Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The career of Vilmos Zsigmond can be summed up in one word: light

Illustration for article titled The career of Vilmos Zsigmond can be summed up in one word: light

The world lost one of its greatest cinematographers earlier this month when Hungarian-born Vilmos Zsigmond, known for his work on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, and dozens more films, died at 85. A legend of the film industry for over half a century, Zsigmond will undoubtedly be among those saluted during the upcoming Academy Awards telecast. In the meantime, a fan named Phil Whitehead has capsulized Zsigmond’s impressive body of work in a stunning, 15-minute career retrospective entitled “Vilmos Zsigmond: Finding The Right Light.” Whitehead’s tribute video is composed of breathtaking images from Zsigmond’s most memorable projects, ranging from complicated effects shots to intimate conversations. Via archival interviews, Zsigmond is able to tell his own story, explaining why he became a cinematographer, how he preferred to work, and what he attempted to achieve.

The word “light,” unsurprisingly, is the key to understanding Zsigmond’s life and career. The job of a good cinematographer often relies on getting the lighting for a scene just right. On the soundtrack, while vivid examples of his work flash by, Zsigmond explains that he preferred to light the actors first and the background second. Though this is the opposite of what many in his trade do, Zsigmond explains that this technique allows the actors more freedom and relieves them of the burden of hitting their marks. Above all, Zsigmond understood that the primary goal of motion pictures is to tell a story with images rather than words. As such, he drew a great deal of inspiration from the era of silent movies, when using dialogue to deliver exposition was not even an option. One of the most fascinating passages in “Finding The Right Light” is a montage in which Zsigmond’s work is juxtaposed with excerpts from silent films. The cinematographer also discusses the specific technical challenges he encountered on Deliverance and Heaven’s Gate. As the video amply proves, Vilmos Zsigmond was more than up to those challenges.


Vilmos Zsigmond: Finding the Right Light from Phil Whitehead on Vimeo.

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