“I light a room and let the people inhabit it, as opposed to lighting the people,” cinematographer Harris Savides told the Village Voice in 2004. “It’s more organic. You want to protect the people you’re working with, and there’s a constant battle between the best light for their face and the best light for the story. You don’t want to get to the point where the audience notices the light.”
And while audiences may not have ever noticed the light or known the name of Harris Savides, devoted cinephiles did. And it’s with heavy hearts that we report that representatives from the Skouras Agency have confirmed that cinematographer Harris Savides has passed away today at the age of 55.
Like so many, Savides got his start in the commercials and music video world before transitioning to feature film work, and while his CV in that arena may not be as extensive as his contemporaries, it’s stacked with top tier directors who recognized how invaluable his approach was. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made Savides so distinct, but his ease in capturing projects as wildly different as David Fincher‘s “Zodiac” and Gus Van Sant‘s “Elephant” (among a handful of helmers he worked with more than once), likely endeared him to the visionary talents he would work with. That, along with a creative spirit that remained restless in trying to be as natural and anonymous behind the camera as possible. “When I was younger, I liked movies that were very strongly lit, like ‘Blade Runner.’ But now I just want things to be more natural. I don’t know why that is,” he told Interview in 2008. “I think that people can’t go to a movie and see something that’s lit…It’s too photographic. I don’t think you can ever make a movie that looks amazing when you’re trying to make it look amazing.”
And while he was never nominated for an Oscar, his skills were so recognized that big name filmmakers even enlisted him for commerical work, including Wong Kar-Wai, Martin Scorsese and John Hillcoat. He also dipped his toes into music videos too, working with Mark Romanek on a number of his acclaimed spots including “Closer” for Nine Inch Nails, “Criminal” for Fiona Apple and “Bedtime Stories” for Madonna.
Viewing his work through the years, one can see a paring down in his approach and an attempt to keep things simpler, perhaps more real and authentic. And this dedication seems to have stemmed for a very early influence. “You know, another movie I wanted to talk about that was important to me was the opening shot of ‘Nostalghia.’ It was a very simple shot. It’s a wide shot of a car in a field. It’s a foggy morning; I can’t tell what time it is. You hear a car engine start. The car trundles across a field and it goes from camera left to camera right, clears frame and comes back in camera left, much closer. And there’s something about that that just resonated with me. I thought, how come I’ve never seen this before?,” he told the Museum of the Moving Image. “…My growth as a person has just been cause and effect or accident. It’s never been a study. It’s been this growth, I’ll call it. And that scene and movie have been a big one for me. It’s really easy and descriptive.”
But there are no easy words for the loss of Harris Savides. He will be greatly missed. His last work was on Sofia Coppola‘s “The Bling Ring,” and for anyone looking for advice from Savides, here’s what he had to impart on up-and-coming cinematographers from the book “New Cinematographers“: “Shoot as much as you can, don’t be afraid and don’t be cocky. Just shoot, learn and expose film. Shoot still film, that’s how I learnt as an assistant, I was always processing film so I knew how to make film. Don’t get too involved in the technical stuff, learn it and then throw it away.”