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Saturday, May 14, 2016
Reviews are beginning to come in from the Cannes Film Festival of the new documentary, Close Encounters With Vilmos Zsigmond, which features interviews with Zsigmond, John Travolta, and Nancy Allen, among others. In an interview posted at Festival de Cannes, the film's French director, Pierre Filmon, is asked how he managed to get Zsigmond, a master behind the lens, to sit in front of his camera. "There was a lot of pressure," Filmon answers. "The images had to be up to the mark, the timing had to be right; everybody had to give their utmost. In terms of format, there were interviews, meetings, discussions, informal moments of life, cut together with movies illustrating Vilmos’ career, chosen for their graphic power and to correspond with what we were talking about at the time. It’s like a game of ping-pong between images from the past and what we were experiencing that particular day with Vilmos."

Twitch's Jason Gorber writes of the film, "From the opening shot where the subject is adjusting the lighting, tweaking the seating height, futzing with back illumination and checking the camera's gamma, you know that Close Encounters With Vilmos Zsigmond is not an everyday documentary. But Vilmos Zsigmond isn't your everyday cinematographer, either, and in this one scene you can see him take a decent shot on digital video and make it just a bit more...perfect."

Gorber concludes, "As a survey of the man's work it's near complete, as what has resulted in being a memorium to a legend the film is even more vital. By capturing the man in his many environments - a hot pool, overlooking Budapest, sitting in a screening room - one gets the sense that we're meeting a genuine article, one both humble and yet proud of his accomplishments. As a warts-and-all take on the man's work it may falter, as a perfectly encapsulated close encounter with a giant of the last half century of film it's a priceless testament."

The Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer writes that the film "uses an extensive interview with the director of photography, shot in 2014 on the occasion of a Paris retrospective, as the starting point to explore Zsigmond’s prolific and impressive career. Alongside the humble-sounding cameraman, who recounts various anecdotes in an accent thick enough to cut with a meat cleaver, a host of other colleagues and collaborators – including John Boorman, Peter Fonda, Jerry Schatzberg, Darius Khondji, Haskell Wexler, Bruno Delbonnel and Vittorio Storaro – speak inspiringly about how Zsigmond influenced both their own work and a major period in American filmmaking that we now call the 'New Hollywood.'”

The April 2016 issue of American Cinematographer featured a cover story tribute to "ASC Legends" Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond. The articles consisted of remembrances from many who worked with both cinematographers. Here are some excerpts in which Zsigmond's work with Brian De Palma are discussed:

After discussing working with Zsigmond on Heaven’s Gate, which he says was intense, hard work, camera assistant Michael Gershman tells AC, “Blow Out was a hard film as well. But I never saw Vilmos get down when we were working. He was always positive. And I think that the idea that he was always creating beautiful images—he thrived on it.

“Vilmos would say, ‘Michael, Michael, there are no rules, Michael! You can do whatever you want to do!’ That’s something that stayed with me as I became a cinematographer. The only rule is that there are no rules.”

Mike Sowa, colorist on The Black Dahlia: “I had the honor of grading Vilmos’ first digital-intermediate feature in 2006. Grading The Black Dahlia will forever be one of the highlights of my career. One memory that stands out was the time Vilmos invited Laszlo Kovacs to the DI theater. There I was, in between two absolute legends in the business. With great enthusiasm and wildly animated gesturing, Vilmos explained to his dear friend how exciting it was to have such wonderful grading tools available in this new world of digital.”

Stephen Pizzello (American Cinematographer editor-in-chief and publisher)
“When I was covering Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia for the magazine, Vilmos invited me to a DI session at EFilm. Upon arriving, I was happy to see his lifelong ‘brother from another mother,’ Laszlo Kovacs, sitting at the timing desk, just hanging out and keeping his best friend company. Laszlo’s health was declining by then, and he seemed to be nodding off, but never underestimate the vigilance of an accomplished cinematographer. At one point, as Vilmos was scrutinizing a scene, Laszlo must have opened an eye, because he suddenly sat up and warned, ‘Careful, Vilmos—that shot is a little soft.’ Vilmos squinted, looked at the screen a bit more closely and croaked, ‘Uh-oh—I think he’s right! I’ll have to talk to Brian about that.’ Laszlo settled back into his seat, and we soon heard him snoring, but he had his pal’s back.”

Posted by Geoff at 11:56 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, May 15, 2016 12:07 AM CDT
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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Posted by Geoff at 9:56 PM CST
Updated: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 9:56 PM CST
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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Vilmos Zsigmond: Painter of Light from Brad Jones on Vimeo.

Posted by Geoff at 11:48 PM CST
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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Yesterday, Stephanie Zacharek posted about the passing of Vilmos Zsigmond for TIME:
But what about movies in which people are often indoors, talking? Zsigmond could put his subtle mark on those, too, as he did with the three films he shot for Woody Allen, Melinda and Melinda (2004), Cassandra’s Dream (2007), and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). But among Zsigmond’s finest work are the four movies he did with [Brian] De Palma, Obsession (1976), Blow Out (1981), The Black Dahlia (2006) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Zsigmond had the technical skill to handle the elaborate tracking shots and split-screen effects so beloved by De Palma, but just as significantly, he could effectively key into the director’s particular brand of bleak romanticism and political mistrust. He gave Obsession—in which Cliff Robertson plays a man who becomes obsessed, Vertigo-style, with a woman who resembles his dead wife (Geneviève Bujold)—a look that balanced the coolness of old marble with the textured warmth of a peeling fresco, suitable for a love story wrapped in its own cozy little crypt. Zsigmond earned an Oscar nomination for his work on The Black Dahlia, a flawed picture whose visual magnificence is almost enough to hold it together. Zsigmond doesn’t just give the movie, set in the late 1940s, a period look; he lends it a burnished immediacy that unifies past and present, making whatever stereotypical sense we have of tawdry old Los Angeles seem as clichéd, and as wrong, as last year’s crushed hat.

Zsigmond also left his signature, paradoxically both vivid and translucent, on one of the greatest of De Palma’s movies, Blow Out. John Travolta is a movie sound-effects guy who inadvertently captures audio evidence of an assassination when he witnesses a car driving off a bridge; Nancy Allen is the young woman he rescues (and falls for), a pawn in the plot. This is a quietly shimmering movie about disillusionment and doomed romance, and Zsigmond’s nighttime exteriors, both alluring and vaguely spooky, foreshadow despair rolling in like like fog.

Yet that thing we so casually think of as movie magic is really, when you boil it down, the even more magical summation of what happens when people know how to do their jobs. Zsigmond talked a little about Blow Out in in The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salamon’s superb study of the making of De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities: “There we were in the middle of the winter and there was this huge canyon and we were shooting a frog in the foreground and the river beyond and the trees and bridge above, and [De Palma] just walked up to it and said, ‘Light it. I don’t care how long it’s going to take. Light it.’ ” Zsigmond laughed in the story’s retelling. But also—damned if he didn’t light it.


Meanwhile, Indiewire's Zack Sharf posted nine essential shots by which to remember Zsigmond. Choosing the climactic shot of Jack holding the lifeless body of Sally as fireworks go off in the sky, Sharf writes, "Climaxes don't get more gorgeous than this one. As John Travolta's Jack Terry races through Philadelphia's Liberty Parade in order to save an escort (Nancy Allen) from the hands of an assassin, fireworks begin exploding in the sky as Zsigmond captures these blasts of color on their faces like bombs in a hectic war zone. Only when Terry holds Sally's lifeless body in his arms does the camera spin to reveal the actual display exploding in the sky —it's a moment of pure visual and emotional opera."

Posted by Geoff at 11:58 PM CST
Updated: Wednesday, January 6, 2016 12:04 AM CST
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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Vulture's Greg Cwik today posted an obituary of Vilmos Zsigmond, who passed away January 1 at the age of 85. In the final paragraph, Cwik gets passionate about The Black Dahlia, and mentions that Zsigmond considered it to be "the last good film he worked on." I'm not sure what the source of that claim is, but here are the concluding two paragraphs from Cwik's article:
While his work with Spielberg and Cimino is his most acclaimed, Zsigmond’s greatest partner in crime was Brian De Palma, the most purely cinematic filmmaker of the last half-century, for whom the cinematographer did some of his finest, most innovative work. De Palma’s films are not governed by the rules or laws of reality; they adhere to a consistent, internal logic that favors excitement over emotion. Zsigmond extrapolated De Palma’s deep-rooted love for genre and exploitation, and helped the auteur construct his homage-laden films using the visual language written by earlier filmmakers. Together they were like a jazz duo drawing inspiration from their forebears, carving out of pulp scenes of brilliance and brutality. They employed an arsenal of in-camera tricks, from split-diopters to long Steadicam shots and meticulous use of zooms. Zsigmond shot Obsession [(’76)], a fervid Hitchcock homage, and Blow Out (’81), a contender for De Palma’s Best Film. For Blow Out, Zsigmond and De Palma deconstructed the art of filmmaking, reveling in the minutiae of filming and editing and spinning a story of paranoia and murder out of so many reels of celluloid.

Zsigmond’s final masterpiece, and one of his most impressive achievements, is also one of De Palma’s most maligned films: The Black Dahlia (’06), which Zsigmond considered the last good film he worked on. A mostly faithful adaptation of James Ellroy's serpentine novel (it retains the terse dialogue while carefully uncoiling the notoriously difficult-to-follow plot), there's nary a shot here that doesn't get the De Palma touch: the camera looms and moves with purpose, zooming in, pulling out, hovering above a dead body splayed on a slab before slowly descending to a low-angle of our heroes framed against effervescent lights, or a crane shot showing the Zoot Suit riots sprawling across streets lined with burning cars and sprinkled with so much broken glass. The narrative is, admittedly, of minimal importance here, as is De Palma's and Zsigmond’s wont; the director fixates on the mood which his DP captured with stunning, sepia-steeped photography. If that isn’t a fine encapsulation of Zsigmond’s endearing legacy, then nothing is.

Posted by Geoff at 6:31 PM CST
Updated: Sunday, January 3, 2016 6:49 PM CST
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Vilmos Zsigmond has passed away. He was 85. According to an initial report by Variety's Carmel Dagan, Zsigmond's business partner Yuri Neyman said that the legendary cinematographer died January 1st. Zsigmond shot four films for Brian De Palma over four decades: Obsession (1976), Blow Out (1981), The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990), and The Black Dahlia (2006), the latter of which gained Zsigmond his fourth Oscar nomination (he won for his first nom, for Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind in 1977).

I hadn't heard this before, but Dagan states that in an interview, "Zsigmond professed dissatisfaction about working with Spielberg; despite having many good ideas for the look of the film, he felt like nothing more than a glorified cameraman. He never worked with the director again." Dagan continues, "He picked up an Oscar nom for [Michael Cimino's] The Deer Hunter (1979), which he considered one of his finest achievements. Though the film was critically panned, Zsigmond’s work on Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was equally strong. He brought a documentary style to the film musical The Rose, directed by Mark Rydell, which led to the Scorsese documentary about the Band, The Last Waltz. Another high-water mark for Zsigmond was De Palma’s 1981 thriller Blow Out."

In 1992, Zsigmond directed the feature film The Long Shadow. In recent years, he made three films with Woody Allen, and also shot several episodes of NBC's The Mindy Project.


In a 2014 interview with Filmmaker Magazine's Kaleem Aftab, Zsigmond was asked about when it is frustrating to work with a director. "If the director doesn’t like long shots and doesn’t like establishing shots and everything is based on words and dialogue and he wants to play everything up in close-up and use it that way, that’s no fun for me," replied Zsigmond. "I really think a movie should be visual, if the visuals are not good then I’m not interested. If you play everything in close-ups then you might as well just read the book. If you really want to have dialogue and just talk, talk, talk, there is no reason to go to the movie theater."

When asked what was the most difficult shot he had ever achieved, Zsigmond responded, "I don’t know what is the most difficult shot. But a difficult shot is to do something like at the start of Bonfire of the Vanities, the opening shot which is going on five minutes with a Steadicam, going from a basement, up an elevator, getting out of the elevator, going along the hallway until you end up a thousand feet away from where you started. That is all in one shot. If it works that’s great, it’s good for a film. The closer a film looks like reality and real life, the better it is." Asked how much planning went into that shot, Zsigmond said, "A whole day. One day of rehearsing and lighting and then the next night we were shooting at least ten times and one of them turned out good."


Posted by Geoff at 2:40 PM CST
Updated: Sunday, January 3, 2016 6:47 PM CST
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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hot on the heels of his retrospective/master class tribute at Paris' Le Grand Action, Vilmos Zsigmond was in Cannes last night to accept the second annual Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography Award. As seen in the picture above, John Travolta was on hand to congratulate Zsigmond backstage. The two worked together, of course, on Brian De Palma's Blow Out. Also attending the event were Catherine Deneuve, John Boorman, and Jerry Schatzberg, among others.

In a pre-award interview at Cannes, Zsigmond was asked by Le Monde's Clarisse Fabre how he had approached the transition to digital camera in the early 2000s. "I had no a priori," Zsigmond replied. "For example, The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma, was shot on film, and then we did the post-production digital. This allowed me to reduce the color and give an impression of black and white. I love digital to 'manipulate' the film: the color with less color! I like black and white, when the shadows are growing."

Posted by Geoff at 6:15 PM CDT
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Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Le Grand Action in Paris is featuring a Vilmos Zsigmond retrospective this month ("Vilmos Zsigmond passe à l'action") that began May 10 and 11 with the two films he shot for Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate. In all, eleven of the cinematographer's films will be screened: the two Ciminos, both films he made with Richard Donner (Maverick and Assassins), the four that he's made with Brian De Palma (Obsession, Blow Out, The Bonfire Of The Vanities, and The Black Dahlia), and the three that he's made with Woody Allen (Melinda & Melinda, Cassandra's Dream, and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger).

Zsigmond will be on hand to present select screenings, including the May 17th screening of Blow Out, in which he will discuss his work with De Palma. In addition, there will be a master class with Zsigmond on May 18th, and Zsigmond will be given carte blanche to discuss and screen four film selections: Federico Fellini's La Strada, Luchino Visconti's Death In Venice, Carol Reed's The Third Man, and Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D.

Posted by Geoff at 6:28 PM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 6:29 PM CDT
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Check local listings at PBS.com this week to catch the documentary, No Subtitles Necessary: László and Vilmos, which is being shown on PBS' Independent Lens series. The film, which has been shown at various film festivals, tells the real-life story of cinematographers László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond, who fled from Hungary to Los Angeles with footage they shot of the violent Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Zsigmond, of course, would go on to shoot several films for Brian De Palma: Obsession, Blow Out, The Bonfire Of The Vanities, and The Black Dahlia. According to a Los Angeles Times article by Michael Goldman, Zsigmond had previously been reluctant to make a film about their story, but after Kovács became ill in 2006, he decided to do it. Zsigmond told Goldman, "I had turned down this idea previously. I wasn't interested in a movie about me, and I'm not comfortable in front of the camera. But by the time this idea came up, László was very ill, and I was proud of our relationship and how we helped each other. That doesn't happen often in film circles. So I basically decided to do it for László. He was such a great cinematographer, and why he wasn't rewarded more is incredible. I thought I could help him by doing this movie and making sure people in the future remember his work."

You can hear an interview with Zsigmond and No Subtitles director James Chressanthis on a 123 Film Easy! podcast from November 4th.

Posted by Geoff at 1:54 PM CST
Updated: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 1:55 PM CST
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