The world of cinema lost two great masters in the past few weeks: Haskell Wexler, ASC, and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC.
I extend my heartfelt condolences to their families and friends, with a special thought and prayer for Susan Roether Zsigmond.
Both Haskell and Vilmos merit the many tributes they have received. I recommend reading John Bailey’s tribute to Haskell, and I have listed links to many of the tributes to Vilmos below.
I knew Vilmos for almost 30 years, and our friendship grew in Hungary, Poland and France over the past two decades.
This is for you, Vilmos, mon ami.
Vilmos, you were always so alive
that I never imagined you leaving us;
then the news of your departure fell upon me hard, bringing warm tears
and a swirl of images from your stories and your movies,
all mixed together, because the stories of your life were like movies.
In 1956, during the Hungarian uprising,
you and Laszlo Kovacs shot back at the Soviet army
with a film-school camera hidden in a shopping bag.
You escaped to the West with the film cans in potato sacks.
Thank God your father convinced you to go to Hollywood
instead of Australia.
You and Laszlo Kovacs were true brothers in exile,
sharing everything from your early twenties on.
In America, Laszlo told me once, the two of you “followed that dream,”
trying for 10 years to break into the closed film business,
shooting anything and everything,
industrials, stills, documentaries, working in a film lab.
Then you and Laszlo got a chance to show Hollywood
that two talented, resourceful Hungarians
could shoot no-budget B movies
with only a station wagon full of equipment,
lighting scenes with reflectors and voltage-boosted 300-watt bulbs.
And all for a hundred dollars a day.
You called yourself William Zsigmond
when you made all those “trashy movies with bad scripts,”
like The Incredibly Strange Creatures
Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?
One day in 1971, you were finally ready to write Vilmos in the credits,
on Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand.
Then you became a brilliant cinema revolutionary,
shooting masterpieces of the American New Wave in the 1970s.
You were a key cinematographer of that glorious decade,
shooting for pioneering filmmakers Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg,
Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino, Mark Rydell.
And that was how I first met you, without knowing you,
blown away by your beautiful, innovative images
in these great American movies.
The range of your work was extraordinary,
but there was always the truth of realism
and always the truth of poetry.
Thank you, Vilmos, for re-inventing the Western
with Robert Altman in McCabe and Mrs Miller.
Pauline Kael called it “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie”;
you laughed and told me:
“I did everything I could to destroy the image,”
using smoke and Double Fog filters,
flashing and pushing the negative
to create a dreamy masterpiece.
Then you did the opposite on Deliverance,
with its dangerous clarity.
You weren’t afraid to risk the negative
with flashing and pushing.
You always had guts, and you were always a pioneer,
always trying out the new technologies of cinema.
You shot with the Panaflex camera on its trial run
on The Sugarland Express in 1974.
You liked to use zooms to work faster.
You shot anamorphic for the bigger negative.
Thank you, Vilmos, for favoring Fresnel lights,
Thank you for sometimes being seven stops over.
Thank you, Vilmos, for the dazzling, colorful, luminous beings
in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Your lighting became a character, the mask of the invisible aliens.
The producers wanted to fire you, but when they called around
no DP would take your place.
How ironic that you won an Oscar for that film,
running up from the back of the auditorium
and climbing on stage to give your brief acceptance speech in 1978.
You thanked “the American people who gave me a second life,”
and “my old masters in the Hungarian film school,
Illés György, Bolykovszki Béla and Badal János.”
How proud you made your teachers and your countrymen
in that moment of generous gratitude.
You shot almost a hundred features,
with so many memorable scenes.
Thank you, Vimos, for all those beautiful moments:
Bette Midler singing her soul out on stage in The Rose,
the fireworks climax of Blow Out,
the indoor skating rink in Heaven’s Gate,
the beautiful portraits of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon
in The Witches of Eastwick,
the Steadicam one-shot that begins The Bonfire of the Vanities,
your cameo as an artist in Maverick,
the dangerous nights of The Ghost and the Darkness,
the “film blanc” look of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,
the crane shot of the cadaver discovery in Black Dahlia...
Thank you, Vilmos, for your favorite masterpiece,
The Deer Hunter, an epic portrait of America,
where you painted a joyful wedding celebration,
a hunting party, friends drinking in a bar, a secret love,
wartime savagery and heroism, a bleak VA hospital,
the chaotic evacuation of the Saigon embassy,
deadly nocturnal games of Russian roulette,
and a funeral brunch with an American hymn.
Thank you, Vilmos, for being a great artist
who changed cinema.
Thank you, Vilmos, for your third life as a master teacher.
Starting in 1993 with the Budapest Cinematography Master Class,
with the help of György Illés and Tibor Vagyóczky from the Hungarian Film School,
and the leadership of George Karpaty, and later Janos Xantus.
It was a real honor to be an instructor helping you in Budapest,
and to organize panels and a master class with you at Camerimage.
Thank you, Vilmos, for inspiring students
from all over Europe and the world, who will never forget
your gentle supervision and suggestions
as they set up their lighting and their shots.
Thank you for twisting the light meter around
until it showed you the 4/5.6 split
that you wanted to shoot all along.
Everywhere I went with you, you inspired awe and honor
with young and not-so-young cinematographers and filmmakers.
Thank you for screening The Third Man
to show students that lighting starts with black and white tones.
Thank you, Vilmos, for continuing to teach and speak with students
with Yuri Neyman at your Global Cinematography Institute.
Thank you for always defending the importance of lighting
in an age of less lighting.
Thank you for reminding us about Fresnels in an age of PARs,
for reminding us about hard light in an age of soft boxes.
Thank you, Vilmos, for your friendship,
for being like my Hungarian uncle.
We both had two languages, and two cultures.
Thank you for showing me your hometown.
Thank you for our breakfasts at the old-fashioned Gellert hotel,
for our discussions about cinema in the majestic thermal baths,
Thank you for taking me to have goulash
in that dive near the soccer stadium.
Köszönöm for suddenly speaking to me in Hungarian
in the heat of a conversation.
Thank you for your distinctive voice, with its rasp and squeaks,
Thank you for pronouncing Ws like Vs,
Thank you for “Vy ve vait” instead of “Why we wait.”
Thank you for your gentleness, even when you were firm.
Thank you for showing me time and again
how to be kind and generous
to those less fortunate.
Thank you for sharing your infectious laughter
to break the ice, to warm the moment,
or to remind us of the irony of the situation.
Thank you, Vilmos, for your humanity.
May God bless your soul.
TRIBUTES TO VILMOS ZSIGMOND
theasc.com: In Memoriam: Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC, 1930-2016 by Jean Oppenheimer
creativecow.com: Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, 1930 - 2016 - Remembering the Genius by Yuri Neyman
fandor.com: Vilmos Zsigmond, 1930 – 2016
fdtimes.com: Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC 1930-2016 by Jon Fauer
theguardian.com: Vilmos Zsigmond: the cinematographer who transformed how films look
hollywoodreporter.com: Vilmos Zsigmond, 'Close Encounters' Cinematographer, Dies at 85
hungarianfreepress.com: Hungarian-born Hollywood cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is dead at 85
indiewire.com: Remembering Vilmos Zsigmond in 9 Essential Shots
blogs.indiewire.com: R.I.P. Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016)
blogs.indiewire.com: RIP Legendary Master of Light Vilmos Zsigmond
moviemaker.com: Two Legends Leave the Stage: a Personal Farewell to Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond by Bob Fisher
vimeo.com: Vilmos Zsigmond: Painter of Light by Brad Jones
woodyallenpages.com: RIP Vilmos Zsigmond, Woody Allen Cinematographer
washingtonpost.com: Vilmos Zsigmond, the lighting wizard behind ‘Close Encounters,’ dies at 85
John's Bailiwick: Vilmos Zsigmond and The Rose by John Bailey
thefilmbook: Zsigmond Zooms
thefilmbook: DPs and Gaffers – Who Does What?
Parallax View: Zsigmond Exhibit Inspires McDonough by David Heuring
Parallax View: Chressanthis Recalls Travels with Vilmos and Shooting Super 8 by David Heuring
theasc.com: Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC shares some thoughts about the art and craft of motion-picture lighting. by Jon Silberg