Does “The Lighthouse” deserve Best Cinematography?

Best Cinematography is probably my favorite category. When director Robert Eggers‘ film The Lighthouse was nominated for Best Cinematography, I had to see it. If you read a recent post of mine, you might remember my enthusiasm for 1917. If Roger Deakins doesn’t pick up the statue for the award, I hope Jarin Blaschke wins the Oscar for The Lighthouse. 

Here are some reasons why The Lighthouse was superior in cinematography.

  1. The film is set on a remote island somewhere in New England in the 1890s. A lighthouse rules the environment with its domineering size and elegant white neck. The foghorn blares and the light revolves. Raging waves, pounding rain, and creepy seagulls hop about and give the place a forlorn, ancient aura. The theme of dark and light is central to the characters as they fall victim to their physical surroundings while confronting supernatural elements the longer they stay on the island. Choosing to film it in black and white and using 1.19:1(19:16) — I needed to look up (Wikipedia) what this was and figure out the advantage to the choice.

1.19:1 (19:16): Sometimes referred to as the Movietone ratio, this ratio was used briefly during the transitional period when the film industry was converting to sound, from 1926 to 1932 approx. It is produced by superimposing an optical soundtrack over a full-gate 1.3 aperture in printing, resulting in an almost square image. Films shot in this ratio are often projected or transferred to video incorrectly using a 1.37 mask or squashed to 1.37. Examples of films shot in the Movietone ratio include SunriseMHallelujah! and The Lighthouse.

The cinematic choice adds to the historical climate giving the picture a classic feel. It boxes the story adding to the claustrophobia. As the story progresses, the audience feels the confinement caused by the weather and the lighthouse.

2. It’s a psychological horror story. The story is about two lighthouse keepers who struggle with their sanity. Pattinson did a fine job. However, it was one of Willem Defoe’s best performances. The claustrophobic rooms, the spiral staircase, the beautiful glass prisms of the lens of the lighthouse gave the film a somber, spirited, beautifully dark environment that justified the psychological horror story. The varying camera angles and close-ups capture this and add to the tension. One major criticism was the score. The overloud-Hans-Zimmer-sledgehammer thuds were unnecessary. Especially when the actual horror happens in the final act. The constant sound of the foghorn would audibly drive anyone insane.

3. I don’t like horror films, but I love psychologically intense films. This felt like Hitchcock. Watching Pattinson’s character devolve and lose his sanity was wonderful. That is, the cinematography includes snippet glimpses of Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) with mermaids and disturbing dream sequences. The shots looked up at the face of the crusty sea-dog played by Willem Defoe, elongating the bags under his eyes, and at times, when he stood to give godly sermons, he rose in stature and became frightening. I loved that he sang old sailor songs, told nonsensical stories (that come true), and spoke in the vernacular of a sailor in the 1890s. His mood-swinging personality kept me on edge. Two men are alone on an island for a month. How do you suppose they spend the time? I ended up liking them both even though they were morally gray.

4. A basic theme of the story is the corruption of the soul and the punishment that ensues. Who gives the punishment?  The lighthouse was Godlike. Seeking the light, Ephraim Winslow steals up to the lantern and faces the light — light that a mortal shouldn’t see. The shots that show Ephraim facing the supernatural force is awesome.

5. The ending shot is peculiar and perplexing. It sure screams of the Greek myth “Prometheus” who was punished by Zeus for helping mankind. What are your thoughts about the ending scene? During the first act, Ephraim acts out on a sea bird. A bad omen. Ephraim dreams of mating with a mermaid. A bad omen. All of the bad omens and superstitions of the nautical world are included in the story to give it an interesting aspect. The motif of blindness runs through the film such as the bird and the head of a dead man. Being blinded by the light is a punishment no one is likely to survive. It’s not a film for everyone. But I liked it. 4/5


I don’t believe enough credit is given to the visionaries behind the movie camera who make the directors look fantastic. I thought about influential cinematographers I admire as well as contemporary greats and wondered who is more important–the director or the cinematographer? If you were to direct your own film and could pick your cinematographer, who would you pick? Here are some of my favorites:


Conrad L. Hall, 1926-2003

31 Wins; 19 Nominations; 3 Oscars wins; 7 Oscar nominations

Known for:  The Professionals (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Day of the Locust (1975), Tequila Sunrise (1988), American Beauty (1999), Road to Perdition (2002).


Gordon Willis, 1931

2 Oscar nominations, 1 Honorary Oscar win

Known for: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Manhattan (1979), Pennies From Heaven (1981), Zelig (1983), The Godfather Part III (1990)


Robert Burks, 1909-1968

Won 1 Oscar. Another 1 win & 3 nominations

Paired with director Alfred Hitchcock.

Known for: Rear Window, The Birds, North By Northwest, How To Catch A Thief, and Vertigo 


Roger Deakins, 1949 – 

Nominated for 11 Oscars. Another 68 wins & 46 nominations.

Works with the Coen Brothers

Known for: Shawshenk Redemption, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Assassination of Jesse James, A Beautiful Mind, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Doubt, True Grit, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old MenO Brother, Where Art Thou? Skyfall.


John Toll 1952 –

Won 2 Oscars. Another 12 wins & 12 nominations

Known for: Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, The Last Samurai, Iron Man 3, Cloud Atlas.


Emmanuel Lubezki, 1964 –

Won 1 Oscar. Another 70 wins & 22 nominations

Paired with director: Terrance Malik

Known for: Gravity, The Tree of LifeChildren of Men, Ali, Sleepy HollowMeet Joe Black, To the Wonder


Robert Richardson, 1955-

Won 3 Oscars. Another 16 wins & 46 nominations

Paired with Oliver Stone early; then switched and works with Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese

Known for:  JFK, The Doors, Platoon, Wall Street, Hugo, Kill Bill I & 2, Natural Born Killers, Casino, Nixon, The Horse Whisperer, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Aviator, Shutter Island, Hugo, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, World War Z.


What is your opinion about the relationship between director and cinematographer? Who are your favorite cinematographers?

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