Writer/director Robert Eggers and his longtime collaborator cinematographer Jarin Blaschke knew exactly how they wanted “The Witch” to look, which is why they were unwilling to compromise and waited four years for the proper financing that would allow them to execute their plan. With a budget just north of $3million, the two filmmakers had 26 shooting days to make a film that had a precise cinematic language and as distinct a look as a films costing four times their budget. Here’s Eggers and Blaschke explaining how they created the look of “The Witch.”
Blaschke: The look of the exteriors needed to be gloomy, but naturalistically gloomy. Robert and I are big believers that you always go with the simplest and most truthful solution, which in this case meant we needed to shoot under overcast weather. If you shoot when it’s sunny and then try pressing your highlights down in post, it just looks phony and unacceptable for the atmosphere we needed. So we were juggling the schedule a lot to make that happen. If it was sunny in the morning and it looked like we’d have four or five hours of sun, we’d scramble to do an interior. That is why it was important that we have one essential interior that was near our exteriors.
Eggers: When I was writing I knew this had be one location. End of story. With the scouting, I knew we needed to find all the actual woods that are right behind the house or we’d never make our days.
Blaschke: Once we waited for the gloom, the grip department would just give it a little shape. The light tends to come from one direction and I’d just further take down from the other direction. The base light had to be real overcast weather and we’d just put some nets and solids on the side to strengthen what the light was already doing.
Eggers: The archetypal New England imagery was something that was always in my head. For me that meant the white pines that all the English settlers were drooling over when they got there and that became the cash crop of New England. We needed enormous trees to be prominent around the house at all cost.
Blaschke: We didn’t necessarily get that untouched virgin forest, with giant old growth trees that we hoped for. We just found biggish trees. What we did have was different types of forest and variation in looks that we could play with — deeper in the woods for the scarier stuff, swampy areas for when Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) really gets lost, and the birch forest for when Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) has been transferred from somewhere else.
We composed shots making characters diminutive in frame compared to the trees. We mostly used the 1:66:1 aspect ratio because we wanted a classic, timeless frame size, but the extra height of the aspect ratio also allowed us to let the trees loom over the characters. It also hints at a world where people are always thinking about what is above them in terms of their theology.
We had a modest crane, nothing fancy, that I used to put the camera up high and dolly through the forest. The camera would come close to some gnarly branches and there you have Caleb and his father tiny at the bottom of frame. Often in the forest the camera is either pulling you or pushing you through the woods and hopefully it feels like it is against your will in some kind of way.
Blaschke: We thought about this movie for awhile because it took four years to get financed, so there was a lot of time to do research and dream about what this movie would feel and look like. During that time, we always intended it to be shot on film, but when you get down to it, with animals and children and our schedule, it wasn’t possible. Rob and I are very precise in our coverage and aren’t just perpetually rolling, but when you are trying to get a goat to do something on camera, film isn’t really an option. It’s more important to put the money into the world, specifically sets and costumes, than the tertiary benefit of having a film texture.
So we had to shoot digitally and the Alexa is the only digital camera I can stomach. Subjectively, it has a palette I like and the colors and tonality is a lot less brittle than the other cameras I’ve tested. It’s very smooth, almost glassy or acrylic, as oppose to film’s oil paint look.
Limitations & Coverage
Eggers: I knew from my background as a production designer, in the meeting house scene at the beginning of the film, there was no way in hell we could afford shoes for all those people. It’s not about just saying, “Okay, we’ll frame out the shoes,” because that is not good storytelling. In the scriptwriting, I needed to think about how this scene cannot earn a moment where we want to see a wide shot of the whole community in the meeting house. So that once it came to shooting, even if I could have afforded the shoes, I wouldn’t have shot this any differently than we did.
Blaschke: I’d rather reconceive something, or see how we can distill something further, rather than do a watered down version of the thing we intended. That’s where less coverage comes in. Fewer shots means we see less of the room, which means we’re lighting less. I’d rather maintain the core of what we are going for than do a sloppy version.
Eggers: I storyboarded the whole film, then Jarin storyboarded the whole film, then we came together to create a very specific blueprint. Neither of us are interested in traditional coverage, it’s a great tool for writer driven TV shows, but I think there’s more effective ways to tell stories. The producers on set had to really trust Jarin and I because we basically cut in camera. We had a plan and we stuck to it.
Blaschke: It’s pre-editing in a way — having shots fulfill a few different requirements at once. Each shot is loaded with more stuff that fulfils, on a few different levels, what we’re doing. Using shots and the camera to say something about a character, as well as create a mood and give story information all at the same time.
One example of this is when William (Ralph Ineson) is chopping wood at night. You could do a conventional tense sequence of all these inserts of wood chopping, but then you are lighting from all these different directions at night. What we decided on was a slow, ominous over head zoom shot. One setup and for me it’s stronger than the more typical option which would be a cutty thing.
Eggers: Something Jarin and I believe strongly is that in order to really transport an audience, it’s not enough to say this is a good shot. It’s about saying every single shot in this film has to be articulating a memory of our own Puritan childhood, and what did our dad’s smell like that day in the corn field, and what was the mist like on the corn. That’s the level of specificity that’s needed in order to transport an audience. And that’s where the obsession with detail comes from. It’s not just authenticity for the sake of authenticity. That’s why [production designer] Craig [Lathrop] built the farm and farmhouse using the same tools and techniques they would have used in the 17th century.
Candle Lit Interiors
Blaschke: One of things I loved about [cinematographer] Gordon Willis (“Godfather,” “Annie Hall”) is he was more about chopping away the bullshit and just committing to ideas. That’s what I was striving for with the night time candlelit interiors. In the first short I did with Rob he found these triple wick, beeswax candles from Alaska and that’s when I learned to work with candles. I would supplement with electric lights here and there on the short. In this film I wanted to go a step further and be authentic to the period and just light by fire, and we were able to do that for all but one shot — the raven was going to freak out if we had a fire on set.
One of my favorite shots is the three kids with a single candle in the middle. It’s a symmetrical composition, they’re kind of at the bottom of frame as they try to listen to the parents fight downstairs. I hid some tea lights to bring it up the light a little, but it’s essentially one source and just a very simple composition with light falling off as you go up the wall and having these barely illuminated people. It’s a shot that really embodies what I was striving for on this film. I was talking to Rob and we actually think even “The Witch” is over lit with too many candles going. Next time we want to go even further, maybe eliminate the need for depth, go simpler and see how far we can take it.
Editor’s Note: This feature is presented in partnership with Arri, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Click here for more information about Arri’s products.