Michael McDonough, ASC, BSC, was recently in Budapest to shoot a pilot for HBO (Virtuoso), and the timing was fortuitous because it coincided with an exhibit of Vilmos Zsigmond’s still photography at the Ludwig Museum. The exhibit, which featured 150 photos, put Vilmos’ stills in the context of his work as a cinematographer, and reached back to include photos he took in Hungary in the early 1950s.
As you might imagine, Michael was inspired by what he saw. His favorite film has always been The Deer Hunter, and he got to know Vilmos just before he entered the graduate film program at New York University. While Michael was studying there, Vilmos would often visit for a week of workshops and discussions. Eventually, Michael joined Vilmos’ crew as an electrician on an MCI commercial that was shot on a Sony HD camera. “What was great about that was that I could see instantly on set what he was doing,” says Michael. “Around my work as an electrician, I was taking notes and making diagrams of lighting setups. Later on, when I became a teaching assistant, I used those diagrams to teach.
“So, Vilmos has always been a huge influence on me. Alan Ball, the director I was working with on the HBO project, went to the exhibit with me. Vilmos was given a microphone and gave a tour of the exhibit, discussing various photos along the way. Luckily, he spoke in Hungarian and in English! It was a treat.”
The exhibit also included imagery from Vilmos’ black-and-white thesis film, made at the Hungarian National Film School in the mid-‘50s. Photographs Vilmos made during the journey across the Atlantic depicted a stormy passage. The kinetic energy of New York City came across in photos he took upon his arrival. In the exhibit catalog, Vilmos noted that he made many pleasurable rediscoveries in working on the project, and that he viewed it as a kind of diary in images.
“In his early photography, you could see the sense of light and composition that came across in the films he made later,” says Michael. “You could also see how he really took to the American landscape when he got here. Subject wise, the show was incredibly eclectic, but you could see the same eye through all of it, and you could see how it led into his approach to cinema.”
One photo in particular captured Michael’s attention. Vilmos had arranged for two boats to pass in a certain way, so that their wakes would create a beautiful pattern on the surface of the water. “Just last week, I was on a beach on a very small island off the west coast of Scotland, and there was a rock formation where the waves came back at each other at a 45-degree angle and made exactly the same pattern,” says Michael. “It made me think of Vilmos, the way he arranged that photograph, and what that said about him as a person and as a photographer.”
Michael will soon be back behind the camera on Fear the Walking Dead, a companion series and prequel to AMC’s The Walking Dead. The show recently wrapped its first season, and a second is on its way.