Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond

From the Archive: Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond Talks Motion Picture Making

January 06, 2016 by Independent Lens in Beyond the Films

In memory of Vilmos Zsigmond, the legendary cinematographer who died New Years Day, we reached into the Independent Lens archive for an interview Mr. Zsigmond gave us in June 2010 on the premiere of the documentary about Vilmos and his Hungarian compatriot and colleague, Laszlo Kovacs, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos. Read on for a glimpse of Vilmos’ humility, insight, and wealth of knowledge about the craft of motion picture photography.

Independent Lens: Here’s a question we received that you may not want to answer…

Vilmos Zsigmond: Oh don’t be too sure! You never know what I might say…

IL: Fair enough! OK, you asked for it: Which director has been your favorite to work with, and if you won’t name one, then what characteristics make a director the most rewarding to work with?

VZ: Well that is a great question, but I couldn’t possibly choose just one. I was really fortunate from the time I arrived in Hollywood to work with some of the greatest directors from the beginning. I worked with Robert Altman, John Boorman, and of course Steven Spielberg, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma … I couldn’t pick one of them; they were all different, but they are all so talented.

A good director is talented, imaginative, and does his homework.

IL: A recent article credited you and Laszlo Kovacs with creating the New American Wave, or the American nouvelle vague.

VZ: Well it’s unfair to say that. We were certainly part of it, but there were many other cinematographers working then that had a hand in it — Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night), John Alonzo (Chinatown, Scarface), Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Annie Hall, Klute), and Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood) are some of the greatest cinematographers of that generation.

You know, when we came to America, the movies here needed a “new wave.” European films looked totally different than American movies, which were these lush, glossy pictures with this elaborate production design. The difference was, European films had art. And it was easy to make a European film. They didn’t come from the studio system, they weren’t shot in sound studios, and that’s a good thing, because in the studio system those movies would never have had a chance. And since we were coming from Europe, it was natural for us to use that simple style. Small budgets, less equipment, that was just how it was.

IL: If you look at a film from that generation, you can just feel that it is from that era. But it seems like it would be hard to distinguish a film made in 1998 from one made in 2008. Is that a function of technology, or something else?

VZ: Well technology has a great deal to do with it. The Panaflex camera was a big breakthrough when it came along; it changed everything, because now you could shoot from the perspective of a person riding in the backseat of a car (Sugarland Express). It took a lot of the guesswork out. But technology has changed much more than that. I look at a picture like Scarecrow and think, ‘Jesus, how could they have let us make that?’ I mean, if you used technology that old nowadays, it would look like old Hollywood.

IL: Technology has helped make filmmaking more accessible and even more affordable. Has it done anything to hurt filmmaking?

VZ: Oh yes. It’s all about special effects and explosions now. It leaves me just cold when I walk out of the theater. There’s no heart; there’s no soul. Movies used to be about people. It’s as though we don’t tell stories any more. The studios have to make money, and if you want to make $20 million, you have to spend $200 million.

IL: What do you think about homemade projects like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project which were ultra-low-budget, and big successes? Will the studios finally realize that you can succeed without bloated budgets?

VZ: The studios are never going to make $200 million a picture with those types of movies. It’s not familiar to them, and it’s not a model that can necessarily be sustained. Now, if they go back to making movies about people … well, I hope they do that.

IL: Cinematography seems to go through fads like everything else. There were the 1990s with the ultra-low-light films, and then the nauseating “shakycam” era. Do you think these trends are part of the evolution of cinematography in some way?

VZ: You know, we used hand-held cameras 50 years ago. It wasn’t something new. Sometimes we used a tripod, or we’d have a tracking shot, and sometimes — like when a character was being chased — we used a hand-held camera because it was right for the scene. In those cases, it helped the mood; it created immediacy and a feeling for the viewer that they were in the scene and in the moment.

But if you use hand-held techniques just to make the film stylish I think it’s wrong. And the argument I hear is that it makes it more realistic. But it doesn’t. Maybe you get an immediacy, but who’s point of view are you representing? The filmmaker. And then the audience is aware that there is a filmmaker making a movie, which takes them out of the experience. But there is a place to use hand-held. In Slumdog Millionaire when you are immersed in the point of view of children in the slum and the bustle of the city, the handheld camerawork is amazing. A handheld camera is perfect for establishing point-of-view and for instilling the feeling that you are there.

It’s the same thing with lighting. Some movies are what I would call murky. Just because it’s murky doesn’t make it artistic. It makes it hard to see. The best way to know when there’s good lighting is when you don’t notice it. I think that the audience should not be able to tell if it is real or not real — it should be an enhanced version of reality, or an artistic view of reality, that captures not only what is physically there, but what is not visible — the mood.

IL: You’ve used many technologies, from tungsten film to digital cameras. Are there advantages and disadvantages to both?

VZ: I don’t think there is any advantage to digital unless it’s in a case like Slumdog Millionaire, where you have to get a shot and a big bulky film camera is out of the question. If you need to strap a camera to you or get in a small space, then it makes sense to use digital.

I do think it is possible to use a digital camera artistically, but it can only be good if you are using film technique. Film has grain, and digital has pixels, and there is not that much of a difference, but digital does not replace the need to create a scene and light it properly and spend time considering the shot. I think it makes it to easy to simply capture rather than to create first, capture second. There is a difference between creating something and just capturing something. And when we were using film, it was not that fast, and it was expensive, so there was incentive to make sure the shot was exactly right before we rolled. With digital, it’s fast and its cheap, and it’s easy to bypass the rest.

There is something missing in a lot of digital filmmaking, something I call “poetic reality.” That’s something you see played out in film noir, where the technique establishes the mood. If you do not bother to take the time to compose and to light properly, then you end up with something almost less than reality. You end up without the soul, the heart, the art of the moment. There is something more to “reality” than just the tangible. There is also mood, and you cannot skip that.

When I was in Hungary in December I was looking at student films and I could not tell which ones were shot on film and which ones were shot digitally. I think that is because the filmmakers in Europe go to four years of film school and learn the techniques. I think too many film students in America are losing the artistry and not learning lighting the right way.

But I am not against digital at all. I use digital intermediate (DI) to improve on what I have on film, to manipulate the color and light to get the exact mood we are trying to create. I love working with DI.

IL: Do you have a still photographer you particularly admire? How about a painter that inspires you?

VZ: It all goes back to Caravaggio. And probably the single biggest influence is George de La Tour. But I love the Dutch impressionists — Vermeer, Rembrandt. What they were able to do with light was astonishing. As for photographers, I think mostly of the Hungarians: Robert Capa, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Jozsef Pesci. In fact, I have one of his photographs hanging here in my house. I don’t know the American photographers as well, but I admit I love Ansel Adams. His landscapes are so crisp. I have a few of his pictures in my house too, but sadly they are just prints! Well, OK, I have one original.

When I first came to America there still was Look Magazine and LIFE Magazine, and the photography in those magazines was amazing to look at. They had the best portraits, and their news photography … It was a feast for us to learn. In fact, I probably learned more about photography from studying black-and-white photography in those magazines than I did from watching movies here. That’s the truth.

IL: In your opinion, what is the single greatest feat of cinematography in history?

VZ: Gregg Toland for Citizen Kane. I guess most people would say that. What he did was just unheard of. He used the ceiling, pointed his camera up at it. Which of course you didn’t do in Hollywood, because the ceiling was where there was all the rigging and the catwalks, and all the lighting came from above. When he wanted to shoot from below, because that was the angle that was right — disorienting and moody — the director and everybody asked him how he was going to pull it off. And he just said, “Don’t worry, I’ll light it.” And he was the first to really think of new ways and angles for lighting and shots.

IL: So is it fair to say Toland is the cinematographer you admire most?

VZ: Oh, again there isn’t just one. Mexican cinematographers Gabriel Figueroa and Emilio Fernandez were students of both Sergei Eisenstein and Toland. Their exteriors and lighting were gorgeous. And the films Ingmar Bergman did with Sven Nykvist were exceptional. Nykvist would spend the day researching and watching the light, and he would know exactly the right moment in the day to get the shot he wanted. These days that wouldn’t happen — waiting for the light to be exactly right. Because it takes time and time is money. And with these big productions with expensive actors, you just don’t have the time to get every shot exactly right.

I should also mention Vittorio Storaro, who was Bernardo Bertolucci’s cinematographer. You watch those films and they are exceptional.

Originally published in June 2010.

Independent Lens