the background. So to maintain a proper dusk/lantern lighting ratio, I had my gaffer Chad [Roberts] rig a 2k, or [maybe it was a] 5k, bulb inside of our period-appropriate lantern. The cord was dark against underexposed dark background and ran back to a simple, dumb Variac dimmer for subtle flicker.

Filmmaker: One of the few exteriors that doesn’t share that look is the “peek-a-boo” scene, in which the sky behind Thomasin is closer to white.

Blaschke: That bright sky is just a matter of maintaining a believable lighting ratio. It’s bright by comparison, but not nearly white. She’s facing away from the broad light source and thus needs to be in shade and a notably darker tone than that in-frame source, but we also need to read her face well. What I shot was the best balance of all these requirements.

Filmmaker: I’m always interested in the way filmmakers choose to begin a movie. In The Witch, you start with a series of close-ups of the children and wait to reveal their father’s face, letting the audience soak in Ralph Ineson’s incredible voice first. It’s really the only extended scene that doesn’t take place at the family farm or the surrounding woods. How did you approach it?

Blaschke: For most of the film, the camera is moving all the time, as if pulled along by something unseen. In contrast, the opening scene is didactically conventional. Rob wanted it very still, symmetrical, dead, hard cuts, almost like a slideshow. Also, we used the 40mm for everything there in the meetinghouse instead of the 32mm, and this didactic structure made it easy to begin the film with portraits of everybody and introduce them immediately.

The meetinghouse set was shot in our retired lumber mill “studio” and I made an overcast sky by bouncing a string of HMIs into two 12×20 frames outside the windows. I put Ultrabounce in the frames and then nice, matte bleached muslin over that. Then from the bottom of the raised frames I hung more muslin, but with a single net over the lowest portion so more light comes down through the window but some still comes horizontally, hopefully like real life. The real pain came because the set walls didn’t nearly rise to the height of the ceiling. This set budget savings created a massive light leak, so I had to have grips hastily rolling around on lifts to seal the gap with rolls of Duvetyne.

Filmmaker: For the night interiors lit by candlelight, did you use other sources to carry those candles? And is there anything special about the candles themselves?

Blaschke: We used custom candles with three wicks. Rob and I first did this eight years ago on our first short film together. The only supplementation was other candles — usually a few tea lights near the same axis of illumination — but that’s it. It’s a small sphere of illumination, so you have to take care in blocking them in a way that shows faces clearly when needed, indicates spacial relationships and depth when needed, and still functions naturalistically and believably. We also motivated a number of scenes by the hearth, which was an organically shaped gas flame contraption called a “slinky.” You could move it around and perfect the angle for closer shots. Luc Benning in the effects department was effectively my gaffer for all those scenes. Early on I would give a little base “room tone” exposure with a small tungsten unit bounced into unbleached muslin and dimmed to just a whisper, but I abandoned that before too long.

Filmmaker: How about the night exteriors?

Blaschke: “Moonlit” night exteriors were one unfortunate and unnatural necessity in the film. Creating truly naturalistic night with lighting tools was well beyond the scope of our resources. That would have entailed very large frames suspended in the air, many more crew (members), etc. Additionally, we couldn’t pursue day-for-night for two reasons.  Firstly, because daylight only works for day-for-night in certain sun positions and we already burned our cover schedule (to achieve the) gloom in the day scenes. More importantly, the “moonlight” in The Witch is often mixed with candle lanterns, sometimes in close up. There are night exteriors that don’t have any mixed lighting, but my night look needed to be consistent so even one “lit” night meant “lit” nights for the whole movie.  So I had to create more of a conventional movie night look, unfortunately, and just try and do a good job with the lighting ratios to help the believability the best I could. This unavoidable conventional approach was particularly unfortunate for rain scenes, and thus where there would logically be cloud cover at night, where our hard light makes no sense. Realistic night scenes are where I will spend a lot of my efforts and brainpower as budgets become a little less restrictive.

At any rate, we had two Arri M-series HMIs on an 80-foot lift, full flood for spread across the farm, dimmed to the bottom and every scrim we could find put in them, sometimes pulled from innocent tungsten kits. This was not only to hit a wide stop on the lens to match other night scenes, but to subdue the “moonlight” to a level below that of the real candles in Thomasin’s hand. In addition to the HMI “moon” and the handheld candles, I had a 12×20 plus a 12×12 muslin frame filled out with the light of low-wattage joker HMIs for night skylight/fill light, set at six stops under in a wide shot or five stops under for closer shots. I do not share James Cameron’s aesthetic in moonlight and would add a 1/8 green and at least ½ straw to the HMIs to make a very subtle cyan next to the lantern flame.

Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.

 

© 2020 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF