Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC, received the Pierre Angenieux ExcelLens in Cinematography Award during the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
I spoke to my friend Vilmos about the event, and about zooms and zooming.
Applauded by Pierre Andurand and Catherine Deneuve, Vilmos Zsigmond holds up the ExcelLens zoom lens prize at the Cannes Festival (photo Benjamin B)
Angénieux has partnered with the Cannes Film Festival to host an award ceremony for its ExcelLens prize in Cinematography. This is the second year that the French lens manufacturer has given a cinematographer one of its zooms at a ceremony attended by industry people, and a sprinkling of celebrities. This year actress Catherine Deneuve and director Jerry Schatzberg were on stage to applaud Vilmos Zsigmond as he received an Optimo 56-152mm anamorphic zoom from Angénieux CEO Pierre Andurand. Although the CST's Vulcan prize rewards "technical artists" including cinematographers, ExcelLens is the only Cannes award solely dedicated to cinematography.
I spoke with Vilmos recently about receiving the award. Cinematographers are not usually recognized at Cannes, where the spotlight is on famous actors and directors, and Vilmos says: “I never really liked Cannes before. When I went there before, I felt like I was in a zoo. This time the people from Angénieux were so nice and hospitable, they really rolled out the red carpet for my wife Susan and I. For one day we were the stars.”
hiding the zoom
Vilmos and I also spoke about using zooms. The conventional wisdom is for filmmakers to avoid obvious zooming in shot, and Vilmos says that he usually tries to hide zooming inside a camera movement, like a dolly, a pan or a tilt. For example, he says that a zoom during a dolly perpendicular to the camera angle creates the feeling of a “diagonal dolly. I do it all the time, I zoom in or out as I dolly.”
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Vilmos told me that it was director Robert Altman who taught him to use zooms, starting with their first film together in 1971, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a masterpiece that reinvented the American western.
The film stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as the title characters. The story is simple and tragic. McCabe is a gambler who gets into a partnership with Miller, a prostitute, to create a small town casino-brothel. Their business thrives and McCabe pines for Miller, with unrequited love. When men from a mining company come to buy him out, McCabe high-handedly rejects their offer. McCabe later tries to renegotiate, but it’s too late, the would-be buyers will send gunslingers to kill McCabe, and Miller knows it.
The strength of the movie comes from its gritty portrayal of a frontier town as a bleak world of hard knocks and cold business, where money reigns supreme. McCabe is just another hustler, too emotional for his own good, whose bluff is called by cut-throat businessmen. Altman tells this simple story with a complex ensemble cast, a soundtrack layered with simultaneous dialogues and Leonard Cohen songs, and with revolutionary cinematography.
Vilmos’ contribution is essential to the dreamy, melancholic beauty of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He flashed the negative of the entire film, giving it a suffused pastel look, and further distilled the image with double Fog filters, force developing and smoke. Vilmos laughs as he recalls his daring anamorphic cinematography: “I did everything I could to destroy the image! It’s all due to Altman, who was very adventurous.”
Critic Pauline Kael called McCabe & Mrs. Miller “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie”, and the film stands as a classic of the American New Wave, with brilliant, gutsy cinematography.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller ends with three zoom-ins, intercutting between a wounded McCabe who is dying in the snow, and Miller who is escaping into drugs in a makeshift opium den, to the tune of "Winter Lady" by Leonard Cohen: "I'm just a station on your way, I know I'm not your lover".
watch on YouTube
Vilmos recalls that he operated and staged the first zoom-in without the director. The production was running out of time, so Robert Altman told Vilmos what he wanted with the opium den, and then left to shoot McCabe's death with camera operator Rod Parkhurst.
zooming that works
What struck me about the end sequence is that, contrary to accepted wisdom, these obvious zoom-ins really work. The first zoom-in on Mrs. Miller isolates her from the others, and evokes her introspection. The second zoom-in on McCabe's snow-covered face tells us that he is dead. The last zoom-in deep into Miller’s eye leads us into her druggy contemplation of the opium pipe that serves as backdrop for the end credits.
Vilmos offers: “This contradicts what we always say, but sometimes it’s good to contradict. We cannot be stubborn and say ‘I’m not going to zoom, because I hate zooms’. If it works, it’s ridiculous to intimidate yourself to not zoom.”
The first zoom-in is introduced inside a single continuous complex shot:
- we begin with a wide shot that pans to follow a young Chinese boy as he moves behind a wall
- the pan then slows down across a wooden flute player to bring us to the opium den's door
- the door opens and a figure crosses camera left to right to reveal the inside
- a second figure inside climbs down and crosses frame from right to left
- the zoom starts, along with the music
- a more distant woman crosses frame left to right and kneels next to Miller
- a fourth figure crosses from left to right closer to camera
- the woman takes away Miller's pipe
- the zoom continues for a couple of beats on Miller's face
This elegant choreography of opposing movements, criss-crossing the frame like a windshield wiper, gives a real sense of depth to the zoom, making it almost dolly-like. Yet the magnification of Julie Christie's beautiful face has a different feel than a dolly. It feels like we are moving towards the inside of her melancholic mind.
Frames from the first zoom-in of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (click to see higher-res extended version)
The second zoom into McCabe's immobile snow-covered face is simple and slow. Its power comes from the contrast with the first zoom on Miller. While the first zoom conveyed introspection, the second zoom reveals an inscrutable mask of frozen death.
Next comes a static shot of Miller in the opium den. She lifts her head and holds the end of an opium pipe in her hand. We cut to her POV of her hand slowly turning the pipe.
The third zoom-in is a longer focal length, moving in on her eye, and defocusing at the end, on an extreme close-up of her pupil. Here the zoom ends the film's journey into her disconsolate mind.
Frames from the last zoom-in of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (click to see extended version)
The final image is an extreme macro shot of the opium pipe turning with an overexposed reflection. Altman's Western tragedy ends in Mrs. Miller's stoned contemplation of the world in an opium pipe.
classics shot with zooms
Vilmos used two Panavision Cooke anamorphic zooms on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a 5:1 ("5 to 1") 40-200m and a 10:1 ("10 to 1") 50-500mm, both with rear anamorphs. He says that the third zoom-in was shot with the longer zoom, probably in conjunction with a diopter.
Vilmos remembers "I learned how to use the zoom lens with Robert Altman. The first week I was watching him all the time. I was only operating the second camera, so when only one camera was rolling, I was watching what he liked to do. The camera was always moving, dollying, slowly."
Vilmos on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller
After working with Altman, Vilmos used zooms frequently, on most of his films. He explains "It was very convenient to set up shots, and if the dolly track wasn't at the right distance, it was easy to change the framing. The zoom was a way to move fast."
I am astounded by the seminal films that Vilmos worked on in the decade following McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The 1970s was a great period in American cinema, the culmination of what some critics call the American New Wave, and Vilmos was a key player.
In 1972, Vilmos shot Deliverance for John Boorman almost entirely with zooms. "Almost every single shot was shot with two zoom lenses at the same time: one tighter shot, one wider shot. Going through the rapids we needed long lenses, we were sometimes 50 yards away from where the canoes were going down the river. We usually used two 10 to 1s, and occasionally one 10:1 and one 5:1."
The zooms in Vilmos' early career were slow lenses, with a widest aperture of about T4 (or T5.6 in anamorphic), which meant that he needed more light when working with zooms. "That’s why, says he, I often pushed and flashed the film, because I needed that exposure. True it was grainy sometimes, but that added to the look of the movie."
in 1974, Vilmos shot Steven Spielberg's first feature, Sugarland Express. Vilmos recalls that Spielberg "was a very quick study. He liked almost everything I showed him. I realized how talented he was, because he listened to learn. He knew so much already, but he didn’t mind opening up his brain to listen to other people. We used a zoom a lot with him." In 1977, Vilmos also shot Spielberg's masterful Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for which the cinematographer got an Oscar.
Vilmos behind the camera on The Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino
Vilmos shot the masterpiece The Deer Hunter for Michael Cimino in 1978. "We were using zoom lenses all the time. We only used primes when we didn’t have enough exposure, for night shots or dusk shots, or in very special set-ups."
Vilmos remembers also using zooms frequently with Brian De Palma, for whom he shot the brilliant Blow Out in 1981. He notes that "De Palma was into zooms, he was part of the new generation of directors."
Vilmos has used zooms throughout his career, except when the director didn't want to. "If I worked with a director who really hated the zoom, and I could not convince them that we would get a better result with the time saving, we didn't use it. You cannot fight directors, you can suggest something to them, and if they buy it, they buy it, and if they don’t, we do whatever the director wants to do. But I don’t remember many directors who were that stubborn. Sometimes I introduced the zoom to the director who wasn't used to working with one."
It's wonderful to recall how Vilmos and a generation of American New Wave directors taught each other to use zooms in the 1970s. This is the kind of dialogue about filmmaking techniques and tools between cinematographers and directors that has helped to define the history of cinema.
standing O for Vilmos Zsigmond in Cannes
Wikipedia: Vilmos Zsigmond
imdb: Vilmos Zsigmond
Roger Ebert: review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Angénieux Optimo anamorphic 56-152
Angénieux news: 2014 ExelLens in Cinematography
thefilmbook blog: DPs and Gaffers - Who Does What? featuring Vilmos Zsigmond
Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC