The Greats: Vilmos Zsigmond

Movies Features

Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

“I don’t know if I have a style,” cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond said recently. “If I had the same style on every movie, it wouldn’t be interesting. My style is to tell the story the right way each time.”

Talk to cinematographers and you’ll hear that a lot: I don’t have a particular style—I just do whatever’s right for the story. It may sound immodest or self-effacing, but in large part that’s how they feel, indicative of a craft in which one’s work is always done at the service of the director, who’s the ultimate boss on the set. But cinematography isn’t just a technical art; the best in the field combine craft with an artist’s eye, turning a filmmaker’s sometimes-amorphous ideas into concrete images. And Zsigmond is one of the best.

He was born in the summer of 1930 in Hungary, developing an interest in still photography that led to studying cinematography at school in Budapest. Soon after, Zsigmond was shooting films when history intervened. The fall of 1956 saw the start of the Hungarian Revolution, a protest of the country’s Communist government, and Zsigmond, alongside his good friend and equally legendary cinematographer László Kovács, captured the events while they were unfolding, later sneaking the footage into Vienna and eventually selling it to CBS.

The two friends immigrated to the U.S., and initially Zsigmond was a director of photography under the name William Zsigmund, shooting 1960s genre films like The Sadist. Soon, he returned to using his own name, and he discovered that outsiders like him and Kovács, who had grown up on European films, were welcomed with open arms by up-and-coming American directors. “I was lucky,” he recalled later, “because I was around when all these young filmmakers came up who didn’t want to do the old-style Hollywood movies. … They were searching for new guys to shoot them, and we were the new guys. Get those crazy Hungarians who work for nothing!”

Shooting Addams Family star John Astin’s short film Prelude, which was nominated for an Oscar, helped him secure higher-profile gigs, such as Peter Fonda’s directorial debut, The Hired Hand, and, most importantly, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The superb revisionist Western didn’t just seek to rewrite the rules of the genre but also to re-imagine its look. “I had seen something,” Altman would later say about his vague vision for McCabe. “I think it’s in my dreams. Or I’d seen a Western in which the way the buildings were built or the way the people walked looked real. And I don’t know when I saw it, or where I saw it, or even if I saw it. But I had that look in my mind.”

Zsigmond recalled that Altman “described [McCabe] in images, very old, like antique photographs and faded-out pictures, not much color.” To achieve Altman’s desired effect, Zsigmond incorporated an at-the-time relatively new process called flashing, a technique that decreases contrast and makes the images look underexposed and grainy—in other words, like old, faded photographs. Their bosses at Warner Bros. hated the look, convinced that Zsigmond was ruining McCabe. Instead, it helped define that iconic film’s emotional tone, inspiring future cinematographers to duplicate its look for their romantic period pieces.

Zsigmond and Altman went on to make two other films, The Long Goodbye and Images, but Zsigmond also hooked up with other major directors of the time, including Brian De Palma (Obsession, Blow Out). But special notice must go to his collaborations with Steven Spielberg, for whom he shot The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He’d had a chance to shoot Jaws as well but had declined. (“Honestly, I didn’t like the script,” he confessed. “I like to shoot films about people, not animals.”) It was his shooting of Close Encounters that earned him his only Academy Award. It’s a deserving winner—Zsigmond’s creative use of light to signal the approaching alien ships is an even more impressive feat considering that special effects were then in their infancy.

“Special effects are always tricky,” Zsigmond told authors Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato for their book Masters of Light: Conversations With Contemporary Cinematographers. “That’s why I’m very proud about the way Close Encounters looks. … You always see the special effects [from other films of that era] and you know when they come on the screen. But in Close Encounters, you really are seduced, in many cases, into thinking that it’s real.” And in keeping with Zsigmond’s humility, he has always credited Douglas Trumbull, the pioneering special-effects innovator, who helped Zsigmond and Spielberg achieve the film’s enduring, somehow realistic visuals.

If his aforementioned achievements weren’t enough, Zsigmond also shot director Michael Cimino’s Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter, assisting to visually establish that film’s three different story segments: the opening in Pennsylvania, the middle section in Vietnam, and then the aftermath back home in Pennsylvania. The sections were shot using distinct styles—the Vietnam sequence, for instance, achieved a gritty newsreel-footage feel—to create a sense of location but also mindset. And then the two men made Heaven’s Gate. People may disagree about whether it’s a masterpiece or an epic folly, but everybody concurs the film looks absolutely gorgeous and dreamlike. For that film, Zsigmond returned to McCabe as his model. “We didn’t want it to be hazy and look as old as McCabe & Mrs. Miller did,” he said. “We wanted to create the haze within the picture. And to justify it we used stoves that created smoke; we had dust being kicked up by horses and wagons.”

Legacy secured, he continued to work steadily, demonstrating that even the greatest cinematographers bounce around from time to time to seemingly odd projects. In the ’80s, he shot the Gen-X touchstone Real Genius, and in the ’90s he collaborated with Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard) and Richard Donner (Maverick). More recently, he’s teamed up with Woody Allen for Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. And he’s also shot some episodes of the sitcom, The Mindy Project. Just as he claims he has no set style, he professes that “a combination of things” stir him to pick one project over another.

“I like to see the characters develop in a movie,” he said in an interview with Turner Classic Movies. “I want the audience to learn from each movie I photograph. A movie should be an entertaining and learning experience at the same time. I would also pick a movie if it’s directed by a filmmaker I like. I shy away from violent movies. I don’t really like to shoot comedies unless it is a Maverick or a Woody Allen comedy.”

Humble and simple. Zsigmond, like a lot of cinematographers, talks about the relationship with a director as being similar to a marriage, which requires a lot of trust and give-and-take. He’s always preferred to honor the director’s vision rather than asserting his own, and his directors have come to value him for his selflessness.

That’s never more apparent than in a story that Zsigmond told Masters of Light of an exchange Altman and Stanley Kubrick had in the ’70s. Kubrick, a notorious control freak, was fascinated by how Altman was able to create such fluid zoom shots in McCabe. “Do you do that yourself?” Kubrick asked Altman, who responded, “No, I’m not doing that myself; it’s my cameraman doing it.”

According to Zsigmond, “Kubrick said, ‘Do you trust him?’ To which Robert replied, ‘Of course I trust him; he’s doing it exactly the way I would do it if I was behind the camera, that’s his job.’”

And what a fine job Zsigmond does.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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