Attila Szalay, ASC, one of the Society’s newest members, recently spoke with me, just after wrapping season two of the FX series The Bridge in Los Angeles.
Attila was born in Hungary and immigrated to Canada as a boy. Fellow Hungarian Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, was among the cinematographers who proposed him for ASC membership. “When you have your interview, the ASC asks you why you want to be a member,” Attila says. “My answer was 40 years old: I was a 12-year-old Hungarian immigrant kid in Calgary, making Super 8 films. The only Hungarian name I recognized in the pages of American Cinematographer was Vilmos Zsigmond — I read an article on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I think. So, I wrote a letter to Vilmos in Hungarian. I wrote, ‘I’m a young Hungarian boy. I want to be a cinematographer. How do I do it?’ I didn’t know where to send it, so I sent it to the ASC subscriptions department. I found out later he never received it.
“Exactly 20 years later, and 20 years before my ASC interview, I worked with Vilmos as one of his operators on Intersection,” Attila continues. “Now, it has all come full circle. Last year I went to Cinegear with Vilmos, and that’s like walking around with the pope!”
I asked Attila what he learned from Vilmos and his other mentors, who included fellow Hungarians Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, and Laszlo George, HSC, CSC. Noting that they all shared a propensity for using hard light, he responds, “I hear them all the time in my head. All of them learned from the same professor in Hungary. It’s more difficult to light with hard light as opposed to big, soft sources, but the effect is a lot more dramatic, and hard lighting lends itself to digital cinematography much more than soft lighting. I get asked constantly why my work looks more cinematic than other TV shows. With HD, there’s already so much shadow detail and information that when you introduce big, soft sources, they soften and flatten out the image even more.”
I asked Attila for an update on George, a friend to many at the ASC. “That’s another relationship that’s come full circle,” says Attila, who collaborated with George on more than 30 projects. “In the past few years, whenever I’ve shot in Vancouver, I’ve hired him to do my second unit. He’s 83 years old, and on the set he is as sharp and fast and creative — and loving it as much — as when he was 20. His enthusiasm blows me away. And the producers love him because with all that experience, he gets it done very quickly, with minimal equipment. That’s what they learned in Budapest. And his work looks fantastic. He’s like a second dad to me.”
Attila says that, like George, he is more interested in storytelling than technique. “I could light a beer bottle for four hours, but I wouldn’t get a lot of satisfaction out of it. When I read a script, right away the story is all I think about. I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It’s about your first, instant impression of things, and how tennis players, for example, know where the ball’s going to go before it’s even hit. That’s kind of how I work. I see a blocking and just know, ‘That’s it, that’s how I want it to look.’ Then it’s just a matter of achieving that.”
Ironically, perhaps, Attila recently shot 12 episodes of the TV series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, where 90 percent of the backgrounds were composited in during post. At times, a 50’-high greenscreen enclosed the entire stage. 3’-square barcode targets were mounted on the ceiling, and a witness camera shot straight up. The camera was usually on a 30’ Technocrane. Attila and the director could see what the final environment would look like before designing and shooting a shot, and during playback. “For lighting, we mounted a bunch of 20Ks and Nine-lights in the ceiling with various diffusions,” Attila says. “The [CG] environment dictated where the light came from in a given shot.
“This technique has been used on features for some time, and translating it to TV is, in the end, a time and money problem,” he adds. “You need more time to properly finish it than most TV schedules currently have. Still, this technology is in its infancy, so it’s only going to get better.”