By Jennifer Walden
Director Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse tells the tale of two lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), who lose their minds while isolated on a small rocky island, battered by storms, plagued by seagulls and haunted by supernatural forces/delusion-inducing conditions. It’s an A24 film that hit theaters in late October.
Much like his first feature-length film The Witch (winner of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award for a dramatic film and the 2017 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature), The Lighthouse is a tense and haunting slow descent into madness.
But “unlike most films where the crazy ramps up, reaching a fever pitch and then subsiding or resolving, in The Lighthouse the crazy ramps up to a fever pitch and then stays there for the next hour,” explains Emmy-winning supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Damian Volpe. “It’s like you’re stuck with them, they’re stuck with each other and we’re all stuck on this rock in the middle of the ocean with no escape.”
Volpe, who’s worked with director Eggers on two short films — The Tell-Tale Heart and Brothers — thought he had a good idea of just how intense the film and post sound process would be going into The Lighthouse, but it ended up exceeding his expectations. “It was definitely the most difficult job I’ve done in over two decades of working in post sound for sure. It was really intense and amazing,” he says.
Eggers chose Harbor’s New York City location for both sound and final color. This was colorist Joe Gawler’s first time working with Eggers, but it couldn’t have been a more fitting film. The Lighthouse was shot on 35mm black & white (Double-X 5222) film with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, and as it happens Gawler is well versed in the world of black & white. He’s remastered a tremendous amount of classic movie titles for The Criterion Collection, such as Breathless, Seventh Samurai and several Fellini films like 8 ½. “To take that experience from my Criterion title work and apply that to giving authenticity to a contemporary film that feels really old, I think it was really helpful,” Gawler says.
The advantage of shooting on film versus shooting digitally is that film negatives can be rescanned as technology advances, making it possible to take a film from the ‘60s and remaster it into 4K resolution. “When you shoot something digitally, you’re stuck in the state-of-the-moment technology. If you were shooting digitally 10 years ago and want to create a new deliverable of your film and reimagine it with today’s display technologies, you are compromised in some ways. You’re having to up-res that material. But if you take a 35mm film negative shot 100 years ago, the resolution is still inside that negative. You can rescan it with a new scanner and it’s going to look amazing,” explains Gawler.
While most of The Lighthouse was shot on black & white film (with Baltar lenses designed in the 1930s for that extra dose of authenticity), there were a few stock footage shots of the ocean with big storm waves and some digitally rendered elements, such as the smoke, that had to be color corrected and processed to match the rich, grainy quality of the film. “Those stock footage shots we had to beat up to make them feel more aged. We added a whole bunch of grain into those and the digital elements so they felt seamless with the rest of the film,” says Gawler.
The digitally rendered elements were separate VFX pieces composited into the black & white film image using Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve. “Conforming the movie in Resolve gave us the flexibility to have multiple layers and allowed us to punch through one layer to see more or less of another layer,” says Gawler. For example, to get just that right amount of smoke, “we layered the VFX smoke element on top of the smokestack in the film and reduced the opacity of the VFX layer until we found the level that Rob and DP Jarin Blaschke were happy with.”
In terms of color, Gawler notes The Lighthouse was all about exposure and contrast. The spectrum of gray rarely goes to true white and the blacks are as inky as they can be. “Jarin didn’t want to maintain texture in the blackest areas, so we really crushed those blacks down. We took a look at the scopes and made sure we were bottoming out so that the blacks were pure black.”
From production to post, Eggers’ goal was to create a film that felt like it could have been pulled from a 1930’s film archive. “It feels authentically antique, and that goes for the performances, the production design and all the period-specific elements — the lights they used and the camera, and all the great care we took in our digital finish of the film to make it feel as photochemical as possible,” says Gawler.
This holds true for post sound, too. So much so that Eggers and Volpe kicked around the idea of making the soundtrack mono. “When I heard the first piece of score from composer Mark Korven, the whole mono idea went out the door,” explains Volpe. “His score was so wide and so rich in terms of tonality that we never would’ve been able to make this difficult dialogue work if we had to shove it all down one speaker’s mouth.”
The dialogue was difficult on many levels. First, Volpe describes the language as “old-timey, maritime” delivered in two different accents — Dafoe has an Irish-tinged seasoned sailor accent and Pattinson has an up-east Maine accent. Additionally, the production location made it difficult to record the dialogue, with wind, rain and dripping water sullying the tracks. Re-recording mixer Rob Fernandez, who handled the dialogue and music, notes that when it’s raining the lighthouse is leaking. You see the water in the shots because they shot it that way. “So the water sound is married to the dialogue. We wanted to have control over the water so the dialogue had to be looped. Rob wanted to save as much of the amazing on-set performances as possible, so we tried to go to ADR for specific syllables and words,” says Fernandez.
That wasn’t easy to do, especially toward the end of the film during Dafoe’s monologue. “That was very challenging because at one point all of the water and surrounding sounds disappear. It’s just his voice,” says Fernandez. “We had to do a very slow transition into that so the audience doesn’t notice. It’s really focusing you in on what he is saying. Then you’re snapped out of it and back into reality with full surround.”
Another challenging dialogue moment was a scene in which Pattinson is leaning on Dafoe’s lap, and their mics are picking up each other’s lines. Plus, there’s water dripping. Again, Eggers wanted to use as much production as possible so Fernandez tried a combination of dialogue tools to help achieve a seamless match between production and ADR. “I used a lot of Synchro Arts’ Revoice Pro to help with pitch matching and rhythm matching. I also used every tool iZotope offers that I had at my disposal. For EQ, I like FabFilter. Then I used reverb to make the locations work together,” he says.
Volpe reveals, “Production sound mixer Alexander Rosborough did a wonderful job, but the extraneous noises required us to replace at least 60% of the dialogue. We spent several months on ADR. Luckily, we had two extremely talented and willing actors. We had an extremely talented mixer, Rob Fernandez. My dialogue editor William Sweeney was amazing too. Between the directing, the acting, the editing and the mixing they managed to get it done. I don’t think you can ever tell that so much of the dialogue has been replaced.”
The third main character in the film is the lighthouse itself, which lives and breathes with a heartbeat and lungs. The mechanism of the Fresnel lens at the top of the lighthouse has a deep, bassy gear-like heartbeat and rasping lungs that Volpe created from wrought iron bars drawn together. Then he added reverb to make the metal sound breathier. In the bowels of the lighthouse there is a steam engine that drives the gears to turn the light. Ephraim (Pattinson) is always looking up toward Thomas (Dafoe), who is in the mysterious room at the top of the lighthouse. “A lot of the scenes revolve around clockwork, which is just another rhythmic element. So Ephraim starts to hear that and also the sound of the light that composer Korven created, this singing glass sound. It goes over and over and drives him insane,” Volpe explains.
Mermaids make a brief appearance in the film. To create their vocals, Volpe and his wife did a recording session in which they made strange sea creature call-and-response sounds to each other. “I took those recordings and beat them up in Pro Tools until I got what I wanted. It was quite a challenge and I had to throw everything I had at it. This was more of a hammer-and-saw job than a fancy plug-in job,” Volpe says.
He captured other recordings too, like the sound of footsteps on the stairs inside a lighthouse on Cape Cod, marine steam engines at an industrial steam museum in northern Connecticut and more at the Mystic Sea Port… seagulls and waves. “We recorded so much. We dug a grave. We found an 80-year-old lobster pot that we smashed about. I recorded the inside of conch shells to get drones. Eighty percent of the sound in the film is material that I and Filipe Messeder (assistant and Foley editor) recorded, or that I recorded with my wife,” says Volpe.
But one of the trickiest sounds to create was a foghorn that Eggers originally liked from a lighthouse in Wales. Volpe tracked down the keeper there but the foghorn was no longer operational. He then managed to locate a functioning steam-powered diaphone foghorn in Shetland, Scotland. He contacted the lighthouse keeper Brian Hecker and arranged for a local documentarian to capture it. “The sound of the Sumburgh Lighthouse is a major element in the film. I did a fair amount of additional work on the recordings to make them sound more like the original one Rob [Eggers] liked, because the Sumburgh foghorn had a much deeper, bassier, whale-like quality.”
The final voice in The Lighthouse’s soundtrack is composer Korven’s score. Since Volpe wanted to blur the line between sound design and score, he created sounds that would complement Korven’s. Volpe says, “Mark Korven has these really great sounds that he generated with a ball on a cymbal. It created this weird, moaning whale sound. Then I created these metal creaky whale sounds and those two things sing to each other.”
In terms of the mix, nearly all the dialogue plays from the center channel, helping it stick to the characters within the small frame of this antiquated aspect ratio. The Foley, too, comes from the center and isn’t panned. “I’ve had some people ask me (bizarrely) why I decided to do the sound in mono. There might be a psychological factor at work where you’re looking at this little black & white square and somehow the sound glues itself to that square and gives you this idea that it’s vintage or that it’s been processed or is narrower than it actually is.
“As a matter of fact, this mix is the farthest thing from mono. The sound design, effects, atmospheres and music are all very wide — more so than I would do in a regular film as I tend to be a bit conservative with panning. But on this film, we really went for it. It was certainly an experimental film, and we embraced that,” says Volpe.
The idea of having the sonic equivalent of this 1930’s film style persisted. Since mono wasn’t feasible, other avenues were explored. Volpe suggested recording the production dialogue onto a NAGRA to “get some of that analog goodness, but it just turned out to be one thing too many for them in the midst of all the chaos of shooting on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia,” says Volpe. “We did try tape emulator software, but that didn’t yield interesting results. We played around with the idea of laying it off to a 24-track or shooting in optical. But in the end, those all seemed like they’d be expensive and we’d have no control whatsoever. We might not even like what we got. We were struggling to come up with a solution.”
Then a suggestion from Harbor’s Joel Scheuneman (who’s experienced in the world of music recording/producing) saved the day. He recommended the outboard Rupert Neve Designs 542 Tape Emulator.
The film was final mixed in 5.1 surround on a Euphonix S5 console. Each channel was sent through an RND 542 module and then into the speakers. The units’ magnetic heads added saturation, grain and a bit of distortion to the tracks. “That is how we mixed the film. We had all of these imperfections in the track that we had to account for while we were mixing,” explains Fernandez.
“You couldn’t really ride it or automate it in any way; you had to find the setting that seemed good and then just let it rip. That meant in some places it wasn’t hitting as hard as we’d like and in other places it was hitting harder than we wanted. But it’s all part of Rob Eggers’s style of filmmaking — leaving room for discovery in the process,” adds Volpe.
“There’s a bit of chaos factor because you don’t know what you’re going to get. Rob is great about being specific but also embracing the unknown or the unexpected,” he concludes.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.