Jarin Blaschke is an award-winning cinematographer and alumni of the Sundance Director's Lab. He is best known for his work on The Witch (2015), which grossed $40 million worldwide on a budget of $3.5M, winning Best First Feature at The Independent Spirit Awards and Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival. Known for his distinctive, formal, low-light work in the film, Jarin was subsequently chosen as one of Variety’s “10 Cinematographers to Watch for 2015,” and one of “13 Breakthroughs of the Sundance Film Festival” by MovieMaker Magazine.
He has since photographed Shimmer Lake (2017) for Netflix and Oren Uziel, Down A Dark Hall with Lionsgate and director Rodrigo Cortes, and Back Roads—actor Alex Pettyfer's directing debut. His next effort is an as-yet unannounced film with collaborator Rob Eggers. Blaschke’s earlier work includes Leah Meyerhoff's I Believe in Unicorns and Geoff Ryan's Fray. During the early 2000s he also served as a photojournalist across the US and at the Venezuelan elections, and designed lighting for Vanity Fair and GQ magazines.
Blaschke's commercial work spans 3 continents for brands such as IBM, Dior, Heineken, Converse, Claritin, Reebok, and Atlantic Records. Short-form directors with whom Blaschke has collaborated include Anjelica Huston and Floria Sigismondi.
DVD.com: First of all, let’s get a credit question I have always had straightened out: what is the difference between a Director of Photography and a Cinematographer?
Jarin Blaschke: These are two titles for the same job. Which title is used is up to the cinematographer (or director of photography).
DVD.com: Inevitably, that sort of question leads to the question of: How does a person become a cinematographer? Are there schools that have specialized majors or training programs in cinematography?
JB: I still wish I knew the answer to this question! It would have saved me many years. There are specialized cinematography programs within film schools, but in my experience, school does absolutely nothing to get you work. So after school, you are out on the street with some skills and a limited reel in your hand, but that's about it. In my case, I didn't know what else to do but to keep building my reel by responding to online ads to shoot short films. It was during this time that I really experimented and found my style and personal method. Within some years the projects slowly became better and bigger, and I eventually had a 35mm reel that showed some scope and personal expression. Then I got my first feature in 2007, and started all over again as far as quality and scale of projects in that new realm.
I went from shooting 3 pages per day on $70-250,000 short films to shooting 5 pages per day on $100-800,000 feature films. I also often had a deep connection to all the people who hired me to do the shorts, and the atmosphere was very collaborative and trusting and family-like, and I could take calculated creative risks. To an extent, I still like to invoke this spirit while working on feature films today.
DVD.com: One of the things I noticed in television is that camera moves are highly choreographed. Tell us a little bit about the process of shooting a scene. Who does what? How is the whole sequence done?
J.B. I find that some things are choreographed, but most of the time people are just "getting it" with great margins of safety, and room for error built in. Then there are other people who are visually focused and effective, but need to find the shot on set, try a few versions, and don't really know if it works, and what parts to use until they're in the editing room. While everyone's process is different and valid to them, my preference is to have the film basically designed before stepping onto set. This allows for stronger, more considered camera choices, and it allows the lighting to be designed holistically, rather than always chasing after where the camera is going next, or even worse, becoming "generalized"—all-purpose and without nuance.
So, in my preferred world, a shot list is created for the whole film, either largely by the director or largely in collaboration with me. Some things can be designed very early in the abstract, some things require walking around the set or location, and for some complex scenes we need to see a rehearsal. I personally, if allowed, like to watch some late rehearsals from the corner of the room to make sure the tone of the shots and intended lighting work well with the tone of the performances. After the movie is played in our heads, and the design is locked down, I would then state my preferences of shooting order for sake of efficiency, optimization to changing daylight, and optimization of matching the shots. However, there are many other factors that will affect the shot order outside of my control.
On a shoot day, when we first get to set, there would be a "blocking" of the scene. In today's hectic and scattered world, a lot of people don't do this anymore but I find it crucial to focus and coordinate everyone, and to thus do the work only once. "Blocking" is where we finalize the positions of the actors, the camera and the lighting for each of the shots in the scene. At the end of the process, we run the honed scene for the crew at large, so everyone has all the information they need to best do their job: for the focus puller to know marks, to the grip to know where to hide equipment, to the sound person to know what side of the actor to hide the mic pack. When the actors go to makeup and wardrobe, we get to work on the lighting and placing the camera. I am very, very specific with camera placement and pacing, so sometimes I like to operate the camera myself. However, if the camera operator is good, and has similar tastes as myself, I'd often rather watch the movie play out at the monitor to objectively see if it is working, away from the concerns of the operator.
DVD.com: What are the most difficult scenes to shoot?
J.B.: As I tend toward (and am hired for) my "naturalism," the toughest scenes so far have been shooting effects-heavy scenes while maintaining believability of the light, when there are so many real-world elements absent.
Large night exterior scenes can also be a pain, because even the simplest lighting requires so much extra work. The equipment is larger, far away, higher up, in awkward places, and it's labor intensive. It's like trying to run across a sand dune.
DVD.com: What are the challenges of shooting an exterior vs. shooting an interior?
J.B.: I just spoke about night exteriors, but day exteriors have their own challenges. First of all, you are handed so much light that is not of your choosing. All you can do, hopefully, is choose the time of day to shoot the scene, although you have no control of the weather. In some special cases, you can change the day's work to an interior, to roll the dice another day if you don't like the weather today. In any event, once you shoot it's then a matter of shaping and taking away all that messy light you are given—almost "damage control." This can can be a deceiving amount of work with big tools, for a result that is much improved but often invisible to the audience.
Interiors usually have smaller scope, and you have a lot more control, can take more liberties and the equipment is closer, smaller, and easier to fine-tune and adjust. They can be more rewarding. The only challenge is not having enough space to block the scene properly, or having enough space to work with dozens of people milling about.
DVD.com: How closely do you work with the director on the creation of a movie? Do you have input? Or do you work to execute the director’s vision?
J.B.: This varies greatly from director to director, and film to film. Sometimes the cinematographer is deeply involved in the very visual structure of a film, like a Gordon Willis*, and other times we are employed to just make it look "good" and technically solid, whatever that may mean for a particular film.
From what I can tell, I'm typically involved more than most cinematographers regarding the shots and broader visual elements, because my mind works more holistically. I push to know where the camera is going well in advance in order to make the lighting work. Sometimes you're not even given that information until the morning of the shoot, and it's a serious handicap to your best lighting.
For me, all the elements need to be considered together to make successful cinematography. The costumes, the production design, the locations, the actors’ faces, the tone of their performances, their physical rhythms, the rhythm of the intended edit. I work very collaboratively, and this is a big plus for some directors and a minus for others. I've been in both kinds of collaborations.
[*DVD.com note: Gordon Willis was an award-winning cinematographer, most recognized for his work in The Godfather series.]
DVD.com: Why are there so few women cinematographers?
J.B.: I think overall, traditionally, filmmaking has been a bit of a "boy's club," most especially in technical roles. It's a bit like why young women were/are discouraged from scientific endeavors: all the visible scientific role models were men, and the traditional image of a cinematographer has been a man, which is of course ridiculous. This is changing somewhat, but arduously slowly. Within the last year there has been a rise in demand for female directors, but somehow the role of cinematographer is lagging behind.
DVD.com: I recently watched “The Witch”. Very scary. The film, which is set in New England in the 1630s, had a washed-out and bleak look to it that seemed to match or highlight the grim lives of the characters. How did you arrive at that look?
J. B.: At a most basic level, it's underexposure and extremely naturalistic lighting. It is a low contrast movie that uses underexposure to shrink its palette down, away from highlights. Instead of black to white, we only portray black to mid/light gray. On a tonal scale of 1 to 10, caucasian skin tones are usually portrayed as a 6 for daylight scenes. I was placing them at 5 or even 4 1/2.
I think there is something oppressive about not ever seeing brightness anywhere, not even as a backlight. Of course, with a limited tonal range there is essentially less latitude. You need to be all the more careful with exposure—a small miscalculation could cause something to not be visible at all.
With the lighting, the most basic and effective tool we employed was just the choice of shooting exteriors under strict weather conditions. Weather was huge factor on the look. Ontario in the spring provided a lot of drizzly, gloomy, or at least overcast days, and when it didn't, we had an interior set right there on location that we could move to. We took a hardline decision that for exteriors, shooting on a sunny day was just not acceptable, and there were just enough cover sets to make that possible. We did eventually run out of back-up sets though!
As far as the grade, there is some cyan added to the day scenes, and a little bit of desaturation going on, but less than you would think. It's a fine line between what is effective and what looks artificial or "processed." Our lower contrast look also desaturates the image inherently, but really, the weather, the lack of of foliage, and the limited palette of the sets and costumes did most of the work.
DVD.com: Does the horror and suspense genre have a particular set of skills that are required of you as a cinematographer? Do you know or were you taught what scares people?
J. B.: If there are a set of skills, I'm not consciously aware of them. I just use my imagination, and when the strongest image of what is in the script comes into my mind, I break down what it would mean to create that image on a practical level. However, there needs to be a strong instinct of when to starve an audience of information and when to feed them. This applies to editing, but also framing and lighting and sound. You can show something to varying degrees within all those fields, and information in one field affects how much you want to convey in the others. This is why you can't work in a creative vacuum.
DVD.com: What is your overall feeling about on-location shooting? It seems to pose an endless extra set of challenges for a cinematographer.
J.B.: That may be true, but real locations can also give you more to work with; they can inspire you with things you wouldn't have come up with on your own, even where to put a camera or how to light a scene. They are another kind of collaborator with much to offer.
Limitations are not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, to me, the core of the whole filmmaking process is about paring down your endless options, little by little, until there is only one film left to make. A "no" is as helpful as a "yes"—often more so. Location shooting aids this paring process very very well. It's then about choosing just the right location, embracing all that it has and does not have, and distilling it into the best version of itself—like hiring a collaborator, seeing them honestly, clearly and using them to their best abilities—not expecting them to be something they are not but loving who they are and showcasing those qualities the best you can.
The only challenge then, sometimes, is the time needed to find the right location or collaborator for the film you intend to make.
DVD.com: Recently, we all heard about the reshooting required on Ridley Scott’s “All the Money In the World.” Have you ever been involved in such a situation or worked on a film that had some other kind of crisis that made the shoot difficult?
J. B.: On The Witch, Rob Eggers had to rewrite the climax of the movie. Originally there was a melee between William and Black Philip [the name of the goat in the film] before William's demise. After all of us, especially Ralph [Ineson], worked with Charlie the goat for 6 hours, we barely achieved poor versions of the first two shots in the sequence. Ralph was not only utterly exhausted but eventually injured by the goat, requiring a day at the hospital. Clearly the scene needed to be reconceived, and thus William's surrender in the movie.
DVD.com: Do you have a particular camera/lens/film type you prefer to shoot with, or does it depend on the film?
J.B. This really depends on the film, although my aesthetic tastes still prefer photographing onto film stock. This spring I am finally given a chance to work with the format again after some years of working with the Alexa, my preferred digital camera. I have a reaction to film footage that is not nostalgia but one of subjective beauty. The imagery is created by some sort of alchemy, and transports me further into the world of the film.
In regards to lenses, some films require a clean, detailed, neutral image and some require something less literal optically. I have tested a great many lenses of the latter type and although I have used old Cooke Panchro lenses the most, the nuances of many kinds of vintage lens are suited to different projects. The project this spring will use altered vintage lenses that have effectively not been used in 60 years.