I don’t remember the first time I took note of Harris Savides’ cinematography, but at a certain point, his name became like a stamp of approval for a movie’s visuals. Savides, who passed away last weekend at the age of 55, was quoted in his New York Times obituary saying that he was “wary of making things too beautiful and too photographic” in his work. With a resume that includes “The Game,” “The Yards,” “Elephant,” “Birth,” “Last Days,” “Margot at the Wedding,” and “Greenberg” I guess that makes Savides a failure — and a glorious one.
My favorite Savides cinematography belongs to director David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” The film is superficially stunning, but not in a showy way. It’s not a compilation of tricky camera moves and focus pulls and impossibly long takes. Its pleasures rest in its subtlety and craftsmanship; each image is simply framed, lit, and recorded with meticulous, impeccable taste. I find a lot of what I love about the look of “Zodiac” described with great eloquence in this quote from director and frequent Savides collaborator Gus Van Sant from Savides’ Times obit:
“He liked the blacks to be not fully black, to have a milky, filmy quality, and he liked the light part of an image not to be fully blown out, not just gone complete white, so if someone was wearing a white dress in a window, there would still be details in the dress. He would say the word ‘creamy.’ He liked a creamy image. Otherwise there was no way to tell whether it was Harris.”
“Zodiac” looked remarkable in theaters, but it wasn’t until the film’s Director’s Cut DVD was released a few months later, full of behind-the-scenes extras about the production, that the full scope of his work on the project became clear. The movie was awash in special effects — but you’d never know it because, in keeping with Savides’ reputation for cinematography that served a story rather than itself, the digital images were melded seamlessly into the film. In making-of documentaries like this one you can see how scenes — like the sequence where Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards’ characters investigate a homicide on a San Francisco street corner — were built from the ground up on a soundstage with blue screens. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie so extensively artificial that felt quite so organic and lived in.
After hearing of Savides’ tragic death last weekend, I rewatched “Zodiac” again. Each time I look at this film I find new things to love about it, and this time I became understandably fixated on Savides’ cinematography. It is amazing. In lieu of any additional blathering on the subject, I will just let a handful of my favorite images of the film speak for themselves. Savides may have wanted the cinematography to serve the story. But I think in this case it’s appropriate for them to take center stage.
Read more of “Harris Savides, Visual Poet, Dies at 55.”