Vilmos Zsigmond Dead at 85

Robert Altman. Brian De Palma. Steven Spielberg. Woody Allen. Michael Cimino. George Miller. John Boorman. Legendary filmmakers, each and every one of them, but they’re all united by more than a shared mastery of the cinematic form. They all worked with legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, a crucial figure of the American New Wave of the 1970s whose work informed the visual style of Hollywood’s finest decade and whose contributions can still be felt today.

Zsigmond passed away on January 1, 2016 at the age of 85. His filmography, which contains more than a few masterpiece and features its fair share of the most iconic images in movie history, speaks for itself.

Born on June 16, 1930 in Szeged, Hungary, Zsigmond aspired to be a photographer from a young age, using his earnings from his job in a factory to buy a camera and teach himself how to use it. After filming an uprising against Russian forces by the citizens of Budapest, Zsigmond fled his home nation, sold his footage to CBS, and launched himself into the film industry.

Although he would define the look of an entire movement in the ’70s, Zsigmond’s ’60s output consists of schlock like The Sadist and Psycho a Go-Go. After a decade of shooting occasionally interesting junk with titles like Horror of the Blood Monsters, Zsigmond officially came into his own in 1971, shooting The Hired Hand for Peter Fonda and McCabe & Mrs. Miller for Robert Altman. The latter, with its desaturated colors and stark landscapes, continues to define how “revisionist westerns” are filmed to this day.

Zsigmond would team up with Altman two years later for The Long Goodbye, crafting a unique look that blends the shadows of classic noir with the sunshine and pastel of Los Angeles in the early ’70s.

From there, Zsigmond become the go-to cinematographer for every exciting director, shooting Sugarland Express for some kid named Steven Spielberg and transforming the woods of Georgia into a suffocating nightmare for John Boorman’s Deliverance. He shot Obsession for Brian De Palma, the first of their four collaborations.

And then, he teamed up with that Spielberg guy one more time for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a movie that needs no further elaboration. He received his first and only Oscar for his efforts.

The following year, Zsigmond would collaborate with director Michael Cimino on The Deer Hunter, which would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Their next effort together, Heaven’s Gate, is nothing short of a fascinating debacle, but Zsigmond’s stark, aged look for the film feels a a few decades ahead of its time.

In any case, he was back to photographing masterpieces in 1981 with De Palma’s Blow-Out, which may be one of the most cleverly filmed movies about sound ever made.

And somehow, in the midst of all of this, Zsigmond found it within himself to film Real Genius. If you’re looking for a definition of range…well, here it is.

Zsigmond worked steadily throughout the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, collaborating with Woody Allen on Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra’s Dream, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. He even teamed up with De Palma one more time for The Black Dahlia, a bad movie so well shot that it received an Oscar nomination. And yes, he is credited as cinematographer on 24 episodes of The Mindy Project.

A filmmaker is fortunate to be involved in one masterpiece, to leave a single fingerprint on the cinematic landscape. Vilmos Zsigmond didn’t just leave a mark on the landscape, he molded it, shaped it, and transformed it for a generation of filmmakers. He may be gone, but his work is eternal.

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