Cinema wouldn’t be anything without camera operators and cinematographers capturing moving images and bringing them to life on the big screen. They light, compose, and help directors tell stories in a visual way. Notable cinematographers of recent years such as Wally Pfister (Inception), Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), and Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) have all contributed to the film world as a whole.
Although directors like Steven Spielberg, Michael Cimino, and Brian De Palma are all world-class filmmakers with a knack for engaging storytelling, their films wouldn’t be as memorable without the brilliant eye of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond behind the scenes. Sadly, the award-winning and highly influential filmmaker passed away last Friday on January 1st, 2016. He was 85 years old at the time of his death.
Zsigmond was born in Szeged, Hungary on June 16, 1930. He studied filmmaking at Budapest Film School, but left Hungary during the Russian invasion with fellow film student Laszlo Kovacs in 1946. After being detained at the Austrian border, the pair was released, along with all the raw footage they filmed of the invasion itself. In fact, the footage was used for Zsigmond’s documentary Hungary Aflame and the 2009 documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos, which is about the relationship between the two filmmaking refugees.
Vilmos Zsigmond grew in popularity in the ’70s with his work and collaboration with Robert Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, and The Long Goodbye. He later worked on Deliverance for director John Boorman in 1972 and Steven Spielberg’s theatrical directorial debut The Sugarland Express in 1974. Spielberg liked Zsigmond’s work on his debut so much that he wanted him to work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind a few years later in 1977. Vilmos Zsigmond won his only Academy Award for Best Cinematography for the science fiction film, although he was nominated a number of times for his work on The Deer Hunter, The River, and The Black Dahlia.
Zsigmond later tried his hand at directing with The Long Shadow in 1992. He later transitioned to TV with the HBO film Stalin later in the year, which he won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or a Special and an American Society of Cinematographers award. Zsigmond also worked on Sliver, Maverick, Assassins, and The Ghost and the Darkness throughout the ’90s.
During the 2000s, Zsigmond worked with Kevin Smith on Jersey Girl and Woody Allen on Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra’s Dream, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. He was working all the way up to his death with three seasons of The Mindy Project for Mindy Kaling under his belt. Vilmos Zsigmond was a one-of-a-kind cinematographer with a keen eye for making his moving pictures look like beautiful paintings.
R.I.P. Vilmos Zsigmond: June 16th, 1930 – January 1st, 2016